Clean Transport

Published on May 29th, 2014 | by Tina Casey


Nuke Leader AREVA Adds Fuel To FCEV Fire

May 29th, 2014 by  

We’ve been having a lively debate about FCEVs (fuel cell electric vehicles) over here at CleanTechnica, but if the latest move by the global nuclear energy corporation AREVA is any indication, the point may already be moot: FCEVs are here to stay. AREVA has been dabbling in non-nuclear renewable energy and it has just announced a new joint venture aimed at manufacturing hydrogen for the FCEV service station market.

Without a crystal ball at hand we’re not predicting anything about the success (or lack thereof) of  this particular new hydrogen joint venture, which teams AREVA and the company Smart-Energies with the French government through the Environment and Energy Management Agency (ADEME). However, when you apply the force of a national effort with a global supply chain, you’re bound to get an uptick in the availability of hydrogen to gas up your FCEV.

FCEV concept

FCEV (cropped) by Shelby Asistio.

The FCEV Challenge

Leaving aside the obvious — FCEVs are already on their way to cementing a place as specialty vehicles, for example in warehouse operations — part of the aforementioned lively discussion has covered the technological challenges and cost-competitiveness obstacles to mass adoption of FCEVs for personal mobility as street vehicles.

As these obstacles fall by the wayside, though, the other part of the problem becomes more clear. That is the current reliance on fossil natural gas as the primary source of hydrogen for fuel cells, resulting in a gigantic greenhouse gas footprint for supposedly zero-emission FCEVs.

Greenhouse gas emissions are far from the only problem with fossil gas sourcing. With natural gas fracking (short for the non-conventional drilling method called hydrofracturing) and horizontal drilling accounting for thousands of new wells in the US every year, local impacts are also growing apace.

The impacts of fracking and the fracking supply chain include everything from water and air contamination to traffic hazards and earthquakes (yes, earthquakes). That’s on top of the unsightliness of introducing new industrial activity into formerly quiet, rural areas. How unsightly? Well, when the CEO of ExxonMobil (aka world’s leading natural gas fracker) joins a lawsuit to stop construction of a fracking-related water tower near his home, that’s gotta be unsightly.

Solving The BEV Greenhouse Gas Problem

The bottom line is that right now, FCEVs have the same problem that BEVs (battery electric vehicles) have when you charge them off a grid source that mixes coal, natural gas, or (to a far lesser degree) oil. They are all ultimately relying on fossil sources, therefore all of these supposedly low or zero-emission solutions have a fairly substantial greenhouse gas profile.

The good news is that BEVs are rapidly solving that problem as more renewable energy comes into the market, both in a small-scale, distributed form (think solar-enabled home or workplace charging) and in the form of utility-scale grid supplies of wind, solar, and other renewable sources.

Solving The FCEV GHG Problem

So, why can’t the same problem be solved for FCEVs?

I dunno, why can’t it? Here at CleanTechnica we’ve been following the development of methods to produce hydrogen by “splitting” water. This process is energy-intensive and it currently relies on, yep you guessed it, fossil fuels to power the operation.

However, new solar driven hydrogen production processes are already well under way, and here in the US researchers are already adding on sustainable hydrogen twofers, such as producing hydrogen as part of a wastewater treatment process that could run on renewable energy.


As for the AREVA venture, it’s aimed at manufacturing the specialized membranes used for the electrolysis-based process by which hydrogen is produced from water.

That, in turn, is part of a national roadmap for mainstreaming FCEVs in France by 2050, which has a heavy emphasis on renewable, low, and zero-emission hydrogen sourcing. Here are some snippets from four scenarios ADEME developed for attaining an FCEV goal for France, with the service station angle mentioned last:

…One is based on the centralised mass production of “low-carbon hydrogen,” in other words a production method whose greenhouse gas emissions are reduced or zero…The other scenario prioritises decentralised hydrogen production from renewable sources alone (renewable electricity, biomass, biogas).

…The remaining two scenarios prioritise widespread uses such as transport, small-scale and medium-scale cogeneration, mobile objects, emergency back-up generators and auxiliary power supply units…One of the scenarios considers powering these uses via the mass production of low-carbon hydrogen within the scope of national grids

…The remaining scenario proposes the installation of a local hydrogen economy throughout France via decentralised production means located close to hydrogen use facilities, associated with urban or county distribution microgrids, local natural gas circuits, service stations, production means installed on private property and storage units throughout France…

If you blinked, you missed the reference to natural gas in this equation. As much as we fangirl/boy/whatever over non-combustion sources of energy here at CleanTechnica, the reality is that fossil fuels will continue to play at least a modest role in the foreseeable future, and it seems that the French plan for FCEVs takes that into account — at least for now.

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

  • Keith Malone

    California is requiring that 33% of the hydrogen being sold at publically funded stations comes from renewable sources (biomass, solar or wind, etc.). This requirement was established by SB 1505 in 2006.

  • Tom G.

    Sooner or later people are going to realize that they no longer need to make a weekly stop at their local filling station. They will just drive to work, go home and plug in.

    I only hope we learn this new routine before we cook our planet.

  • spec9

    LOL. Out of the frying pan and into the fire.

  • Ross

    We’ll be refueling at home, work, and other non-traditional places in future. Filling stations are on the way out.

  • No way

    FCEV is only wanted by the car companies because it’s a technique they can get “in the future” not having to transit to EV’s today so that they can still make money on ICE’s. It’s only wanted by the energy companies because it will use a lot of energy that they can make money on. And it’s only liked by the petrol and gas companies because it will make it easy for them to just change fuel to make money on gas stations and “refining” fuel.

    FCEV’s will never be a good choice for the consumer and will hurt the environment more than it helps it.

    • heinbloed

      Read the article again.

      Areva is a French state company involved in the atomic sector. Hence their involvment. Areva tries to sell atomic power:

  • JamesWimberley

    Areva, facing doom in its nuclear business, and realizing that it is too late to get into wind or solar, is gambling on a very long shot. It would be absurd for France to go it alone into a hydrogen economy, which seems to be the plan.

    The only hydrogen scenario with any chance of affordable success is one that simply replaces fossil gas with with renewable syngas of roughly similar composition, distributed through the existing and paid-for natural gas grid. That’s what the Germans are working on, and they are right.

    Hydrogen cars have already lost to evs. These only have a small share of the automobile and bus markets, but they have attractive and debugged vehicles on the market from several major and reputable suppliers, a skeleton charging network already in place, and a clear roadmap for continued rapid growth. That leaves trucks, planes, and ships. The aviation industry has rejected hydrogen, possibly on safety grounds. Trucks can run on syngas. I don’t know about shipping, but hydrogen’s low density and safety issues make it unpromising there too.

    • heinbloed

      Fuel cells are used in Israeli submarines (made in Germany) sabotaging the peace fleet which supports the people of Palestina.
      These fuel cells make no detectable noise any more as the old diesel generators did.

      And the more peacefull version of shipping is build in France and uses gas to power ships:

      Or further North:

      No problem using bio- or synthetic gas instead of fossile methane.
      But fuel cells are simply to expensive for non-military use.

      • nakedChimp

        Yep… tried to to get some fuel cell power for some research in the forest.. and here we are, 4 years later and I’m still carrying in small lead acid batteries as it’s the cheaper solution (by a VERY big margin).
        Probably gonna swap them for Li-ion tech within the next two years once the lead acid have somewhat “amortized” and Li-ion is cheap enough not to cause bad feelings of replacing the other ones prematurely.

    • spec9

      They haven’t already lost. But like most people that look at this stuff, I’m pretty sure they will lose unless they pull a rabbit out of a hat. A huge breakthrough in either battery technology or FCV technology could cause a winner. But if they both just incrementally improve . . . well BEVs win.

  • nakedChimp

    ..unless they can cripple battery R&D and the production/sale of those batteries in new cars the train has left the station.

    City dwellers don’t need cars most of the time (and if – then “short range”), this means their transport is covered by electricity anyway and the handfull of dudes out in the rurals.. well, what do you expect? They’ll be running on either biofuel or batteries. Or who is going to install a hydrogen fuel station for every fossil fuel station out there?!
    They’re not even getting some fibre in the ground for internet, but they’re supposed to get hydrogen fuel stations?

    • spec9

      Yeah, people just have to get used to a segmented auto market with battery EVs, plug-in hybrids, hybrids, natural gas cars, etc. Pick the the right drivetrain for the specific application.

  • Kyle Field

    FCEVs are, as you noted, just as “clean” as pure EVs. Bringing fracking/Natural Gas/the dirty grid into the picture really just muddies the waters as that has nothing to do with FCEVs. Ultimately, it’s about how much energy is required to drive XX miles / charge up an equivalent FC/Battery and go from there. Cleaning the grid is a different topic altogether.

    Having said that, it does not make sense to me why anyone would want to build an entirely new (at least at this scale) hyrdrogen fueling infrastructure when we already have an electric grid to build on. Give me a home unit to perform the electrolysis (split water into H and O) to power my fuel cell and we can talk. I get that they want to make money at it…but from a consumer standpoint, it just does not make sense.

    • sault

      “FCEVs are, as you noted, just as “clean” as pure EVs.”
      No, they are not. Due to all the inefficiencies of converting hydrogen into electricity compared to storing electricity in a battery, an EV will be able to go 2 – 3 times the distance than a FCV with the same amount of energy. You have to get that energy from somewhere, and whether you reform natural gas or split water to get H2, you will use a lot of energy and create a lot of emissions either directly or indirectly. If you reform natural gas, why not just use the natural gas directly instead in a vehicle similar to the Civic NGV? And if you split water to get hydrogen, why not just store that electricity in a battery for when you need to use it on-board an EV? All hydrogen does is introduce unnecessary costs, complications and inefficiencies all in the name of keeping the oil companies from being irrelevant as the 21st Century progresses.

      • Kyle Field

        Yes…that’s what I was inferring when I stated “Ultimately, it’s about how much energy is required to drive XX miles / charge up an equivalent FC/Battery and go from there” indicating that there’s a higher overhead for FCEVs vs just EVs. I dont understand the extra step of hydrogen conversion, infrastructure, etc…but if that’s where folks want to go, let’s talk it out. Storing hyrdrogen in a fuel cell may (?) be cleaner than batteries in their current form. Producing batteries may (?) require more energy than comparable FCs. I dont have all the facts…but I’m open to considering other options as I know there are TONS of variables.

        • sault

          “Storing hyrdrogen in a fuel cell may (?) be cleaner than batteries in their current form. Producing batteries may (?) require more energy than comparable FCs.”
          No, EVs consume 30% or so of their lifetime energy use during their construction and 70% during use. Regular vehicles are 20 / 80 or so while fuel cell vehicles might be closer to EVs or use even more energy during manufacture. The proportion of energy used during manufacture by EVs and FCVs would have to be wildly different for the low efficiency of FCVs to be compensated for by high manufacturing energy consumption by EVs, but it’s just not the case.

    • spec9

      “Bringing fracking/Natural Gas/the dirty grid into the picture really just muddies the waters as that has nothing to do with FCEVs.”

      No. 98% of the hydrogen made is from natural gas. Unless you use some other method, a FCEV car is a natural gas car.

      • Kyle Field

        Hence my comment about a home unit…if we are restructuring the game and building new infrastructure, new solutions have to be a part of that. So yes, if I can BYOH by making mine at home, that’s a game changer and a very real option.

        98%+ of cars run on fossil fuels…that doesnt mean I’m going to plan my future based on that stat…I’m going to find the BEST solution and work towards that. I prefer EVs so I’ll chart the path forward for others.

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