Don’t believe the hype: Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles have flopped with drivers

Stunning chart shows electric cars are crushing hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk speaks at unveiling of the Model 3, March 31, 2016, in Hawthorne, CA. CREDIT: AP/Justin Pritchard
Tesla CEO Elon Musk speaks at unveiling of the Model 3, March 31, 2016, in Hawthorne, CA. CREDIT: AP/Justin Pritchard

Back in 2015, Tesla CEO Elon Musk explained why hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) “are extremely silly” and why “hydrogen is an incredibly dumb” alternative fuel compared to electricity (see video below).

But the entrepreneur 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.”

Musk was right. On Tuesday, at a Bloomberg New Energy Finance conference, BNEF chair Michael Liebreich showed a chart that does indeed make the winner race between battery electric vehicles (BEVs) and FCVs “super obvious.”

Yet despite this reality, we still see headlines like this from the Financial Times in March: “Japan gambles on Toyota’s hydrogen powered car: As rivals look to electric vehicles, the country’s leading carmaker is putting its faith in an alternative.”

It’s a very bad gamble. From an analytical perspective, it’s been clear for a while that hydrogen fuel cell cars would simply will not be able to compete if you could build an affordable and practical electric vehicle (EV). And now we can.

Back in the 1990s, I supported FCV programs when I helped oversee the Energy Department’s clean energy programs. But the FCV research did not pan out as expected — some key technologies proved impractical and others remained stubbornly expensive. As I researched my 2004 book, “The Hype About Hydrogen,”  my view on both the green-ness of FCVs and their practicality changed, especially relative to BEVs, which kept seeing real advances.

“Hydrogen fuel cell cars are a dead end from a technological, practical, and climate perspective,” I explained here in 2009 when Energy Secretary Steven Chu tried to kill the program. By 2014 it was even more obvious FCVs can’t compete with EVs.

Here is Musk discussing many of the key issues the following year.

Musk explains a key reason why FCVs can’t compete with EVs — they are much less efficient.

How much less? In a 2006 Scientific American article, plug-in hybrid guru Andy Frank and I explain that the whole process of converting renewable electricity into hydrogen — so that the onboard fuel cell can converts it back into electricity to run the FCV — “would leave only about 20 to 25 percent of the original zero-carbon electricity to drive the motor.” But for a plug-in car, “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.”

In short, a BEV “should be able to travel three to four times farther on a kilowatt-hour of renewable electricity than a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle could.” A 2014 analysis by the Advanced Power and Energy Program at UC Irvine came to a similar conclusion.

Because (most of) the world is focused on avoiding catastrophic climate change, people aren’t going to go to all the trouble of investing trillions of dollars in a premium solution — zero-carbon electricity — only to throw most of it away as part of some elaborate hydrogen FCV scheme. That’s particularly true now that EVs have already started taking over the market.

“India to sell only electric cars by 2030,” CNN reported in June. The UKFranceNorway are taking similar actions. And China is moving swiftly to be both the world’s largest buyer of electric cars — and the big producer.

So while hydrogen FCVs may play in some niche transportation markets, the world’s biggest and fastest-growing car markets understand that electric cars have won the battle for the car of the future.

Musk was right. Toyota was wrong.