It’s the Hydrogen vs Battery smackdown. Look at the comments section in almost every article about electric cars, and you’ll find people arguing that hydrogen is the future. And those that are adamant that battery is the future.
So which one wins? Should we be driving a Hydrogen fuelled electric car with a Fuel Cell (FCEV). Or a Battery electric car (BEV)?
Firstly: let’s correct a common error. You’ll sometimes see articles titled “Electric vs Hydrogen”. But that’s misleading. Both FCEVs and BEVs are electric – they both have an electric motor as the drive. But the source of the electricity is different. A FCEV uses hydrogen gas which is converted into electricity via a fuel cell (usually has a small battery as well). In a BEV all the electrical power comes from the large on-board battery.
Those in favour of hydrogen argue that they are better because:
- the range of hydrogen cars is greater than battery (this is mostly true)
- fuelling is much quicker (true, but with some key caveats)
On the face of it that sounds great. Hyundai claims 412miles WLTP range and refuelling time of under 5 minutes for its Nexo FCEV. What’s not to like? Let’s find out. Contenders ready…..
5 Rounds: Is the winner the Hydrogen or the Battery electric car?
Round 1. Fuel cost.
With hydrogen at around £10 per kg the running cost of a FCEV works out about the same as a fossil fuelled car. Compare that to a BEV which is typically 4x cheaper than diesel or petrol/gasoline if you charge at home. Winner: Battery!
Round 2. Vehicle price.
FCEV cars are expensive – and there’s hardly any choice. If you want a hydrogen car, in the UK your options are either the Toyota Mirai or the Hyundai Nexo. The Nexo list price is around £68,000 – very expensive for a medium size vehicle. In the USA Honda will sell you a Honda Clarity (2021 – Honda announced this is being discontinued). Winner: Battery!
But this could change. Jaguar recently announced a FCEV project (at the same time as cancelling its battery XJS) and Chinese manufacturer Great Wall has declared investment in hydrogen according to Bloomberg. Japan is supporting Hydrogen in its automotive base.
Round 3. Environment.
Hydrogen CAN be green, if it’s created using 100% renewable energy (Green hydrogen). But 95% of it isn’t. Almost all hydrogen is currently produced using a method that involves fossil fuels. And it’s an extremely inefficient process – overall around 30% efficient*. Unless it’s from a green source there is negligible environmental benefit.
Both a FCEV and a BEV have zero emissions from the vehicle itself. So that’s a score draw.
But Li-ion batteries aren’t exactly green either. They are very heavy, contain rare metals and lots of emissions are created in production.
Round 4: Charging and fuelling infrastructure.
Almost a knockout in this round. In the UK (2021) there are over 35,000 EV charge points but less than 20 hydrogen fuelling points. There are 2 in Scotland and only 1 in northern England. California is better served with around 40. You might be able to fuel in 10 minutes, but if you have to drive an hour to refuel that negates that benefit. And, unlike gasoline, you can only pump hydrogen at full pressure. There’s plenty of stories on the internet of people having to wait 30 minutes for the system to re-pressurise when a few cars have used it just prior. In the fall 2019 US supply issues meant Toyota let many lessees off their monthly payments and provided loan cars. Winner: Battery!
Round 5: Home charging.
Once you’ve owned a battery EV the pure convenience of plugging in at your home is a winner. OK this option won’t be available for everyone, but for those with a dedicated parking space the convenience is a huge benefit. Winner: Battery!
BATTERY IS THE CLEAR WINNER IN CARS. SO WHAT ELSE?
There are other disadvantages with hydrogen…..
Fuel cells wear out – typical life is 150,000-200,000 miles. (Of course batteries do degrade also). FC replacement cost is unknown.
Servicing is likely to be expensive due to power system complexity, and you won’t be able to take it to your independent local auto shop. Main dealer servicing only! Long term vehicle resale value is fairly uncertain as a result.
It ties consumers into fossil fuel companies interests. Most people will never be able to generate their own hydrogen, whereas it’s pretty straightforward to install PV and generate your own electricity. And this is getting cheaper year on year. Hydrogen is explosive (when combined with oxygen).
Hydrogen usually needs to be trucked to its destination, which creates emissions and adds cost.
So is Hydrogen the answer for Cars? Most industry commentators don’t think so.
There are some upsides to FCEVs. They purify the intake air – meaning the expelled emissions are actually cleaner than when they went in. Bonus!
The fuel is fairly energy dense – which means more of the vehicle payload can be used for carrying people and cargo. Probably more of a consideration in commercial vehicles.
Running in Winter? One of the side products of a fuel cell is waste heat – which can be used in the passenger cabin. Those of you running Battery EVs for some years will know that cabin heating is not the key selling point… (despite the use of more efficient heat pumps).
When water is split to create Hydrogen you also get oxygen – which is a valuable product in itself and can be commercially sold.
HYDROGEN IN THE LOW CARBON FUTURE
Most likely hydrogen will be a key part of the transition away from fossil fuels. There is huge investment and impetus in the sector, but also significant lobbying by legacy fossil fuel interests. Hydrogen is one of the ten points in the UK Government’s new plan for a “green industrial revolution” released 18 Nov 2020. (In fact Hydrogen has 50 mentions in that document – more sceptical readers may suspect industry influence – we couldn’t possibly comment…)
The Times (02 May 2021 – paywall) published an article about lobbying on hydrogen stating “Huge vested interests lie behind the rise of hydrogen” and “Networks are promoting the role of hydrogen amid concern that their pipelines, worth billions of pounds, risk becoming “stranded assets” as gas is phased out”.
Hydrogen buses have been reliably running for years in London. There are opportunities for replacing fossil fuel use in heavy industry (e.g. steel production), shipping and trains. In future you may be getting on a ferry powered by hydrogen, replacing the foul and highly polluting bunker fuel oil commonly used in shipping today.
And Shell is investigating Hydrogen as grid-scale storage in windfarms. Instead of curtailing (switching off) turbines when the grid cannot cope with the excess generation capacity, the turbines will be kept spinning and used to create hydrogen. In times of high demand (and higher price) the hydrogen will create electricity to be released back into the grid. This appears to be a concept and not in production.
But for large trucks the jury is still out. Startups such as Nikola are going down the hydrogen route, but Tesla’s semi trucks will be battery EV. But Scania trucks (part of VAG) recently and very publically ruled out hydrogen as an option.
It’s possible hydrogen could have a role in aviation. In large site vehicles (such as diggers and dumpers) the sheer daily power requirement may mean H2 is a better (or the only) option.
Battery tech is advancing – you can already buy a 400 mile range Tesla and a modest Renault Zoe will get you 250 miles, which for most people will be plenty. Of course there is always the 1-2% of drivers who absolutely need extreme range and/or need to tow; for those people right now fossil fuel remains the only realistic option.
Battery prices are reducing and energy density continues to improve. We’re now seeing the first announcements about solid state batteries, which will offer double the energy density (and therefore double the range) of today’s lithium-ion.
Right now Hydrogen-fuelled cars are just too expensive, too inconvenient and aren’t green.
It will take many years to build out the necessary fuelling infrastructure, and by that time battery technology will have improved further, removing range-anxiety. FCEV prices may dip, but are probably years away from becoming affordable. But never say never – and we may be proved to be entirely wrong….
*Hydrogen is only Green if it’s created using a 100% emission free power source – so that’s wind, geothermal, solar or tidal. But very little Hydrogen currently produced is green. Bloomberg estimates it will only be competitive on cost with fossil fuels by 2040.
**Typical efficiencies for electrolysis and fuel cells are 68% and 52% respectively. Compressing hydrogen so it can be stored, typically at 350bar, requires 6% of its chemical energy. So the overall cycle efficiency is only around 33%.
So-called ‘Blue’ hydrogen is being advocated by fossil fuel companies. This uses gas and does create large amounts of CO2. It’s claimed CCS (carbon capture and storage) facilities will be built to make sure this CO2 gets buried in the ground. Despite numerous pilot projects CCS remains unproven at scale, and only captures between 60-90% of emissions. So it’s not green. It’s extremely costly. And of course it locks you into buying products from your favourite legacy fossil company…
Important: Hydrogen is only green if it uses a fuel cell to generate electrical power. Toyota and other companies are evaluating Hydrogen combustion – adapting a conventional engine to run on H2 instead of gas/petrol. The Cleanegroup commented… https://www.cleanegroup.org/hydrogen-hype-in-the-air/
The bad news is that H2 combustion can produce dangerously high levels of nitrogen oxide (NOx). Two European studies have found that burning hydrogen-enriched natural gas in an industrial setting can lead to NOx emissions up to six times that of methane….This problem is only slowly emerging in public conversation.Cleanegroup