This only skims the surface believe it or not.
Is there any wonder why the public is just going with it, whether it be good or not so much?
Or, maybe FCVs really are a good idea …?
With a third major manufacturer due to begin offering subsidized fuel cell vehicles in California this year, the public’s imagination has been alternately captivated by FCV’s potential or in cases incensed over the alleged effrontery.
To say it’s been a controversial topic for some would be an understatement. But beyond Honda, Hyundai and soon Toyota, at least five more automakers are working toward a nationwide hydrogen future with the blessings of policymakers and regulators.
Further, many observers are on board with the message of these different kinds of electric vehicles that refuel in five minutes or less, go hundreds of miles on a tank, and emit nothing but water vapor.
Pushing against the tide, critics meanwhile allege conspiracy to keep “big oil” and other entrenched interests in business, questionable cost-benefit analyses, questionable well-to-wheel analyses and more.
Given that FCVs involve myriad interlaced scientific variables projected into an unknown future, many on the sidelines may also find their minds going numb if they try to wade into all the details and what-if questions.
So, perhaps not unlike other endeavors which have proponents and detractors at odds over claims of wholesomeness – or not so much – onward we go toward a “Hydrogen Society” as plug-in battery powered vehicles also race to get better.
Summed up, FCV selling points center on increasing infrastructure, economies of scale, cutting costs, and developing ways to capitalize upon the universe’s most widely available element.
“Mercedes-Benz is working hard to harness the power of the most abundant element in the known universe.” says the German automaker in just one example of glowing marketing speak. “In other words, zero-emission hydrogen power. 0.0 emissions that means it is invisible to the environment.”
Sounds great, right? But could FCVs be a Trojan Horse? That is, could their natural-gas derived, publicly funded hydrogen agenda be something embraced by many who focus on the benefits while undesirable ramifications remain undetected or overlooked?
To comprehensively tackle all issues would be more than one article could adequately cover. What’s more, unity on the subject even among those with a solid grasp of the science and myriad variables besides has thus far not been achieved.
So, just to provoke discussion and further inquiry, following are some points to ponder by various critics.
In the U.S., a few publicly funded initiatives are underway to construct refueling stations in California and various states around the country whose legislators agree to zero emission mandates driving the fuel cell agenda.
With little more than a dozen stations in California, the infrastructure today is next to nothing, and what’s pending is being built at high costs which of course vary depending on size of the facility.
In a June 2014 piece in the Motley Fool, investment writer Adam Gates cites infrastructural costs as one reason why “automotive fuel cells have no future.”
Other estimates are out there, but given hydrogen cars are wedded to the refueling station like a gas or diesel car would be, the build out, say critics, will be a costly one next to an already existing electrical grid for plug-in battery powered vehicles.
Questions Surrounding Hydrogen
Reliance on hydrogen gas puts FCVs on similar footing with internal combustion vehicles but with extra complications.
“Fuel cells solve NONE of the current problems of our fossil based system and introduce additional issues,” says Vermont-based Daniel Hoviss, Putney Town Energy coordinator and contributing author for Green Energy Times in a brief on why “fuel cells are a bad idea.”
Hydrogen, he observes, must somehow be extracted and offers questionable value. Despite it being abundant, the light, small hydrogen molecule does not readily clump together in nature like, say, oil. It takes lots of energy to get this means of making energy.
Further, the energy itself could be used for electric cars, and the natural gas often used is itself a potential fuel.
Beyond the questionable energy intensive nature of acquiring large volumes of hydrogen, he says, are costly and energy intensive steps in handling and transporting the gas.
“Fuel for the fuel cells needs to be transported usually by tanker or truck – this uses fossil fuel,” says Hoviss. “It is inefficient when compared to the existing electric grid. Electric distribution will only get better as smart grid and low loss super conductors are installed on the grid.”
Further storage is a major issue even before it’s pumped with special air-tight pumps into cars at 10,000 psi, says Hoviss.
“Hydrogen fuel distribution systems need to remain under pressure, and never leak. Remember hydrogen is explosive. They will need to pump the hydrogen into large underground insulated tanks or above ground insulated storage containers. Those cost big bucks,” he says. “And then hydrogen is pumped again (never leaking) into personal automobiles and trucks, this pumping needs to be under high pressure, to store enough fuel on board to allow reasonable travel distance.”
Beyond this, the ultra-high pressure hydrogen must be kept super cold at around -160 degrees and Hoviss contends this takes a lot of energy to maintain these temperatures.
“At every step in the manufacture and distribution and storage and consumption of fuel for fuel cell transportation, there are energy losses, brought about by the conversion or transportation of this fuel,” observes Hoviss. “When you look at the electric grid as a potential fuel source, powered in part by renewable energy – and the inherent efficiencies of battery electric vehicles, it is a completely different game.”
Hydrogen’s Environmental Benefits?
While renewably sourced hydrogen reduces the concern, the prevalent way to get the gas is by steam methane reformation which releases CO2 upstream in the energy cycle.
Today an estimated 95 percent of hydrogen is reformed from natural gas, with which America is now “awash” due to hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling – but, say proponents, this is only temporary.
Critics on the other hand question the notion that natural gas is a short term “bridge” toward economically viable renewable hydrogen production and meanwhile promotion for the green factor for fuel cell vehicles goes forth.
“The well-to-wheels reports show that hydrogen made from natural gas and used in a fuel cell vehicle reduces greenhouse gases (GHGs) by 55-65 percent compared to gasoline used in a conventional vehicle, and by about 40 percent compared to gasoline in a hybrid engine,” says the California Fuel Cell Partnership.
Automakers including Honda, Toyota, Hyundai, Mercedes all offer positive analyses in support of their products, but Ford, observes writer Julian Cox, does disclose FCVs at present offer no benefit over a typical gasoline car.
“[W]hen FCVs are run on hydrogen reformed from natural gas using this process, they do not provide significant environmental benefits on a well-to-wheels basis (due to GHG emissions from the natural gas reformation process),” says Ford in a footnote.
A July 2012 NREL report furthermore disproves the claim above by California Fuel Cell Partnership, finding a Hyundai Tucson using natural-gas sourced hydrogen results in dramatically more emissions than a Toyota Prius Liftback.
“In fact the worst environmental performance of any low performance vehicle under 200 horsepower discussed [by NREL's report] was and is the average official Fuel Cell Vehicle NREL test subject at 356g CO2e/mile,” observes Cox. “This is a fact that cannot have escaped either Mercedes (Daimler) and Hyundai-Kia who were both NREL test subjects alongside Ford and GM, BP, Shell and Chevron.”
The economically inescapable reason why hydrogen is of no benefit in tackling GHG emissions is that hydrogen produced by the most efficient commercial route emits a minimum of 14.34Kg CO2e versus 11.13Kg CO2e for a U.S. gallon of gasoline (of which 13.2Kg is actual CO2 gas in the case of Hydrogen). This best case is not even the typical case owing to difficulties in transporting hydrogen in bulk. Hence the on-site (distributed) production from natural gas at fueling stations that suffers lowered efficiencies of scale.
Proponents are quick to observe renewably sourced hydrogen changes the equation but Cox contends natural gas is expedient and less expensive among sources.
“Natural gas is a cheap and abundant resource that comes out of the ground with energy potential for self-disassembly into hydrogen and CO2,” says Cox. “Steam methane reforming is economically unassailable as a method of hydrogen production by clean but more complex methods.”
In short, Cox expresses disbelief that renewables will replace natural gas as promised.
“The least cost pathway per mile for FCVs is so pronounced in favor of natural gas versus electricity from any source as to guarantee steam reforming trumps electrolysis, without CO2 sequestering and with no reason for the natural gas industry to fear cost per mile competition from renewables,” says Cox. “Accordingly should FCVs be adopted, natural gas will prevail economically long into the future, and long after the date by which EVs could be operated economically on 100-percent clean renewables on a large scale to the exclusion of fossil fuels.”
Of course FCV proponents could not agree less with this conclusion of no incentive to switch away from natural gas, and California does already mandate 33 percent renewably sourced hydrogen must be in its mix.
In return, Cox alleges automakers and policymakers willfully obfuscate and cherry pick data from outdated reports to green wash positive scenarios to support their own motives.
Plug-In Electric Cars Are Getting Better
By 2017 these makers and possibly more promise EVs in the mid $30,000 price category before incentives with 200 miles or more range. A 300-mile Toyota Mirai FCV is expected to sell for $57,500 before available incentives.
It’s believed this FCV is heavily underwritten by its maker and not profitable at this price, and deep-pocketed Toyota is floating the enterprise following markets where subsidies can help offset its sacrificial expense.
The gas gallon equivalent price for hydrogen may wind up being about equal to a tank of gas, on the other hand, whereas the electricity for an EV could be a fraction of that, and more conveniently accessed.
Further, plug-in cars have a head start, with sales accelerating and the first million plug-in hybrids and all-electric cars are expected to have been sold globally before the end of this year.
And, say advocates, plug-in electrified vehicles are therefore developing fans.
“I think the enthusiasm for PEVs that we see among owners, expressed via JD Powers and Consumer Reports, is that they are more fun to drive, more convenient to fuel, and less expensive to operate,” says Tom Saxton, chief science offcicer for Plug In America. “I don’t think FCV have any of those going for them. From the perspective of direct consumer benefits, they are just a more expensive gas car with less environmental benefits than a PEV.”
Complementary or Competitive?
Proponents say FCVs can happily develop alongside plug-in vehicles, the “all of the above” approach has room for this, and they express dismay over those who look at it as an “either/or” proposition between FCVs and plug-ins.
From a dispassionate perspective, comparisons to Betamax and VHS have been drawn, and phrases such as “may the best technology win” have been uttered.
That’s all well and good, say plug-in advocates, but if evidence supports PEVs and not as much for FCVs, why split the effort? It’s been observed plug-in cars and fuel cell vehicles both compete for finite public funding. Further, FCVs are coming at a still-early time for plug-ins, and no sooner have PEVs gotten out of the starting gate, than this alternate technology threatens to challenge momentum.
Both nascent technologies offer electric, zero-emission driving but dividing the attention on the flip side does potentially dilute the effort for either one, it’s been said. So while FCV proponents say it need not be a zero-sum game, by default, they do in ways compete for similar mind share and dollars.
“Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles are without equal when it comes to misdirection and as a tool for extracting public funds from officials only too ready to be blind-sided by pseudo-science and the lobbying of vested interests in a nation struggling to triage the cost of foreign oil and consumer environmental concerns while newly awash with abundant cheap natural gas from hydraulic fracturing of shales,” says Cox without mincing words.
If it’s true plug-ins do have a better chance of achieving the same goal, and offer technologically superior potential, goes the argument, why waste time and money on FCVs especially when PEVs still need all the help they can get, say supporters?
One clear answer is this contention is not believed by FCV proponents with their own counterpoints. The state of California which arguably does more than the federal government for pushing zero emissions vehicles offers double the ZEV credits for FCVs next to PEVs.
Beyond this, around the world the case for FCVs is being made, but it still irks people like Tesla CEO Elon Musk.
“Fuel cell is so bull#$%^, it’s a load of rubbish. The only reason they do fuel cell is because … they don’t really believe it, it’s something that they can … it is like a marketing thing,” said Musk, “but the reality is that if you took a fuel cell vehicle and you take the best case for a fuel cell vehicle in terms of the mass and volume required to go a particular range as well as the cost of the fuel cell system, and then you know, if you took the best case of that, it does not even equal the current state of the art of lithium ion batteries and so there is no way for it to become a workable technology.”
Of course Musk does stand to profit from EVs, others have observed. And then again, automakers stand to profit from FCVs too. And while we’re at it, Betamax might have been a better technology in some peoples’ eyes than VHS, so did the best technology win, or is life not that simple?