We examine what hydrogen fuel-cells are, what they are good at, not so good at, and why electric vehicles remain the more popular gas alternative.
When the automobile was new, back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, folks had a lot of conflicting ideas about what was going to be the best source of power. Some liked gasoline for its energy density. Some liked steam for its low fuel costs and mechanical simplicity. Still others felt electric cars, as quiet and clean as they were, would be the best path forward. Gas won out, at least for the better part of the last century.
But today, as climate change continues to barrel on, alternative sources of power have gotten a second look, with electric vehicles being the darling of the “green revolution.” You may, however, have heard of another alternative to petroleum, the hydrogen fuel-cell. Indeed, Toyota, Hyundai, and Honda each have hydrogen-powered cars in their lineups.
So, what is hydrogen power for vehicles? And is it a realistic alternative to either gas or electric vehicles?
A hydrogen-powered car uses a hydrogen fuel-cell to split hydrogen atoms into negatively and positively charged hydrogen ions. This process of splitting hydrogen in the fuel-cell produces electricity which is then sent to the vehicle’s electric motors. In essence, your hydrogen fuel-cell car is also, at least in part, an electric car, but instead of carrying its electricity with it in the form of charged batteries it carries compressed hydrogen it then converts to electricity.
As an alternative to gasoline, hydrogen power’s main advantage is emissions. The only byproduct of the hydrogen fuel-cell process is water… yep, just water. Hydrogen power also has advantages over EV as well. An electric vehicle’s battery becomes less efficient in cold weather, significantly reducing range. Hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles do not have this problem. Range, even in optimal conditions, remains a limitation for EVs as their ranges on a single charge typically fall between 250-300 miles. Hydrogen-powered passenger vehicles usually offer between 300 and 400 miles of range.
EV detractors have long pointed out that the source of electricity can make a dramatic difference to how “clean” an electric car actually is. If your local portion of the grid is powered by a coal-fired power plant, the net carbon footprint of your supposedly green EV goes up significantly (so much so that in some areas of the country, Wyoming for instance, hybrids and PHEVs [plug-in hybrids] have a lower carbon footprint per mile than pure EVs). The same is true for hydrogen powered fuel-cells where the initial source of electricity used to produce that hydrogen determines its carbon impact. The moral of the story here is, upgrading our electrical grid with an emphasis on renewables is a high priority if the goal is reducing emissions.
Another area where hydrogen has until recently made the most sense is in cost efficiency. The national average of a gallon of gasoline is $4.73. An average fuel economy of 26.4 miles per gallon means the cost per mile for the average gas-powered vehicle in the US is 18 cents per mile. The cost of a kilogram of hydrogen is $21.28 or roughly 30 cents per mile, that price is up 33 percent from just this past summer when prices were just $15.97 per kilogram (and you thought gas prices were volatile). Meanwhile, electric vehicles have a lower operating cost than either hydrogen or gas by a good margin. Even in California, where electricity costs up to 27 cents per kilowatt hour, the average EV will cost you around 7-8 cents per mile to drive (the national average cost of electricity is substantially lower than in California, at 16 cents per kilowatt hour).
Hydrogen power has seen significant infrastructure investments… in California. Currently, California is the only state where the Toyota Mirai, the carmaker’s hydrogen fuel-cell car, is sold and really the only state where you could reasonably own one. With a scant 55 hydrogen fuel stations in the state, the logistics of owning a hydrogen powered car in California are challenging but at least feasible. California plans to continue expanding the number of hydrogen fuel stations in the state, but the rest of the country is a different story where vast majority of such infrastructure dollars are going toward electric vehicle charging networks with hydrogen not even an afterthought.
By now it should be clear hydrogen power does not stand a chance of supplanting electricity when it comes to alternative energy sources for our passenger car fleet. But that does not mean hydrogen power will not have its place in an alternative energy portfolio. Cold weather applications, mass transit, and long-haul fleet transport are all use-cases where hydrogen fuel-cells make more sense than electric or gas power.
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