Climate

Elon Musk Is Right: Hydrogen Is ‘An Incredibly Dumb’ Car Fuel

CREDIT: AP

CEO Elon Musk speaks at 2009 unveiling of Tesla Model S all-electric car.

Cars that use hydrogen as fuel have been in the news a lot recently.

Last month, Tesla CEO Elon Musk explained at length why hydrogen fuel cell cars “are extremely silly” and why “hydrogen is an incredibly dumb” alternative fuel.

Musk also said, “there’s no need for us to have this debate. I’ve said my peace on this, it will be super obvious as time goes by.” Indeed, it is super obvious already, as I’ve written many times — see my 2014 series, “Tesla Trumps Toyota,” which explains why hydrogen cars can’t compete with pure electric cars. A key reason Musk calls hydrogen “incredibly dumb” — its untenably inefficient use of carbon-free power compared to electric vehicles (EVs) — is detailed below.

In the meantime, Musk — whose Tesla bio lists him as “Co-Founder, CEO, and Product Architect” — has been amping up his efforts to be the next Steve Jobs and to make his electric car company, Tesla, the next Apple. Bloomberg reported last week that the 6000-worker company “has hired at least 150 former Apple employees, more than from any other company, even carmakers.”

“It’s almost an unfair advantage,” according to Morgan Stanley auto industry analyst Adam Jonas. He told Bloomberg, “As software goes from 10 percent of the value of the car to 60 over 10 years, that disadvantage [for traditional carmakers] will intensify.”

But will Tesla be the next Apple … or will Apple be the next Tesla? Apple has itself poached 50 Tesla employees, supposedly “offering $250,000 signing bonuses and 60 percent salary increases” — a heck of an incentive to work at a company so successful, its market capitalization just hit the all-time record of $700 billion! Business Insider reports that an email from an Apple employee says its still-secret effort, “will change the landscape and give Tesla a run for its money.”

We are strictly in rumor-mill territory here. But there is a camera-equipped van registered to Apple that is rumored to be a self-driving car, but is more likely a mapping vehicle, according to CNBC and Wired. I digress.

Returning to hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, EV-maker Musk has, unsurprisingly, long been critical of the only other plausible zero emission vehicle. He called them “bullshit” in 2013, briefly noting their relative high cost and infrastructure issues. In 2014 Musk said, “They’re mind-bogglingly stupid” and “Success is simply not possible.” Why?

“Consider the whole fuel cell system against a Model S. It’s far worse in volume and mass terms, and far, far, worse in cost. And I haven’t even talked about hydrogen being so hard to handle.”

Then, last month, at a press conference in Detroit, Musk offered his most detailed explanation for why hydrogen fuel cell vehicles make no sense. He was asked “You’ve been very vocal about the need for companies to reduce their emissions. Why are you so critical of hydrogen fuel cells, which are another pathway to zero emission vehicles. Do you stand by those comments?”

Here’s Musk’s full answer:

His key argument is one I have been making for more than a decade, since my 2004 book, “The Hype About Hydrogen: Fact and Fiction in the Race to Save the Climate”

As Musk explains:

“Hydrogen is an energy storage mechanism. It is not a source of energy. So you have to get that hydrogen from somewhere. if you get that hydrogen from water, so you’re splitting H20, electrolysis is extremely inefficient as an energy process…. if you say took a solar panel and use the energy from that to just charge a battery pack directly, compared to try to split water, take the hydrogen, dump the oxygen, compress the hydrogen to an extremely high pressure (or liquefy it) and then put it in a car and run a fuel-cell, it is about half the efficiency, it’s terrible. Why would you do that? It makes no sense.”

In fact, Musk was being generous. In a 2006 Scientific American article I wrote with advanced-hybrid guru Andy Frank, we explain that “The entire process of electrolysis, transportation, pumping and fuel-cell conversion would leave only about 20 to 25 percent of the original zero-carbon electricity to drive the motor.” But in an EV or plug-in hybrid, “the process of electricity transmission, charging an onboard battery and discharging the battery would leave 75 to 80 percent of the original electricity to drive the motor.” So the hydrogen car is more like one third as efficient as the EV.

Put in more basic terms, the plug-in or EV “should be able to travel three to four times farther on a kilowatt-hour of renewable electricity than a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle could”! Here are some numbers from the Advanced Power and Energy Program at UC Irvine:

EVvsFCV

The situation is actually worse for FCVs, or what the figure calls Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles (FCEVs). The two best cases for FCEVs in the chart — a hydrogen pipeline system from central station renewable generation and onsite renewable generation and electrolysis — are wildly implausible for many decades to come, if ever.

In any case, we have this huge global warming problem going on right now. We aren’t going to go to all the trouble of creating a premium solution — zero-carbon electricity — only to throw away most of it as part of some elaborate hydrogen FCV scheme, a scheme that also requires the creation of an elaborate and expensive new system of green hydrogen production and/or delivery infrastructure. That’s particularly true when we can just run EVs on the premium carbon-free power directly (or, for that matter, simply continue to slash vehicle CO2 emissions through the straightforward continuation of fuel economy improvements).

So yes, hydrogen Is “an incredibly dumb” car fuel, especially if you are concerned about global warming.