Hydrogen vs. Battery: The Electric Car Is Dead. Long Live The Electric Car!

Electric vehicle doyen Elon Musk once dismissed fuel cells as “fool cells.” While many of us are still coming to grips with electric cars, some experts think hydrogen is the next big fuel. These cars are often described as hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, meaning they use a fuel cell as opposed to a battery. In fact, EVs may just be the transition from fossil fuel to fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) powered with hydrogen.

As Gregory Guillaume, Kia’s Vice President of Design, said: “My personal opinion, battery-powered electric vehicles can only be a transition (to) hydrogen.” Let’s look at the pros and cons of each.

Charging/Fueling

Pros: FCEVs convert hydrogen – or other fuel – to electricity. This is the difference between EVs and hydrogen cars. Fueling a hydrogen car is just like buying regular gasoline and takes only 3 to 5 minutes. For a time-starved population, it makes more sense practically.

Cons: You charge EVs directly with electricity. It takes an hour, at least, to supercharge an EV and from 14.5 to 48 hours using a standard household outlet. This is too long for most people. Although the infrastructure is growing, not everyone lives in a location where public charging stations are available.

There are 41 public hydrogen refueling stations in California with the goal of 200 stations by 2025. In 2018, 25 FCEV buses were operating in California, versus only seven in other states. There is one public hydrogen refueling station each in Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Michigan, and South Carolina. Another 27 are in development in those states, along with New York and Rhode Island.

In Europe, there are around 152 Hydrogen Refueling Stations in operation as of early 2019, with many more being built or planned. The fastest increase of Hydrogen Refueling Stations (HRS) being built is in Germany. In Australia, there are no hydrogen stations available. Toyota and Hyundai are the main contenders, but Mercedes-Benz and China’s Grove are also pursuing hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

Former President George W. Bush talks to the media as he stands with Rick Scott, Operations and Safety Coordinator, Shell Hydrogen, L.L.C., Wednesday, May 25th, 2005, at a Washington D.C. Shell Station. At the time, it was the first gasoline/hydrogen station in North America. White House photo by Paul Morse.

Long Range or Range Anxiety

Pros: With the exception of a few models (Tesla Motors in particular,) hydrogen cars typically have double the range of most battery-powered EVs. Even if individual owners don’t buy hydrogen, companies with fleets of trucks, buses, and delivery vans will be able to save time and money.

Cons: Most people buying EVs still grapple with range anxiety. The more affordable models travel roughly 140 to 190 miles on one charge. While this is enough for city driving and most work commutes, it can make some nervous, especially those in rural or suburban areas. In these instances, a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle might be more reassuring.

Make It & Transport It

Pros: EVs in the U.S. run on electricity made with fossil fuels. Owners charge EVs directly with electricity and, because they use an existing grid, there is no need to transport electricity.

Cons: In the U.S., for example, hydrogen is also created from fossil fuels. This is not the only way to do it. It is possible to create renewable hydrogen in several ways: from solar or wind electrolysis of water, from water vapor in the air, from crop waste, or biogas from landfills or wastewater treatment plants.

The next challenge is transporting hydrogen to service stations. It could be transported in a diesel truck to a service station, where the owner fills up and hydrogen is converted back to electricity again. But this makes little sense.

CSIRO in Australia developed a metal membrane that extracts hydrogen from liquid ammonia. This is a lot easier and cheaper to carry around as well as avoiding coal power. Each service station would then carry a liquid ammonia tank, membrane, and hydrogen refueling pump. But this is just one idea.

The Hyundai Nexo Blue has an estimated range of 380 miles and returns an estimated MPGe of 65 city, 58 highway, and 61 combined. Refueling takes place in as little as five minutes. Photo: Hyundai Motor America.

Go Out & Buy One – If You Can

Pros: Buying an EV is beyond the means of many Americans but still (currently) cheaper than an FCEV. An Audi E-Tron costs $75,000; the Hyundai Kona Electric and Tesla Model 3 both cost between $35,000 and $40,000; and the Nissan Leaf about $32,000. The latter vehicles are examples of the market trying to make EVs more affordable and accessible. There still isn’t a vigorous market in secondhand EVs.

Most Australians can’t afford an EV either. The average EV costs over A$60,000 but you can buy them for less. A Nissan Leaf starts from A$49,000, and the Hyundai Ioniq Electric starts at A$46,000 before on-road costs.

Cons: If you live in the U.S., there are only four FCEVs for sale or lease. However, each have a range of 312 to 380 miles. They are all 2019 models and have a starting price of around $59,000: Honda Clarity, Hyundai Nexo, Hyundai Nexo Blue, and Toyota Mirai. Hyundai is a big investor in hydrogen. If Hyundai is right, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will be less money than EVs by 2030.

Running Costs

Pros: In Australia, it currently costs about $5.40 to travel 100 kms (62 miles) using electricity, compared to $16.65 to travel that distance using petrol. To look at it another way, this is only 30 cents compared to $1.23 per liter of fuel. So it is much less expansive than filling your car with petrol or diesel.

Cons: The obvious question is how much does it cost the owner of a hydrogen car to fill up? California Fuel Cell Partnership (whose motto is Farther, Quicker, Cleaner) says hydrogen costs $13.99 per kg (or $1.23 per liter of gas).

Fans of hydrogen say the price will fall. National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) estimates, by 2020-2025, prices may fall to $8.00 from $10.00 per kg. At $3.50 per gallon of gas, a regular vehicle would cost $0.13 per mile but a hydrogen car using $8.00 per kg of fuel would cost $0.12 per mile. This is starting to look more promising.

The Hydrogen Economy

Wan Gang is the so-called father of EVs and vice chairman of China’s national advisory body for policy making. He says, “we should look into establishing a hydrogen society”.

Hydrogen cars depend on investment in the so-called hydrogen economy. The US Department of Energy has put $40 million towards [email protected], a hydrogen research program. At the moment, the US produces over 10 million metric tons of hydrogen, but this goes into refining oil and producing fertilizer.

For an idea of where the industry is going, look to where the investors are. Great Wall Motor is investing over $149 million in research and development of FCEVs. Toyota sells hydrogen cars already and has developed fuel cells for trucks, buses, and even a lunar rover. Meanwhile, the BMW i Hydrogen Next concept, shown in Frankfurt this year, is a result of its partnership with Toyota. This is a hydrogen fuel cell version of the X5 SUV and will be produced in small numbers in 2022.

BMW i Hydrogen NEXT. The automaker says hydrogen vehicles represent an important addition to battery-electric drive systems. Photo: BMW Group.

So Is the EV Dead?

With so much money going into hydrogen, does that mean EVs are dead? It does not. Volkswagen said it will invest $22.5 billion in EVs and Audi plans to sell 800,000 “new energy vehicles” by 2025 with more than 20 of them electric.

Perhaps the best approach is to match the type of vehicle with the type of use. Some say battery EVs are the best approach for city buyers to replace petrol cars. But more expensive FCEVs, fueled with hydrogen, would replace diesel trucks, buses, and large SUVs because EVs have too many batteries and take too long to charge.

Remember a hydrogen vehicle is still an electric vehicle. It just works in a different way. Whatever happens, using electricity for propulsion is not going away. The EV is dead . . . long live the EV!

  1. For people with ready access to charging in their garage at night for example, a battery EV makes more sense than a hydrogen EV.
    For buses, trucks and I would like to think aircraft and ships, hydrogen via ammonia makes more sense as long range and fast refuelling is paramount.
    You didn’t mention that the extra step of producing the hydrogen takes energy which makes hydrogen EVs more costly to run.

      1. Yes, the carbon footprint of a Tesla Model 3 battery pack is 11 to 15 tonnes CO2. Not sure how reliable that is. If it is a Fox/Murdoch sponsored publication then you can guarantee the actual figure will be lower than that, but let’s assume it is 15Tonnes. Couldn’t find anything about fuel cell footprint but it will be a lot lower. Let’s say 1 tonne or less.
        So that is a significant point.
        Once we decarbonise the power generators I am sure the footprint of both will fall. As will the running costs.
        The electric transition is inevitable regardless.
        Not much of this drive is to do with saving the planet, it is purely economics. Electric cars are much much simpler than IC engined cars. With the tiny volumes of production and sales now they are almost competitive with petrol cars. The manufacturers know that if you don’t have an electric range to sell in a few years when volumes really take off and costs plummet you won’t be selling any cars.
        The original IC engine designer Mercedes is no longer designing any IC engines. Only electric powertrains from now on. The IC engine is going the way of the horse and buggy.

    1. A hydrogen PHEV might be interesting – with a small battery charged overnight to cover a majority of typical city driving, plus the advantage of regenerative braking, while maintaining the fast fueling of hydrogen.

      In the US (where coal is down to 27% of electric production), hydrogen fuel cell cars may be about on par with an electric car in Well to Wheel CO2 production. But as coal is phased out in the US, even if just replaced with natural gas, EVs will pull ahead on CO2 reduction.

  2. This article contains more falsehoods and misleading assertions than I can be bothered to catalog in detail, mostly denigrating battery-electric cars.

    But here’s an example: “It takes an hour, at least, to supercharge an EV and from 14.5 to 48 hours using a standard household outlet.” Your typical DCFC charging stop should be around 30 minutes — much less than “an hour, at least”. The time for charging with a standard household outlet is accurate enough, but highly misleading because practically nobody ever does that. People who charge at home generally get a 240V outlet or charging station put in. Then they can easily and conveniently charge overnight, which is not even possible for a hydrogen (or gasoline!) car.

    Here’s another: “Hydrogen cars have a much longer range than EVs. They can go twice as far on the same amount of fuel or energy.” Presently the Tesla Model S Long Range has greater EPA rated range (370 miles) than either the Toyota Mirai (312 miles) or the Honda Clarity Fuel Cell (360 miles). That Tesla is also getting 101 MPGE efficiency compared with merely 68 MPGE for the Honda Clarity Fuel Cell or 66 MPGE for the Toyota Mirai.

    1. Hi Zobeid, thanks for the reply. According to Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tesla_Supercharger#Supercharger_technology), Tesla Superchargers “take about 20 minutes to charge to 50%, 40 minutes to charge to 80%, and 75 minutes to 100% on the original 85 kWh Model S” and according to a Tesla owner on Quora (https://www.quora.com/How-long-does-a-Tesla-supercharger-take-to-fully-charge-a-car), they take “over an hour” from empty to full.

      I admit the use cases vary, and it’s more likely someone will charge overnight at home and on longer trips won’t be charging from empty and probably only up to around 80% anyway. Regardless, the numbers are accurate.

      You’re right about the Model S Long Range having a longer driving range than the hydrogen cars; I believe we were comparing it to *most* EVs, which are typically quite a bit lower. Tesla tends to be the exception. I will update the article to not imply that they can go twice as far on a refuel.

      Thanks again and feel free to bring up anything else – we’re completely open to discussion and being wrong, and if we are, we’ll correct it!

      1. That Wikipedia reference is a bit outdated, since the Model 3 is capable of significantly higher charge rates than the Model S 85 that it referenced (and the times will only improve further as V3 stations are deployed). What’s more important, however, is that the time for charging from 0 to 100% is not a realistic point of comparison to hydrogen. Unlike putting fuel in a tank, the charge rate decreases as the battery approaches full, which means that charging to 100% is almost always a waste of time. Owners quickly learn not to do that, except under very particular circumstances, such as an overnight charge before or during a road trip.

        I wrote before that a typical charging stop should be around 30 minutes, and I stand by that. It’s misleading to say that charging requires “an hour, at least” when the vast majority of charging stops can and should be a fraction of that.

      2. The $5M hydrogen fueling stations in Sacramento take huge amounts of grid power to keep the hydrogen pressurized and cold. A DCFC station is around $35,000, takes virtually no power on standby. Talked to a Mirai owner who said if he wants a truly fully pressurized tank, it takes 20 minutes, not 3 minutes. That last bit of compression from 8000 psi to 10,000 psi is very time consuming and requires a lot of energy from the very expensive hydrogen compressor. Using Hydrogen fuel cells for large trucks and heavy off-highway equipment makes good sense, but for commuter vehicles, not so much, in my opinion. I am an engineer, have owned hybrids, PHEV, and now EV for personal use. I work for a company that builds large industrial trucks. We started with a battery electric big truck, will move on to hydrogen fuel cell next. Understand though, even the FC truck will have some batteries aboard to even out the electric power demand peaks and valleys. FC runs best if optimized for steady energy production.

        1. Good comments Bruce. Also interesting to hear from an industry engineer. Yeah, it’s the long haul/high use vehicles with little idle time that will benefit most from hydrogen fuel. In Australia, the CSIRO has developed a membrane which allows efficient conversion of hydrogen to ammonia and vice versa. That way you store the fuel as ammonia which is stable and easy and quick to pump. Eliminates the issues of pressurisation, cooling and leakage of H2 gas. Ammonia has double the energy density of petrol.

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