While electric vehicles (EVs) have experienced a marketplace renaissance in the last decade, hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles (FCVs) have not. Multiple models of EVs (like the Tesla and Nissan Leaf) and plug-in EVs (like the Chevy Volt) are selling in this country and around the world, but there are no commercial consumer FCVs yet.
Moreover, at least two major manufacturers — Tesla and GM — are in pursuit of the “Holy Grail” of EVs, an affordable (around $30,000) 200-mile range electric vehicle. One of the big reasons is steadily declining battery prices (see top chart).
But the reason that EVs have been kicking FCV butt is more complicated, since fuel cells have also seen declining costs. To fully explain why EVs are winning now and why they are likely to keep winning for the foreseeable future — and why climate hawks should view that as good news — we need to understand why, until very recently, alternative fuel vehicles (AFVs) haven’t had much success.
A significant literature has emerged to explain that lack of success by AFVs — as I discussed in my 2004 book, “The Hype About Hydrogen: Fact and Fiction in the Race to Save the Climate” and 2005 journal article, “The car and fuel of the future”
There have historically been seven major (interrelated) barriers to AFV success in the U.S. market:
1. High first cost for vehicle
2. On-board fuel storage issues (i.e. limited range)
3. Safety and liability concerns
4. High fueling cost (compared to gasoline)
5. Limited fuel stations: chicken and egg problem
6. Improvements in the competition (better, cleaner gasoline vehicles).
7. Problems delivering cost-effective emissions reductions
Every AFV ever introduced in the past three decades has suffered from at least three of those problems. Besides the tough competition (like the Prius), EVs have suffered most from #1 (high first cost) and #2 (limited range and slow speed of recharging). But major progress Is being made in both areas.
FCVs suffer from all of them — and still do! It is very safe to say that FCVs are the most difficult and expensive kind of AFV imaginable.
A big advantage EVs have, especially over FCVs, is their edge in #4. Not only have EVs long had a per-mile fueling cost below that of gasoline. Now that key renewable sources of electricity have seen amazing price drops — a 99 percent plunge for solar photovoltaics in the past quarter-century! — EVs are the only AFV to have a lower per-mile fueling cost for zero-carbon power than traditional cars running on gasoline! FCVs, as we have seen, are a very inefficient and wasteful user of carbon-free power.
In fact, new research from UBS, a leading Investment bank, finds “the 3-year total cost of ownership (TCO) of a Tesla S model is similar to that of a comparable petrol combustion engine car such as an Audi A7,” in places like Germany.
Even more revolutionary, UBS projects that “the payback time for unsubsidised investment in electric vehicles plus rooftop solar plus battery storage will be as low as 6-8 years by 2020.” An analogous claim is exceedingly unlikely to be made about FCVs for the foreseeable future.
Because of these advantages (and others discussed below), it is safe to say that if EVs continue to improve their ability to address the barriers they face, there will be little or no room in the consumer market for FCVs.
I discussed in Part 1 and Part 2 why FCVs find barrier 7 (problems delivering cost-effective emissions reductions) all but unsurmountable — especially in the context of #6, improvements in the competition.
Obviously unless an AFV is significantly better at delivering emissions reduction than the marketplace competition, especially CO2 reductions, there isn’t really much reason for state or federal governments to devote substantial public sector resources to that AFV or its fueling infrastructure. And there’d be no reason for climate hawks to support that AFV.
On the the other hand, if the new AFV isn’t super-green compared to the (lower cost and more practical) alternatives, on what basis is the vehicle going to compete with the existing array of clean, fuel-efficient vehicles people can buy now without any compromises?
This brings us to #5, the chicken and egg problem — who will build and buy the AFVs in large quantity if a fueling infrastructure is not in place and who will build the fueling infrastructure before a large quantity of AFVs are built and bought. Infrastructure remains the most intractable barrier, especially for FCVs, as I’ll discuss in Part 4.
Here is where the big advantages of EVs start to appear, synergistically. The U.S. has 12 public hydrogen fueling stations versus more than 8,400 charging stations (and 20,000 charging outlets), according to the Energy Department’s “Alternative Fueling Station Locator.” If you include private stations, then it’s 58 hydrogen to over 10,000 electric!
In part that’s because hydrogen fueling stations cost a LOT more than electric charging station, millions of dollars versus 1 to 5 percent of that cost for EV charging. In part that’s because of the related problem of a lack of FCVs on the road (versus some 234,000 plug-in vehicles in the U.S. alone). A third related reason is that more governments and companies have an incentive to build EV stations than hydrogen stations (see Part 4).
And while charging at typical EV stations can still take hours, the super-fast charging stations some companies are now building can do a substantial charge in 25 minutes or less. And that is adequate for the kinds of rest/food area stops many people make on trips.
No, the EV hasn’t solved the range issue entirely, but it’s addressed it enough for many applications — including the city cars that are popular in many countries. And there’s every reason to believe battery and charging technology will continue their steady improvement, further opening up potential markets for EVs.
These are many of the reasons EVs have beaten hydrogen FCVs in the commercial market today. In Part 4, I’ll examine why it is unlikely FCVs will overcome their relative deficiencies to EVs for a long time to come.