By Aaron Crowe
In the next wave of zero-emission cars, hydrogen fuel cells are expected to gain ground and eventually pass electric cars, experts say.
Researchers at the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis say fuel cell cars are becoming more viable as major automakers push the technology — six have announced that they’ll introduce fuel cell cars by 2019. Also, more infrastructure is being rolled out, and fuel cell systems costs are coming closer to what it costs to fill up a car with gasoline.
“We seem to be tantalizingly close to the beginning of a hydrogen transition,” writes Joan Ogden, an environmental science professor at UC Davis.
Hydrogen fuel cell cars can exceed today’s gasoline cars. They can have a driving range of 300-400 miles, and a fast refueling time of three to five minutes.
High-pressure hydrogen gas is fed into a fuel cell “stack” in the car, where it’s combined with oxygen to produce electricity. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, also called FCVs, have zero emissions, with the only emission being clean water vapor from the car’s exhaust.
Electric vehicles in the public’s mind, for now
“Most people would say that electric cars are undoubtedly the vehicles of the future,” says Jordan Perch of DMV.com, with the number of plug-in models available for purchase increasing all the time, the purchase price going down, and with authorities investing heavily in the electric vehicle charging infrastructure.”
“But, if you were to ask Toyota, the answer to this question would be completely different,” Perch says. “The Japanese car maker has repeatedly said that hydrogen is the fuel of the future, and has focused on advancing fuel cell technology, with plans to drop electric cars altogether.
“When the world’s biggest automaker gives preference to one novel technology over a somewhat established one, then this new technology definitely deserves to be taken into consideration when talking about the best alternative to conventional cars.”
Electric cars face two big issues: long charging times and range anxiety. Its battery can take hours to recharge, sometimes up to 12 hours, while a hydrogen car can be refueled in five minutes.
The best electric cars can travel about 80 miles on a charge, though the Tesla Model S has a range of 265 miles. Toyota, Hyundai and Honda claim that their coming fuel cell cars will have a range of up to 450 miles.
Hydrogen-powered cars are considered to be cleaner than electric vehicles, Perch says, because of the way hydrogen is generated. Electricity is mostly generated in coal-powered plants, producing the carbon pollutants that EV supporters want to get rid of. Hydrogen can be extracted from natural gas or electrolysis, he says.
One argument against electric and hydrogen cars is that there aren’t enough refueling stations for them. While more EV charging stations are being built where the cars are the most popular, such as California, more hydrogen stations are planned for California and the investment is coming along, UC Davis researchers found.
California recently awarded $46 million to build 28 hydrogen fuel stations, and the state committed $20 million annually to build stations over the next seven years.
The researchers calculated that a targeted regional investment of $100 million to $200 million in support of 100 stations for about 50,000 fuel cell vehicles would make hydrogen cost-competitive with gas on a per-mile basis.
Electric cars have one major advantage over hydrogen fuel cell vehicles that’s indispensable for success: an ability to refuel everywhere, says Mike Rabkin, president of From Car to Finish, which helps new car buyers negotiate prices.
“To refuel an electric vehicle, you need an outlet,” Rabkin says. “Any 120 volt outlet in your house will do, although an optional 240 volt outlet will do it faster. Either way, that means any outlet in the U.S. could in theory charge your electric vehicle.”
Hydrogen technology has its uses, but comparing it with electric power for a car is a bit of a fools errand, says Ryan Geddes, owner of Quadrant Media and a company that owns five sites that generate solar energy on 20-year contracts for the government of Ontario in Canada.
Hydrogen has to be converted through electrolysis to be useful as a fuel, and energy must be spent to carry out that operation, Geddes says. With electric power from the grid, you’re simply taking fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas and converting them into hydrogen fuel at a loss, he says.
Natural gas is three to eight times more expensive to convert hydrogen, “making it a completely inefficient process,” Geddes says. “When compared to electric cars this inefficiency becomes glaringly obvious — like driving a Hummer over a Honda Civic.”
Electric hybrid or plug-ins take the electric generation in the vehicle and “create a very efficient use of the car’s kinetic energy as well as ‘grid fed’ electricity,” he says.
The average cost in kilowatt hours to drive 100 miles in the Nissan Leaf is 34 kwh, Geddes says. With most people in Canada and the U.S. paying 10 to 12 cents per kwh, 100 miles costs about $4 in electricity. A gasoline powered Honda Civic that gets 40 mpg combined costs about $10 to drive 100 miles.
“Electric cars are the clear winners in terms of cost per mile,” he says. “Hydrogen will never happen unless they figure out some way to bypass the conversion process.”
“Electric cars are here,” Geddes says, “and they are the future. “Hydrogen technology may have its uses — but it is a red herring in the race to reduce our carbon footprint and reliance on oil.”
Aaron Crowe is a freelance journalist who covers the auto industry for CheapCarInsurance.net.