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The Nail in the Hydrogen Coffin is Only There if Your Only Tool Is a Hammer

Recently here on Torque News, the "final nail in the coffin for fuel cell vehicles" was announced. Except it's only a nail if your only tool is a hammer. Here's why hydrogen is only just getting started.

According to an editorial here on Torque News, the fueling costs for hydrogen are the final nail in the coffin for fuel cell vehicles. For those of us who've been following alternative fuels for some time, this statement is both repetitive and amusing. After all, similar statements were made about other alternative transportation options, some of which are now decidedly mainstream in the public's eye.

This latest statement about hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCEVs) comes after Toyota's Bob Carter made statements about the expected costs to fuel a hydrogen vehicle. He said, in short, that the current cost is around $50 per 300-mile tank and will probably fall to $30 in the future. That future was not defined. We can assume he meant either very soon or very long-term. There is no context given or estimate made; at least not by Carter.

According to the Department of Energy, using natural gas to create hydrogen puts the cost per gallon gasoline equivalent (gge) at about $1.21. Most of the cost, currently, is in the compression and storage of hydrogen before it's used, which bumps the price (as of the DOE's 2012 estimate) to $3.68 per gge. Those are roughly the numbers Carter is using to get his $30 per 300-mile estimate.

Two things to note here: the cost of hydrogen in this scenario is closely tied to the cost of natural gas, which is currently at historic highs. Gas production, however, is also on the rise, so we can safely assume that the cost of hydrogen will drop to 2012 estimates. Thus the next few years, not tens, just three or four at most, could see Carter's estimates a reality, debunking the idea that gasoline cars would catch up (on average) in the mean time. Even with 2026 estimates of fuel economy, gas cars would not be competitive, especially if we assume (also, safely) that H2 compression and storage will also improve during that time, lowering costs.

This is not to say that hydrogen does not have drawbacks.

The aforementioned storage is one of the biggest problems hydrogen fuel cells for automotive face. Recently, great strides in tank manufacture have changed that scenario for the better. It's plausible that we could see near-zero loss storage in the very near future, at least at the automotive level. On the fueling station side of things. advances in compression methods could change how we view hydrogen at the point of sale with much of what we fuel our car with being made on-demand rather than made beforehand and stored. This would greatly simplify infrastructure in the longer term.

Now for the next bit: the battery electric argument. Battery electric vehicles (BEVs) have their place. They can and will be a large portion of the automotive market. Eventually. Someday. For now, their interest is greatly out of proportion with their actual impact on the market. The BEV makes up less than one percent of the overall automotive market. That aside, though, the arguments being made against hydrogen right now (mostly by the pro-BEV crowd), in terms of infrastructure and per-vehicle costs, are the same ones made by EV detractors just a few years ago.

It wasn't so far back that we had automotive journalists and pundits saying that the electric car would never come to fruition, realistically, because battery storage capacity, range, and costs would be too expensive to make the car viable. Yet few are making that argument now. It's apparent that there is a segment of the driving public that is willing to take a little longer to fuel, pay a higher price for the car up-front, and drive with less expected range than might have been guessed at ten years ago. The cost of batteries has also begun to drop and the technology has slowly improved to the point that, although it's a significant factor in the cost of a BEV, it's not the prohibitive factor it once was.

Now, those same arguments about the costs to both buy and refuel a hydrogen car are being made.

As for the environmental costs of the way we power either an EV or an FCEV.. well, making the argument that electricity is "cleaner" than hdyrogen is moot given that most electricity is made via coal and most hydrogen is made by natural gas - the only viable alternative to coal-fired electricity right now and in the near future.

Again, these are all short-sighted notes that give little thought to the technological progression that the FCEV will obviously make just as its BEV brother has. In the end, BEV supporters should realize that an FCEV is nothing more than an electric car with a different kind of battery in it. Arguments about which is "cleaner" or "more efficient" ignore that realities of the automotive market: that convenience and economy are the driving forces behind purchases. If the most efficient at the tailpipe, the pump, or the overall environmental impact were what mattered, the nation's number-one selling model wouldn't be a pickup truck and the Tesla Model S would be considered a dirty, un-green car.

The fact is, every major automaker is working on a fuel cell vehicle and most plan to roll one out by 2018 - many are coming next year. There are, it should be pointed out, more automakers working on FCEVs than there are pure electrics. That alone should tell naysayers where the R&D is going and what automakers think is going to happen over the longer term.

Why are they looking to fuel cells instead of batteries? Very likely it's market dynamics. Low-range vehicles don't sell and the battery technology to create long range electrics cheaply isn't there. With fuel cells, it might be.


Samuel Smithe (not verified)    August 18, 2014 - 9:12AM

Super article. Keep up the great work. Thankfully the legions of Hydrogen Bashers can't stop the fuel of the future, because it's here Now!

Aaron Turpen    August 18, 2014 - 3:46PM

In reply to by Samuel Smithe (not verified)

I personally see hydrogen as one of many fuel options. I think the future automotive market - say in 2050 - will consist of vehicles that are basically electric drive trains with various options for energy storage (hydrogen, batteries, combustion engines, etc). Similar to what Ford is doing now with the Power of Choice idea, but taken to yet another level. This idea combines simplified manufacture with diversity of options an fuels to allow for regional choices and personal needs to be the driving forces behind purchases. It also means we aren't putting all of our eggs into one basket as we have now with petroleum.

Luke Ottaway    August 18, 2014 - 6:18PM

So many counterpoints I don't even know where to start. My biggest problem with hydrogen, I guess I have to say, is that it would not appreciably improve our carbon emissions and would trade an oil-dependent future for a natural gas-dependent future. And the distinction between the cleanliness of electricity and methane-produced hydrogen is so far from a moot point that I cringed when I read that sentence. Now, you are right to acknowledge that we can't predict the trajectory of future innovation in battery and fuel cell/hydrogen technology. But even though I may not be the smartest or most knowledgeable person in the fuel cell/BEV conversation, I think for myself and I listen to a couple people who could make that claim. Take Elon Musk, who is known for seeing the future better than most and uses hydrogen to power his rockets and batteries to power the world's most acclaimed car, who cannot for the life of him fathom why anyone would believe in this "mind-bogglingly stupid" fuel cell campaign. Or Joe Romm, who used to oversee the DOE's fuel cell program and saw enough to convince him hydrogen is a dead end (and he continues to believe this despite recent advancements that at last enabled fuel cell vehicles to actually come to market). It sure would be nice if hydrogen could become one of several fuel options, but I'm not getting my hopes up.

Aaron Turpen    August 19, 2014 - 12:56AM

In reply to by Luke Ottaway

You assume hydrogen will only be created via natural gas. That would be just for the short term and it would be appreciably cleaner than most of the nation's electricity. So.. back atcha there. You also seem to assume that hydrogen vs. battery electric is some kind of face-off. It's not. It's a COMPLIMENT. Again, as per my piece here, get over the idea that there will be only ONE solution. There will be many. More baskets, eggs spread around, etc. Stop thinking in linear, "us versus them" terms. Further, Musk is heavily vested in batteries as a solution. His company cannot afford to build hydrogen fuel cells with all of the costly R&D (and catch-up) involved. Of course he doesn't like fuel cells. Again.. I point to the fact that the majority of automakers are working on them - more so than are working on BEVs. Who do you think knows more and can steer the industry better than the major makes who have been and continue to do so? You bring up the famous naysayers and ignore the glut of pro-HFCV experts as well.

Luke Ottaway    August 19, 2014 - 9:40PM

In reply to by Aaron Turpen

I assume hydrogen will be created using natural gas because it is the only commercially viable method on the horizon. The other reasonable methods involve electricity (and if we drag things like algal hydrogen production into the argument, it is only fair to include the most optimistic battery technology scenarios as well). And yes, natural-gas produced hydrogen is (in most cases) cleaner than electricity in a vacuum...but that ignores the extra steps and fuel cell inefficiency involved in getting the power to the wheels of a vehicle, which inherently make fuel cell vehicles at best half as efficient as battery electrics. And I take it to be a face-off not because I hate hydrogen, or because I think multiple technologies can't coexist. I simply consider there to be no real business or environmental case for implementing hydrogen for the foreseeable future, barring an out-of-the-blue breakthrough. And when the necessary resources for kick-starting these two alternative fuel technologies are so hotly contested, it is arguable that there isn't room for two unless we reshuffle our priorities.

Aaron Turpen    August 19, 2014 - 11:09PM

In reply to by Luke Ottaway

The problem with your assumption that creating the electricity and using it directly is that cars don't have cords and batteries are not efficient either. Until large storage banks of batteries can be cost-effective and competitive with cheap petroleum, coal, and gas, there is no way to store all of the "free" electricity made by renewables and so they'll always be a sideline power source. In this discussion, we haven't even started in on heavy transport and the fact that batteries are next to useless as a power source for those machines.

Bob Wallace (not verified)    August 20, 2014 - 12:02AM

In reply to by Aaron Turpen

Batteries are quite efficient. Tremendously efficient compared to either hydrogen as a storage method or fossil fuel burned in an ICEV.

Is a city bus at least verging on "heavy transport"? If so, you'll be glad to know that BYD buses are running regular urban routes all day long on a single charge and recharging at night.

Bob Wallace (not verified)    August 18, 2014 - 10:25PM

Natural gas is not anywhere close to historical highs. The 2012 price was due to a supply glut, huge amounts of cash had flowed into the drilling 'gold rush' and production rose very rapidly. We've now burned through that surplus and prices are back into the mid-range with no expectation of returning to "cheap". In fact, as we start selling overseas out NG prices will likely rise to world market prices.

The electricity charging EVs today may not be appreciably cleaner than burning NG in H2 FCEVs but the grid will continue to get cleaner.

We can make H2 using renewable electricity but we'll have to install over 2x as many solar panels and wind turbines than is we simply charged EVs.

Hydrogen is simply a way to store energy and a rather inefficient one. Over 50% of the energy entering the front end disappears before it reaches the exit and make cars move.

There's a lot of love out there for FCEVs for some reason. But I'm afraid it's going to be unrequited love.

Aaron Turpen    August 19, 2014 - 1:04AM

In reply to by Bob Wallace (not verified)

Actually, Bob, there are other ways to make hydrogen as well. Are you familiar with Honda's Hydrogen Home idea? How about with research being done into algal H2 production? Sea water reformation? Hydrogen has the big advantage over solar/wind in that it can take those power sources and store it indefinitely whereas grid-connected solar/wind only work when they work and would otherwise have to be stored in expensive batteries. This solution hasn't escaped researchers and pro-renewables proponents. As for NG prices, they were historically high in 2008, but that was a spike rather than a long trend and it lead directly to the drop and relatively stable holding trend we have been in since with a few dips and rises along seasonal usage fluctuations. Read past the headline and see the trends he's talking about. He's not saying they'll rise, he's saying they'll remain relatively the same and possibly lower, depending on when/if companies tap the vast amount of unused gas they've been sitting on to keep markets up.

GregS (not verified)    August 19, 2014 - 8:35PM

In reply to by Aaron Turpen

Natural Gas will continue to increase. The only reason it dropped so much was because of the fracking boom leading to a glut here. Now that the Government is busy handing out export licenses, our cheap gas will be sold overseas. Expect US gas prices to rise as a result

Bob Wallace (not verified)    August 20, 2014 - 1:40PM

In reply to by Aaron Turpen

I am familiar with some of those ideas. But ideas are not necessary things that always work. If someone can actually make H2 cheaply then the math changes.

I believe Honda's gone rather silent on their home H2 plant recently. Don't know what that means. But having a home H2 plants doesn't mean that the H2 would be cheap.

The most recent thing I've read about fueling FCEVs was in an article where they were able to fill only 30 FCEVs in a ten hour day and the station cost $4 million with the hope they could bring it down to $2 million.

(Had to wipe out my link to get past the site software. Use the following to get to the source. Great read - a-visit-to-a-hydrogen-refueling-station-at-ecoful-town-in-toyota )

Hydrogen is only a way to store energy and a very inefficient one at that. Less than 50% efficient as opposed to, say, pump-up hydro storage which runs in the 85% to 95% range and offers very long time storage. When you're having to input twice as much energy to get out what you want you're dealing with a very large ongoing cost.

I don't see a route for electricity -> H2 -> electricity to win out. Too lossy. If there's a breakthrough and we can produce H2 for less than half what it now costs then, maybe. But that breakthrough might come too late as batteries are on track to give us long enough range at good prices. If EVs get in place first then there won't be investment money to build the H2 infrastructure.

As for H2 from natural gas. Forget it. Just burn the NG and don't lose all the energy in the extra step. We might get away with that for 10 to 20 years. But the supply of NG is finite and probably not very extensive. As we find more ways to use it we simply run out sooner.

Most of our new NG wells are dropping production extremely rapidly. To keep up with current demand will require a lot more drilling and fracking. The current price of NG is not quite high enough to support an active drilling program. If anyone is sitting on a surplus that will get burned through fairly soon and prices will rise in order to bring rigs back into the fields.

Besides, natural gas screws our climate and future.

Turbofroggy (not verified)    August 19, 2014 - 11:43PM

$30 per 300-mile? My Tesla goes 1000 miles for $25 and my wife's Leaf goes 1000 miles for $20. That is if I paid an electric bill, which I haven't since 2009. 7KW of solar takes care of that. Oh and I can fuel at home in my garage overnight, travel nationwide using Tesla Superchargers for free, and use pretty much any outlet to charge with. Both our cars start out with a full battery every morning. What problem are they trying to solve here?

Bob Wallace (not verified)    August 20, 2014 - 12:33PM

You seem to have let your love of fuel cell vehicles override your objectivity.

H2 FCEVs will initially run on natural gas. Later they, if they survive, they will run on 2x or more electricity as an EV. To the extent the grid is still dirty, FVECs will be more than twice as dirty as EVs.