Several car manufacturers made useable fuel-cell vehicle (FCEV) prototypes as long ago as the late 1990s. I remember driving some of them. Their engineers said we might see FCEVs in common use 10-15 years from that time. Well, here we are 20 years on and do we have widespread use of FCEVs? No, it still looks like being a decade into the future.
In the meantime the battery electric vehicle (BEV), the main alternative for zero-emission driving, has followed a very different history. Only a decade ago, few people really believed BEVs had a future for anything other than short-distance city driving. For mainstream use they would never have enough range, and they would be too slow to recharge. Those assumptions turned out to be wrong. BEVs are becoming commonplace.
Will we see a future where both types have their place?
The future of zero-emission vehicles is often talked of as a race between those two forms of electric vehicle, the BEVs where the power comes from a storage battery, and the FCEVs that generate it in fuel cells. Right now it’s the BEVs that are getting the headlines, and Hyundai Motor Group(HMG) has a strong range. Yet HMG isn’t giving up its long-standing leadership in the rival technology of FCEVs. The company clearly doesn’t believe the race is over.
Or is it a race at all? Will we see a future where both types have their place? HMG is clearly committed to both. The electric cars it sells today show world-beating efficiency and value and it will launch more of them in all main market sectors by 2021. On the other hand it is also planning another FCEV, as well as the amazing Nexo.
The development path of FCEVs over the past couple of decades has actually been quite predictable. The basic principles have been practical for a long time. Development has been mostly about reducing the cost, both of the stack and the storage tanks. HMG has stated that a 500km-range FCEV with two storage tanks (the Nexo actually has three tanks) would now have cost parity with a 500km BEV. That represents spectacular progress.
The issue is that – as with almost any technology – cost per vehicle can drop only when production numbers rise. This cost-parity milestone depends on making 100,000 of the FCEV per year.
Unfortunately there is no demand for 100,000 of any FCEV per year. That’s because nowhere in the world can you find a sufficient hydrogen fuelling infrastructure for consumers to bet on such a car.
For a truck, the potential advantages of FCEV over BEV are clear. The stack and tanks together weigh much less than a battery, so the payload is correspondingly greater.
But it’s different in the world of commercial vehicles and buses. Hyundai has signed an agreement with H2 Energy of Switzerland to supply 1000 of a new FCEV truck, to be used by a variety of Swiss operators. Trucks have planned routes, and often return to a regular depot where a hydrogen pump can be installed. It’s a similar story with buses, which is why many cities are already using FCEV buses.
For a truck, the potential advantages of FCEV over BEV are clear. The stack and tanks together weigh much less than a battery, so the payload is correspondingly greater. Hyundai’s truck has a 34 tonne gross weight, and can do 400km between refills, which take just seven minutes. Most critically, total cost of ownership can match diesel vehicles – provided the hydrogen is generated with ‘free’ renewable energy. And that’s abundant in Switzerland.
Car drivers are different because they won’t commit to buying an FCEV until they see more hydrogen stations. Fuel companies won’t build those stations until they can be sure of enough business. Which needs more cars. That sounds like deadlock. But South Korea provides a possible example of a way out: a partnership with the state. The Government has announced plans for a network of 310 hydrogen stations by 2022. With that in place, HMG expects production to rise to half a million FCEVs a year by 2030.
BEVs’ development path has surprised the world. Just a decade ago, everyone assumed we’d never have a battery that could store enough energy. And if a suitable battery were found, it would surely take too long to recharge. Then in 2012 the Tesla Model S arrived. Soon after we had high-power charging infrastructure – Tesla’s own and the CHAdeMO standard in Asia. So both those assumptions were rather suddenly proved false.
So now the Hyundai Kona EV and Kia Niro EV are able to undertake long journeys with a recharge time of less than an hour on high-power CCS chargers. They might be more expensive to buy than their combustion-engined equivalents, but that’s offset by lower running costs. They are mainstream vehicles. Chargers with even higher power are coming on stream, able to add up to 15km range for every minute plugged in, provided the car’s battery cooling can cope. Battery prices have been dropping, and we keep hearing news of different developments in chemistry that are claimed to enable faster charging, lower cost or better energy density.
Just a few years ago it seemed that only the FCEV could provide long range and short refilling times.
That’s why the ‘race’ has taken a twist. Just a few years ago it seemed that only the FCEV could provide long range and short refilling times. Now it looks likely that by the time FCEV technology and cost are ready for primetime, BEVs will have reduced those advantages almost to nothing.
But are FCEVs really being overtaken? If both of the two technologies can satisfy drivers’ needs, it’s worth looking at which of them has the potential to be greener as well as cheaper.
Inevitably a discussion begins with addressing the loudest voice in the field: Elon Musk of Tesla, who says FCEVs are a bad idea because their energy efficiency is poorer than that of pure-electric vehicles. Viewed in the simplest fashion, this is correct – by many scientists’ calculations FCEVs are roughly only one-third as efficient. You’ll get a lot further by putting the electrical energy into a pure EV than you would by using the same unit of electricity to electrolyse water into hydrogen gas, compressing it, distributing it and running an FCEV.
In the interim though, that’s not actually how hydrogen is made. Generally, it’s taken from natural gas using reforming equipment at the filling station. This produces CO2. But according to the US Union of Concerned Scientists, about the same amount of CO2 per km is emitted from driving an FCEV on this hydrogen as from driving a BEV on electricity that’s also generated from natural gas burned at a power station.
That isn’t the final word, though. This situation is changing fast. In many parts of the world, the transition to renewable grid electricity is happening rapidly. We are moving to a time when what matters is the best use of green power. Do BEVs, then, have the advantage, because they are more efficient by that measure? Well, yes… and no.
One significant advantage of hydrogen is that you can think of it as much as an energy storage medium as an energy source.
For a start, wind and solar power is weather-dependent. One significant advantage of hydrogen is that you can think of it as much as an energy storage medium as an energy source. When there’s abundant grid power, it’s possible to generate the hydrogen by electrolysis, and store it. It’s then available to drive vehicles during times when there’s not enough clean power for the BEVs.
We can’t ignore the manufacturing footprint of BEVs. A lot of energy is used in the mining of the batteries’ minerals, and then in their manufacture. This means that although BEVs are responsible for low CO2 in use, it will take some years of driving to offset that extra manufacturing overhead. No-one can give exact figures, because the manufacture of battery cells is complex and in many case not fully audited, and the CO2 output of driving depends on the carbon content of the electricity.
Manufacturing an FCEV is less carbon-intensive. Also, at the end of the vehicle’s life the stack is easier to recycle into its component metal elements than a battery is. However, this last part won’t be a significant factor if batteries aren’t recycled but instead re-used for ‘grid smoothing’: covering the peaks and troughs of renewable electricity generation.
BEVs and FCEVs share the advantage of zero local emissions of both CO2 and toxic gases and particles. But FCEVs go one further. They filter the air that’s fed into the stack, and so they have the effect of cleaning the ambient atmosphere they’re driving through. That’s a positive contribution to polluted cities.
In many ways the two systems can compliment each other. Fuel-cell propulsion might be better for commercial and fleet vehicles, BEV for private cars. Or at least, private cars where the owner can plug in at home and do most journeys without using a roadside charger. Where they can’t charge at home, they might prefer an FCEV so they can refuel just like they do in their combustion car, at a filling station.
There are some enormous potential enablers in the path to a hydrogen economy. But we simply don’t know if or when they will happen, partly because they need Governments, energy companies and technologists all to work together. Imagine if huge quantities of green electricity were generated in remote sparsely populated parts of the world, via solar or wind or wave-power. It’s actually very expensive to install power lines to get that electricity to distant areas of demand.
Turning that energy into hydrogen might actually make more sense. But it would need new hydrogen pipelines or even ships. Also, in many places fresh water is a precious and limited resource, so using it for electrolysis looks like a bad idea. The alternative is to develop technologies, still in their infancy, for electrolysing seawater.
What is abundantly clear is that for both FCEVs and BEVs, there are huge numbers of unknowns: manufacturing costs, environmental costs, resource depletion of minerals, the technologies and economics of the hydrogen infrastructure. Many of those factors change rapidly too. Not to mention simple issues of government fiscal policy – different energy sources attract vastly different regimes of tax and subsidy in different countries, and they too can be highly unpredictable.
In the face of all this uncertainty and change, it does seem unwise or even reckless to pin the planet’s hopes on just one kind of vehicle propulsion. We need the security of having both. It really shouldn’t be a race.
Words. Paul Horrell
Paul Horrell has been a motoring journalist for three decades, and sits on international juries for cars, technology and design. He frequently interviews engineers, designers and board-level executives, and he has tested almost all the world’s significant cars ever since they had cassette players.
Consultant Editor, BBC Top Gear Magazine
Contributor, CSMA Boundless
Contributor, The Road Rat
Contributor, GENROQ (Japan)
Contributor, edmunds.com (USA)
Member of the Jury, Car of the Year
Member of the Jury, International Engine of the Year
Member of the Jury, Future Mobility of the Year
◆ The opinions in this column are the author’s subjective opinions, and may not represent the editorial direction of Hyundai Motor Group Tech