Tony Seba, a Stanford University lecturer and renewable energy entrepreneur, is working hard as an advocate for clean and renewable solar power and battery electric vehicles. This is a cause we need many people working hard towards. However, as is usually the case, problems arise not with what someone wants, but how they go about it. In one of his recent popular posts and presentations “Toyota versus Tesla: Can Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles Compete with Electric Vehicles?” Tony presents six reasons that hydrogen cannot compete with electric vehicles. We’re going to address these one by one:
1.Hydrogen is not an energy source
Entirely true. Neither is electricity. Many industry insiders talk about electricity as if it were an energy source.
In the very first hydrogen lecture I sat in, the professors explained how hydrogen is an energy currency — a basic portable energy exchange medium like electricity. Hydrogen and electricity are both foundational energy currencies and useful measures in different ways. Many remember from high-school chemistry classes the letters “pH” that appeared everywhere and helped determine whether a chemical reaction would take place. Those letters stand for pondus hydrogenii — that’s Latin for the potential of hydrogen. Comprising 74% of the known mass of the universe, hydrogen is a critical chemical commodity to our nation’s economy, needed for many energy markets, including agricultural fertilizers and, yes, production of silicon solar cells. Humanity’s future necessitates mastery of both hydrogen and electricity.
2. Electric vehicles are at least three times more energy efficient than hydrogen fuel cell vehicles
This statement is based on an analysis, by a “fuel cell researcher” found here. From my experience the numbers presented in the analysis are close to accurate. Electricity is more efficient than hydrogen and it doesn’t matter. A hydrogen charge transfers 30-40 times more power than EV superchargers. No coincidence, the hydrogen is worth 30-40 times more as an energy currency than electricity (depending on location, especially here in the Pacific Northwest). That increased value of the energy currency is critical to allow islanded renewables (like wind, hydroelectric, solar, and biomass) to increase the value of the energy as much as possible before sale. Generating hydrogen in addition to electricity (a.k.a. power to gas) allows for the load-leveling required to put the electricity on the regulated electric grid. The battloyser is one exciting route to do this. In many ways, our electrical grid is bankrupting and disadvantaging rural populaces that stand to benefit from hydrogen production.
So now you’re thinking, if the hydrogen is worth 30-40 times more, doesn’t that just mean it’s more expensive? Precisely. A 300 mile charge could cost from $50-$100 on hydrogen with electricity being much less. That hydrogen is hauling over 4000 lbs of car and people 300 miles. Try finding any animal that could accomplish that same task on that budget. Even 15-30 cents per mile is too cheap if anything.
3. You need to build a multi-trillion dollar hydrogen refueling infrastructure.
We also need the same for electrics. Every transformer in the country will blow if more than three EVs are rapidly charged at the same time on a block. In 2015 at the DOE annual merit review the keynote speaker, who runs the leading sustainable transportation research center in a university, said the costs of hydrogen and electricity vehicle infrastructures will be equal.
It’s important to note that this is a rough estimate based on capital cost. Yes, hydrogen refueling stations are still coming in at $2-4 million each and using technology that can’t scale. But it’s not a physical limitation driving this expense, it’s an engineering one. In our winning 2014 Hydrogen Student Design Competition submission we showed a scalable concept that came in around $500k, based on real quotes. Considering we could charge 50 cars with 300 mile ranges in a day, we’re as good or better than superchargers and not at full utilization. Moreover, each vehicle is only connected to the hydrogen recharging infrastructure 3-4 minutes, not 30-40 times longer as in EVs. This means that the recharging area is at least 10x less with hydrogen than EVs for an equivalent number of vehicles. Since most of these clean vehicles will emerge in cloistered inner-city areas and ports where pollution is the highest, hydrogen has a clear advantage in the infrastructure side when it comes to space.
The recharging rate issue of EV’s is a tough and serious problem. A hydrogen fill is a 3-4 Megawatt energy transfer rate compared to 120 Kilowatt from EV Superchargers. Hydrogen is 30-40 times better. It’s like comparing broadband to dial-up and the key enabler for an economy of energy sharing (think about the difference broadband made for social media). The transfer rate limitations of Electric Vehicles are not going to change anytime soon. You’re already using a 480 Volt, 250 Amp plug to get that 120 kW. To improve this, superconducting lines are needed and still decades away in development. I hope they come.
The optimal solution to the infrastructure problem is actually a hybrid hydrogen fuel-cell electric vehicle. These vehicles have a ~40 mile range that can be recharged from a typical home-plug overnight combined with a ~300 mile hydrogen fuel-cell ‘range-extender’. Over 80% of us drive less than 40 miles per day, but nearly all of us want the freedom to get out and run when we want to. This car is the best of both worlds. We don’t need to tow around 200-300 mile heavy and mineral intensive battery packs, and we don’t need a hugely expensive supercharger infrastructure when what we already have suffices. We don’t need as many hydrogen refueling stations as traditional gasoline stations because ~80% of our vehicle power needs are fulfilled by electricity. We need minimal electric infrastructure AND hydrogen infrastructure. Not fully either or.
Ironically, solar and wind farms suffer from the same dichotomous mind-set as the vehicles. You need minimal battery storage to handle the daily supply fluctuations. Fine for 80% of the time. Nobody wants excess battery expense. But what about the weather events? Add on a low-cost power-to-gas system and hydrogen liquefier. Who cares if it’s less efficient? The value of the product is 30-40 times more, it’s not 30-40 times less efficient, and you would’ve curtailed the energy anyways.
Another way to consider this problem, what would happen if we didn’t build the hydrogen infrastructure and just the electric? We would continue to disadvantage rural communities with stranded infrequent and often renewable energy. These communities stand to benefit substantially from generating whatever energy currency is higher value at the time, which is likely hydrogen. It’s analogous to the fictional oligarchy in the book and movie Hunger Games. Disconnecting the energy from the electric grid via hydrogen allows the rural communities to take better advantage of free market economic principles.
4. Hydrogen is not clean
Although hydrogen and electricity each have niche advantages, they are often complimentary energy currencies. Hydrogen’s advantages are primarily for use in chemical feedstocks and storage. Unlike electricity, hydrogen does not need a host molecule for storage and transport. In other words, we don’t need large mining operations to gather the lithium and copper needed by battery-electric systems. While most of the world’s lithium is currently coming from Australia and Chile, unstable countries like Bolivia and Afghanistan also have major deposits. We need extensive research and manufacturing infrastructure development to ensure that battery electric vehicles do not become reliant on exports from unstable world regions like oil. While many will immediately point to fuel-cells requiring platinum, the amount of platinum reduced 6x over the last decade, and is about what’s on two typical wedding rings. Non-precious metal catalysts, such as cobalt-copper or magnesium di-boride, systems are on the way.
Just like electricity, hydrogen is often generated from fossil fuels. Six of the eight hydrogen liquifiers in North America are not paired with renewables and generate significant CO2 emissions. This is because they were built in the 1950’s and 60’s with defense funds for the cold-war space-race. Of course our current national hydrogen production isn’t clean! Would you believe that reading ability is directly correlated to shoe size? Of course it is! We learn to read as we get older! We’ll also learn how to be more energy efficient and sustainable.
Just like electricity, hydrogen can and is made clean. Power-to-gas technologies utilize curtailed or surplus electricity to electrolyze hydrogen from water. Gasification of agricultural field residue creates an activated charcoal field supplement while releasing significant quantities of hydrogen. Either are carbon neutral or carbon negative, and yes ‘renewable’.
5. Hydrogen is not ‘Renewable’!
See #4 above. One further point — FuelCell Energy’s MegaWatt scale fuel cell systems can actually be used to sequester CO2 from the atmosphere or exhaust emissions. Gasification of agriculture biomass is a synergistic process that not only produces renewable hydrogen, but helps make our farming processes less energy (petroleum) intensive.
6. Hydrogen fuel vehicles can’t compete with electric vehicles
The entire problem is that folks view this ‘race’ as a competition in the first place. That creates an unnecessary race to the bottom. We need all of our clean energy solutions to be substantially successful — and fast. What I’ve shown here is that in many, if not every way, hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle technologies are synergistic with battery electric vehicles. Our goal should be the best of both worlds.
The only thing that arguments against hydrogen technologies, like Tony Seba’s here and Elon Musk’s, do is to ensure humanity a one way trip to Mars.
Good luck pulling that off without hydrogen.