Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars — #FAIL, In Depth
“Hydrogen: It’s the fuel of the future — and it always will be.” That’s the longstanding joke about hydrogen fuel cell cars, and it’s probably the best way to sum up the story.
But this isn’t a short summary. This is the article I intend to reference every time I feel I need to respond to an article or comment about hydrogen fuel cell cars. It is still going to be a summary (of my favorite hydrogen fuel cell car articles, information, and quotes), but it will be a much more thorough summary than that.
Hydrogen Fuel Cell Car Costs Relative To Performance
No doubt about it: people expect a certain level of performance, comfort, and convenience when they buy a car, with the overall quality of those based to a large degree on how much they pay. There are common phrases people use that argue that everything comes down to money. Of course, for most of us, everything doesn’t come down to money, but many decisions are made according to what you get for a certain amount of money (and how that compares to other things you could get for the same amount of money). And this is fundamentally why hydrogen fuel cell cars are always the cars “of the future” — they simply can’t compete with other cars, cost-wise, and they very likely never will.
Yes, there is always room for scientific breakthroughs, but the bottom line is as Elon Musk has put it: current lithium-ion batteries offer better results than the theoretical best hydrogen fuel cells. More specifically, “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… 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.”
I guess this is a good time to note that cars utilizing lithium-ion batteries and cars utilizing hydrogen fuel cells are electric vehicles. They are simply equipped with different energy storage mechanisms and drivetrains.
Looking at the red horsepower bars in this chart (also below), you can see that Toyota’s coming Mirai fuel cell car has even less horsepower than conventional hybrids despite costing much, much more (and note that Toyota is massively subsidizing the price of the Mirai in order to keep the price “low”). The Tesla Model S, on the other hand, has jaw-dropping performance for a similar price.
In other words, the performance you get per $1,000 of car is much worse with a hydrogen fuel cell car than either a gasoline car or a battery-electric car.
As Dr Joe Romm summarizes, “It is very safe to say that FCVs are the most difficult and expensive kind of alternative fuel vehicle imaginable. While R&D into FCVs remains worthwhile, massive investment for near-term deployment makes no sense until multiple R&D breakthroughs have occurred. They are literally the last alternative fuel vehicle you would make such investments in — and only after all the others failed.”
But What About The Environment? And Efficiency?
If your concern is efficiency or protecting the environment, things don’t get any better.
While hydrogen is abundant, it still has to be obtained from somewhere, produced. Theoretically, it could be obtained by splitting water via electricity generated from solar or wind power. However, commercially, that’s not how we get it. Financially, it makes much more sense to get hydrogen via natural gas reformation. In other words: “let’s stick with fossil fuels.”
The overall effect is that hydrogen fuel cell cars aren’t even as efficient or environmentally friendly as conventional hybrids like the Toyota Prius. Again, see how they compare in this chart (also below). Also note that battery-electric vehicles, even plug-in hybrids, are much “greener” even on today’s grid, and the electricity grid is getting greener and greener every day. “The hydrogen car is more like one third as efficient as the EV,” Dr Joe Romm (who used to oversee and promote hydrogen funding in the US Department of Energy) writes. “Put in more basic terms, the plug-in or EV ‘should be able to travel three to four times farther on a kilowatt-hour of renewable electricity than a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle could’!”
If you care about efficiency, clean air & water, or a livable climate, that chart shows pretty clearly what type of car you should buy or lease. And that’s the key reason why I’m a huge fan of battery-electric cars and started this website.
But if you want another source, here’s a chart from the Advanced Power and Energy Program at UC Irvine:
And note Dr Joe Romm’s addendum: “The two best cases for FCEVs in the chart — a hydrogen pipeline system from central station renewable generation and onsite renewable generation and electrolysis — are wildly implausible for many decades to come, if ever.” Case closed.
Convenience? Who Needs Convenience?
Now, we’ve already seen that the performance and environmental friendliness of hydrogen fuel cell cars don’t even match current conventional hybrids, but if you want to pretend that they are better because they are “zero-emissions vehicles,” then let’s have a look at one more factor influencing consumer choice and satisfaction. The biggest trump card hydrogen fuel cell cars (and gasmobiles) theoretically have over battery-electric cars is that you can fill up their tanks and then drive for hundreds of miles, and that you can fill up their tanks in a matter of minutes.
Theoretically, this makes hydrogen and gasoline cars “more convenient.” Ironically, I think convenience is the #1 or #2 biggest selling point for battery-electric cars, the #1 or #2 benefit that will spur the EV revolution on. (The other benefit is this one.) With a battery-electric car, you generally plug in when you get home and then go inside, spending all of a few seconds “refueling.” When you leave in the morning, you leave on a “full tank” (full battery). With hydrogen fuel cell cars and gasmobiles, when you run out of fuel, you need to go and find a refueling stations, and then wait there as your car refuels (generally while sucking in some harmful fumes). It’s one of the things electric car owners dread when they have to drive a gasmobile from time to time.
And note that there are almost no hydrogen fueling stations out there (12 in the US, according to the US Department of Energy), while there are already tens of thousands of battery-EV charging stations… plus all of those home and work electricity outlets and EV chargers.
So What Do Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars Have Going For Them?
Honestly, very little. I think the biggest thing they have going for them is that the technology sounds cool. It sounds cool to say that oxygen is going to mix with hydrogen to propel your car forward, and out will just come water vapor.
Of course, if you are an auto company that would like to delay any significant changes to the dominant technology, or if you are a natural gas company that doesn’t want to see fossil fuels staying in the ground where they are most beneficial to humanity, than hype of a future about hydrogen fuel cell cars is very valuable. It has been going on for decades, and it can go on for several more decades, all while we suffer the effects of burning oil and natural gas. The media and much of the public have picked up on the messaging and is running with the idea as if it is the coolest thing since sliced bread… and they have been for decades.
Luckily, we do now have a cost-competitive alternative that is much cleaner, offers superior performance, and offers much greater convenience — 100% electric cars. And even stepping-stone plug-in hybrids generally offer those benefits over conventional gasmobiles (and hydrogen fuel cell cars). So hopefully this is the last article I ever feel compelled to write about hydrogen fuel cell cars. 😀
I’ll just end with some great Elon Musk lines (first accumulated here):
- Hydrogen fuel cell cars “are extremely silly.”
- “Hydrogen is an incredibly dumb” fuel.
- “Fuel cell is so bullshit, 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.”
- “There’s no need for us to have this debate. I’ve said my peace on this, it will be super obvious as time goes by.”
Other recommended reading: