The Present And Future Of Hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles (Part 3)

solar photovoltaic panels and wind turbines
Hydrogen can be produced from a variety of renewable sources, including wind, solar, and biomass.
(cc) Mike Steinhoff

Inefficiencies in the Hydrogen Fuel Cell Production Chain

Critics of hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles often cite the inefficiencies of the hydrogen production chain. The argument goes like this:

  • Producing hydrogen costs energy
  • Compressing the hydrogen for storage costs energy
  • Transporting the hydrogen to fueling stations costs energy
  • Converting hydrogen to electricity in a fuel cell costs energy
  • Converting electricity to kinetic energy in a motor costs energy

All of this is true. But should these inefficiencies be considered a show-stopper for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles? Not at all! Every energy system has some inefficiencies; no system is 100% efficient. Consider the inefficiencies inherent in the systems leading to conventional gas-powered cars:

  • Locating dwindling oil reserves costs energy
  • Pumping oil out of the ground or extracting it from tar sands costs energy
  • Refining that oil into gasoline costs energy
  • Transporting the gasoline to service stations costs energy
  • Converting gasoline into kinetic energy in an internal combustion engine costs energy

Yet, we accept those costs, despite the additional costs of damage to the environment and pollution-related health issues, as well as the political instability that results as governments fight over oil-producing regions.

At least hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles have the advantage of being emission-free. And hydrogen, unlike fossil-fuel crude oil, can be made from renewable sources, such as excess solar and wind power.

Solution: More research and development. If the advantages of hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles do not yet outweigh the disadvantages, rather than simply dismiss the technology as being impractical, we need to work harder to improve it.

The High Cost of Fuel Cells

Markowitz notes a related obstacle to be overcome before we see the wider adoption of fuel cell vehicles. “I think that the largest initial hurdle will be cost. As with any transformational technology, getting costs down to the point where they’re competitive with the incumbent technology is the biggest hurdle that any industry faces.” But he is optimistic. “We are well on the road to doing that right now. Companies have developed technologies and engineering solutions that have reduced the cost of platinum and other high cost metals, and more importantly have made the fuel cell stack itself much more efficient, lowering the cost of the stack. That is being done through reduction in size and through greater efficiencies within the mechanism of the fuel cell itself. A good example is what Toyota has done with it’s new fuel cell car, where it’s dropped the cost of the fuel cell stack by 95%.”

Hyundai’s Tucson, mentioned earlier, leases for $499 a month. That may seem steep, but the price includes all fuel and maintenance. We can expect that prices will come down, just as they have for battery electric cars which, a few years ago, were typically twice the price of a comparable gasoline-powered vehicle, but which are now almost on par. Rebates and incentives, designed to help governments meet their carbon reduction targets, will no doubt accelerate development and adoption of FCEVs.

Solution: Still more research and development, combined with wider commercialization. As fuel cell and hydrogen technology improves, and as manufacturers ramp up production in response to competition, the cost will come down.

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles: Soon

Will you be driving home today in a car powered by hydrogen? Probably not, unless you happen to have snagged one of the few vehicles manufacturers are leasing as part of their pilot tests. Of course, the same was true of battery electric cars a few years ago. Today, it’s likely your local dealer either has electric cars in stock or can order one for you. In the not too distant future, the same will be true of hydrogen-powered fuel cell electric vehicles.

Yes, there are obstacles, but they are by no means insurmountable. They are, in general, the same obstacles that face any emerging technology. And the solutions are the same: R&D, consumer education, marketing, and, if you’re fortunate, government support in the form of tax breaks and other incentives for both manufacturers and consumers.

So when will hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles become the norm? As Bogart said in Casablanca, “Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon …” One thing is certain, hydrogen fuel cells and cars will make a beautiful friendship.

Part 1   |   Part 2

Jules Smith is the principal of LightningStrike Studios, a professional communications firm specializing in renewable energy and information technology.