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Electric Cars Are Coming! Hydrogen...Maybe Not So Much

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2009 Honda FCX Clarity, being delivered to 19-year-old actress Q’orianka Kilcher

2009 Honda FCX Clarity, being delivered to 19-year-old actress Q’orianka Kilcher

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We get asked a lot of questions by friends and colleagues looking to buy cars and trucks, as we noted elsewhere this morning.

But we also get asked a lot about future cars, especially hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles. The standard question is either, "When should we expect hydrogen cars?" or, "How can I buy a hydrogen-powered car?"

Usually this follows one of the many deeply uninformed TV segments touting cars of the future. One recent flurry of stories covered Honda's delivery last week of an FCX Clarity hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle to 19-year-old actress and environmental youth leader Q’orianka Kilcher.

"Since my first car was the [original] Honda FCX, I am proud to say that I have never pumped a gallon of gasoline,” Honda quoted Kilcher saying. “As a young person, I feel it is my responsibility to always try my best to think about the consequences of my actions and choices as a consumer, and the impact they have on our planet."

We applaud Kilcher's intentions. But here's our riposte, and our answer to everyone who asks for perspective on fuel-cell vehicles.

There's an old saying:  Hydrogen is the fuel of the future...and always will be. Frankly, using hydrogen as a vehicle fuel poses two very tough problems.

First, there's no infrastructure at all (e.g. "gas stations") to deliver hydrogen to cars. Consider how tough it's been to make ethanol, or even diesel fuel for non-truckers, available to retail consumers. And those fuels use the same pumps, hoses, and nozzles as gasoline. At high enough pressure to take vehicles a few hundred miles, hydrogen requires new and totally different equipment.

By some estimates, we'd need 12,000 new stations to make hydrogen fuel available to two-thirds of the US population. It took GM two years, and more than a million dollars, to build a single station in Tarrytown, New York. And most localities have no zoning for hydrogen stations--or consider them industrial--so their default response is often "no".

Second, hydrogen in its pure state doesn't just happen. You have to use energy to make it--a lot of energy--by splitting apart more complex molecules.  Depending where that energy comes from, the overall impact on carbon emissions (known as the "wells to wheels" energy balance) may prove worse than burning petroleum fuels.

Many analysts feel that the alt-fuel of the future is much more likely to be electricity. It can be generated in many ways, and all Americans already have access to it at home and at work. That's the start of at least a basic "refueling" network.

It's worth noting that the president's 2010 budget cuts funding for development of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles from $169 million to $68 million. By contrast, funding has risen substantially for initiatives on batteries, plug-in hybrids, and cars with large battery packs.

We advise consumers to focus on electric-drive cars from major makers. They will start to show up at dealers late next year, and arrive in meaningful numbers in 2011. They include the 2011 Chevrolet Volt, the Ford Focus EV, and the Nissan EV.

As for Kilcher's car, the 2009 Honda FCX Clarity is the world's only mass-production hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicle. It's powered by an electric motor that runs on electricity generated by the fuel cell. Its only tailpipe emission is water.

Most large automakers have pilot programs for fuel cell vehicles. Chevrolet makes more than 100 Equinox Fuel Cell Vehicles available to academics, media, elected officials, and environmental leaders through its "Project Driveway" program. And Ford has 30 Focus fuel-cell vehicles on the road that have collectively racked up more than 1 million miles.

But, says Ford's Jennifer Moore, the company is reallocating resources toward "nearer-term, more mature, higher volume, and more affordable technologies, including hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and battery electric vehicles."

And there you have it. Hybrids: Here now. Electrics: Coming soon. Hydrogen fuel cells: Don't hold your breath.

Shell Hydrogen Station in Reykjavik Iceland

Shell Hydrogen Station in Reykjavik Iceland

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Comments (7)
  1. "just a few responses"

    @Jen: Thanks for your thoughtful post. Just a few comments in response ...
    - While there are no factory plug-ins from major makers on the road today, there will be 10,000-plus of them within two years.
    - The benefits of the plug-in pathway do NOT depend on greening the grid. Compared to a 25-mpg car, the carbon profile of one mile driven on grid power is lower under *every* scenario. Even compared to a 50-mpg car, all but a few grids win out. See a much longer piece I did here: http://www.spectrum.ieee.org/mar09/7928
    - I had not seen Daimler's claim that they would sell 100,000 FCVs "within a few years"--was there any clarity on how many years that was? I'd believe by 2020, but I'd be skeptical if they meant 2015.
    - Japan's commitment of $50 million seems like a very small amount of money given the vast expense of setting up hydrogen fueling stations.
    - You didn't really address the two major obstacles I highlighted in my piece ....
    Finally, I certainly don't advocate abandoning research on FCVs. But for consumers who see FCVs on TV as the "car of the future," it's important to understand that mass production of EVs will likely arrive well before mass production of FCVs.
    Thanks for your thoughts.
     
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  2. "Hydrogen Fuel"

    I am all for R&D and scientific experimentation. President Obama has just scrapped the $1,2 Billion budget for Hydroen Fuel cell research and trimmed it to $65 Million. I think he has done his home work. It will only cost the USA $480 Billion to set up a national hydrogen fuelling station network. The technology for production of hydrogen tank is evasive. The feeding nozzel on the car and on the pump are not affordable and very expensive. To obtain hydrogen from water, methane, propane etc., costs 4 times higher than charging an electric car and the tank offers limited range, while being a bomb on board.
    Free protos to actresses are fine. I put my name down for the day when I can buy a hydrogen fuel cell powered Mercedes for £10,000.
    A swallow in the middle of winter is not the promise of an early spring. Chinese saying.
     
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  3. "Hydrogen Fuel"

    I am all for R&D and scientific experimentation. President Obama has just scrapped the $1,2 Billion budget for Hydroen Fuel cell research and trimmed it to $65 Million. I think he has done his home work. It will only cost the USA $480 Billion to set up a national hydrogen fuelling station network. The technology for production of hydrogen tank is evasive. The feeding nozzel on the car and on the pump are not affordable and very expensive. To obtain hydrogen from water, methane, propane etc., costs 4 times higher than charging an electric car and the tank offers limited range, while being a bomb on board.
    Free protos to actresses are fine. I put my name down for the day when I can buy a hydrogen fuel cell powered Mercedes for £10,000.
    A swallow in the middle of winter is not the promise of an early spring. Chinese saying.
     
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  4. "Hydrogen is Hot Air"

    Hydrogen fuel cell cars are only available for lease, not for sale. Either the car makers know they aren't profitable, or they know a hydrogen refueling infrastructure isn't just going to material, or both.
    Anything with wheels can be built as a hybrid, and anything hybrid can be built as a plugin hybrid. Plugins really exist right now, at least as aftermarket conversions or factory prototypes. Within 2 years, they'll be in showrooms.
    Once the plugins arrive, and EVs start showing up about the same time, then a large push for a recharging network, standardization of recharging ports, et al. will begin.
    EVs are the future. Hydrogen is just a lot of hot air.
     
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  5. "Hydrogen is Hot Air"

    Hydrogen fuel cell cars are only available for lease, not for sale. Either the car makers know they aren't profitable, or they know a hydrogen refueling infrastructure isn't just going to material, or both.
    Anything with wheels can be built as a hybrid, and anything hybrid can be built as a plugin hybrid. Plugins really exist right now, at least as aftermarket conversions or factory prototypes. Within 2 years, they'll be in showrooms.
    Once the plugins arrive, and EVs start showing up about the same time, then a large push for a recharging network, standardization of recharging ports, et al. will begin.
    EVs are the future. Hydrogen is just a lot of hot air.
     
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  6. "fuel cell enthusiast"

    There are no plug-in vehicles on the road by major auto manufacturers right now - there are more than 300 fuel cell vehicles on the road today. ALL the pathways to energy and environmental security and revitalizing the U.S. auto industry, are “long term.” Success will require all the available technology options – more efficient engines, biofuels, hybrid vehicles, battery vehicles and fuel cells, so why knee cap fuel cells when they are further ahead than other alternatives right now?
    The benefits of the plug-in electric vehicle pathway depends largely on “greening” the grid, which will take decades. Meantime we still get more than half our electricity from coal in the U.S. The Energy Information Administration, a DOE agency, estimates we will still be getting half (47%) of our power from coal in 2030 and the amount of coal fired electricity will grow by 20% over the next 20 years.
    Other countries are pursuing a portfolio that includes hydrogen and fuel cells, including Germany, Japan, Korea, and China. If we don’t develop and build fuel cell vehicles here in the U.S. we will be importing them.
    • Daimler Benz has announced it will begin building production models of a new B-Class fuel cell vehicle and plans to be selling 100,000 units a year within a few years.
    • Toyota, Honda and other auto companies participating in the Fuel Cell Commercialization Conference of Japan have agreed to pursue a large scale pilot fleet and committed to 2015 as the commercialization date.
    • Japan’s government has committed up to $50 million to support hydrogen infrastructure development in up to five regions of Japan.
    • India has made a major commitment to hydrogen as a fuel supplement and fuel cells for reliable power supply.
    • Daimler has announced plans for a new bus, with London, Hamburg and several other cities planning advanced bus trials.
    It is a mistake to abandon work on hydrogen fuel cell vehicles just as the technology has begun showing its full promise. This is not a science experiment. These are real cars with real marketability and real benefits.
     
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  7. "hydrogen cars?"

    Right now, all we can have is electric cars. But I do look forward to seeing more hydrogen cars in the future.
     
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