The fossil-fuel-led lobby group, the Hydrogen Council, has released a report claiming that hydrogen-powered cars should take a 10% share of the global car market by 2050 — roughly 200 million vehicles — but many of the assumptions used to make the case are dubious at best, and in some cases, obviously flawed.
The central point of the report, Roadmap Towards Zero Emissions, is that fuel-cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) and battery electric vehicles (BEVs) will play a complementary role, and that this “combined world will be greener, faster and cheaper” than a pure BEV scenario.
This is despite the fact that FCEVs are two to two-and-a-half times less efficient than BEVs, so would require two to two-and-a-half times more renewable energy (if relying on green hydrogen), with the corresponding additional costs for the consumer.
The Hydrogen Council report uses the first of its 12 “facts” in an attempt to resolve this fundamental problem, claiming that “in a systemic view, BEVs and FCEVs have comparable ‘sun/wind-to-wheel’ efficiencies”.
Of course, this is nonsense, but the report makes it case by not comparing like with like. Instead, it compares two cars in Germany: a BEV charged using a local 1kW solar panel, and an FCEV powered by green hydrogen imported from the Middle East produced by a 1kW solar panel. (It may be no coincidence that two of the Middle East’s biggest oil exporters, Saudi Aramco and Adnoc, are steering members of the Hydrogen Council).
Because sunshine is stronger and more regular in the Middle East, compared to Germany, the solar panel in this unspecified country would have a capacity factor (CF) of 25% versus the European 11%, the report states. So the German panel would produce 950kWh of electricity per year, compared to 2,200kWh for the Middle Eastern one.
So the 70% of energy the Hydrogen Council says is lost by converting electricity to hydrogen, compressing, storing, and transporting the H2 a distance of roughly 3,500km, before converting it back to electricity inside the FCEV, would result in 660kWh of useable energy at the wheel.
By comparison, the 950kWh of German electricity would, after transmission, charging, and other in-car losses, result in 680kWh of useable energy at the wheel.
But this is warped logic. For a start, think of all the extra energy available on the road if the Middle Eastern solar energy were used to directly power an EV.
Secondly, it ignores the fact that wind power exists in Germany, with far higher capacity factors than solar (an average lifetime CF for offshore wind in the country is 38.7%). As the levelized cost of hydrogen lowers dramatically the more hours an electrolyser is in operation, ie, the higher the capacity factor, it would make no sense for anyone in Germany to choose to produce green hydrogen solely from solar power, rather than wind power or a combination of the two.
Thirdly, costs have not been taken into account, so it is not clear if it would be cheaper to produce H2 locally, rather than transport it 3,500km to Germany. The solar-derived hydrogen would need to be much lower cost to make it worth anyone’s while, with a recent European Commission report showing that the cost of shipping hydrogen 2,500km and then a further 500km by truck — just about comparable to delivering H2 from the Middle East to Germany — would be between $2.20-4.40 per kilogram.
The report is littered with other instances of dubious claims.
Fact 4 claims that FCEVs will reduce the “need of scarce material mining such as nickel, cobalt and lithium”, ignoring the fact that newer lithium-ion battery technologies such as lithium ferro phosphate (LFP) remove the need for cobalt and nickel altogether. It similarly downplays concerns about the increasing demand for rare and expensive platinum and iridium in fuel cells and electrolysers by claiming that “this can be counteracted with the recycling of combustion engine catalytic converters” — while simultaneously ignoring the fact that EV batteries themselves can be recycled.
Fact 5 claims that every new BEV on the road makes it harder to decarbonise the power grid, because it increases the demand for clean electricity — even though every FCEV would require two to two-and-a-half times more electricity.
Fact 7 claims that the hydrogen “distribution networks, as well as the refuelling stations, are being built at high speed”. It provides no figures to back this up, but according to H2stations.org, a website dedicated to information on hydrogen filling stations around the world, the current rate of growth is about 120 hydrogen filling stations globally per year, with about 450 H2 pumps currently in operation. If that is a “high-speed” build-out, how would Hydrogen Council describe the growth in EV chargers, which is expected to grow from 2.1 million in 2020 to 30.7 million by 2027?
Fact 8 claims that convincing consumers who want a driving range of over 400km to use a BEV “will be challenging and will require massive investment on all sides, including improved charging access with corresponding grid upgrades, bigger battery capacities and faster charging, while keeping the lifetime high. However, those demanding customer segments could especially be served well with FCEV technology.”
This is dubious, at best. The best-selling FCEV today, the Toyota Mirai, (with global sales of about 11,000 from 2014-20), is said to have a maximum range of 402 miles (644km) on a full tank. But the new all-electric Mercedes EQS can go 453 miles on a single charge, and the Lucid Air Dream edition, due out next year, will have an official range of 520 miles.
And when solid-state batteries are commercialised by the end of the decade, as many predict, BEV ranges are expected to double.
EV charging times are also improving all the time. For instance, ABB recently unveiled a new 360kW charger, which it says is “capable of fully charging any electric car in 15 minutes or less”.
The Hydrogen Council claims that building out a BEV charging infrastructure will be difficult — despite all evidence to the contrary — conveniently ignoring the fact that hydrogen filling pumps cost a minimum of $2m, according to the California Fuel Cell Partnership, compared to $40,000 for an EV fast-charging point. And while electricity can be transported easily, cheaply and efficiently via power cables, hydrogen has to be trucked to filling stations in diesel-powered tankers, at great expense.
Fact 10 claims that the total cost of ownership of an FCEV will be superior than a BEV, “especially in use cases with larger cars or more frequent usage” in the 2030s, although it does not offer any evidence to back this up. Common sense would suggest that if FCEVs require two to two-and-a-half times more electricity, as well as additional costs for the compression, storage and transportation of hydrogen, the cost of ownership would always be higher than BEVs.
Fact 11 claims that “two infrastructures are cheaper than one”, which it admits “may seem counterintuitive”.
“Building a hydrogen refuelling network alongside battery charging infrastructure is actually cheaper than building a charging infrastructure that is powerful enough to cover all use cases, including those with high power demands and little charging capacity. Even if only 10% of EVs are powered with fuel cells, this would already be worth it due to the reduced necessary upgrades of the electricity grid in hard-to-serve and high-demand areas, i.e. remote highway refuelling stations and public fast chargers in cities with high grid loads. The effect will be even more pronounced when including commercial vehicles.”
The report claims that if 90% of the world’s cars were BEVs in 2050, the capital expenditure required would be $4.4m per 1,000 cars, but this would rise to $5.8m in a BEV-only scenario. It also claims that providing the infrastructure for 10% FCEVs would only cost $0.3m per 1,000 cars, thus saving everyone a lot of money.
Again, the report offers no evidence to back this up, and it seems somewhat suspect, given the far-higher costs of H2 pumps and transporting the fuel in diesel tankers.
But perhaps the biggest omission in the report is the failure to acknowledge two really important points. One, that we still need huge amounts of renewable energy to decarbonise the power sector (only 29% comes from green sources today); and two, that the world currently has hardly any green hydrogen and we still need to replace the 70 million tonnes of grey H2 being produced annually from unabated fossil fuels, which emits about 900 million tonnes of CO2 per year — more than the UK and Indonesia combined.
Recharge calculates that producing 70 million tonnes of green hydrogen per year would require 2,222GW of solar, 1,176MW of onshore wind or 930GW of offshore wind — based on International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena) average capacity factors of 18%, 34% and 43%, respectively. By the end of 2020, the world had only installed 714GW of solar, 182.8GW of onshore wind and 34.4GW of offshore wind, according to Irena.
So by pushing for the widespread use of H2 in cars, the Hydrogen Council is trying to run before it can walk. And it can only make a case for FCEVs by looking at its own industry with rose-tinted glasses, resorting to twisted logic and ignoring many of the obvious benefits of BEVs.