Clean Power cost of hydrogen for fcevs with solar energy

Published on August 22nd, 2014 | by Tina Casey


Toyota Could Be Wrong About The High Cost of Hydrogen

August 22nd, 2014 by  

In yet another twist on the “artificial leaf” theme, a research team from Australia has developed a new way to use solar energy for producing hydrogen, potentially leading to lower costs. The news comes just in time to contribute to yet another lively discussion on CleanTechnica about the high cost of hydrogen for fuel cell electric vehicles.

The latest discussion was sparked by a Toyota official’s recent admission that the cost of hydrogen for FCEVs will start at about $50 per fill-up for its new FCEV sedan, covered here at CleanTechnica under the title Toyota: Hydrogen Fuel Will Be Costly (here’s an earlier one, btw). Of the 80 comments we received so far, a substantial number revolved around the energy needed for getting to the hydrogen in the first place. That’s a legit issue given the current state of technology, which relies heavily on hydrogen sourced from fossil fuels.

There are a number of promising up-and-comers in the alternative hydrogen sourcing field that could lead to lower costs, including the use of solar power to split hydrogen from water, so let’s see if this new take on solar will add to the discussion.

cost of hydrogen for fcevs with solar energy

Image (cropped) by Allan Donque.

Using Solar Power To Produce Hydrogen

We’ve previously covered the “artificial leaf” hydrogen production approach developed by Harvard (formerly MIT) professor Daniel Nocera. That one deploys solar energy in a photoelectrochemical process. The artificial leaf concept from the Australian team takes a different tack.

The researchers, from Australian National University Research School of Biology, approached the photosynthetic process from, you guessed it, the biological angle. The team focused on a ubiquitous, naturally-occurring protein called ferritin, which almost every living organism uses to store iron.

By replacing the iron with manganese, the team first tweaked ferritin to mimic the site in the photosynthetic process that splits water.

To complete the tailoring, the team also used the light-sensitive pigment zinc chlorin to replace a haem group that binds with ferritin (haem is British for heme — think hemoglobin and you’re on the right track).

Initial tests demonstrated that exposing the custom-made ferritin to light resulted in a charge transfer, mimicking the flow of electrons in photosynthesis.

If this is starting to ring some bells, why it seems like only yesterday (because it was) that we took note of a similar artificial leaf project using a strain of cyanobacteria found in a hot spring in Japan.

Like Dr. Nocera’s artificial leaf, the initial research is aimed at developing a low cost system that could be affordable in developing countries. The team also sees potential for scaling up. Here’s the vision:

Co-researcher Professor Ron Pace said the research opened up new possibilities for manufacturing hydrogen as a cheap and clean source of fuel.

“This is the first time we have replicated the primary capture of energy from sunlight,” Professor Pace said.

“It’s the beginning of a whole suite of possibilities, such as creating a highly efficient fuel, or to trapping atmospheric carbon.”

Professor Pace said large amounts of hydrogen fuel produced by artificial photosynthesis could transform the economy.

There you go again, right? The vision of a hydrogen economy just won’t die. We’re guessing that battery EVs have a head start that will put a heavy damper on the FCEV market for now (except for maybe in California), and the current high cost of hydrogen certainly doesn’t help any.


Then again, look what happened to battery EVs when automotive technology first took off in the late 19th century.

It looked like BEVs had the field to themselves when along comes this funny stuff called gasoline…

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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+.

  • Doug

    Wow. Again a claim about another wild breakthrough in fool cell tech, just like all the other wild claims over the past fifty years that never come to fruition.

    What bugs me about this article is the complete lack of details. What efficiency is claimed? How “inexpensive” can hydrogen really get with this technique? What is the energy comparison between using solar to crack water for fuel and using that solar energy instead to power a battery EV?

    Why no numbers, figures, comparisons? Because it doesn’t work. FCEVs are complete nonsense.

    • mambero

      A few overarching concepts – sorry no figures – give great credence to the H2 platform. EVs, when they are not being charged LOSE ENERGY. There is no loss with H2. Not only does H2 not have to be transported when it is directly transferred from the site to the tank, it is a huge help for peak-shaving for the grid and, unlike EVs, actually provides a form of storage for the entire grid. This creates absolutely unfathomable efficiencies. While advancing any kind of figures would be preposterous at this state, the concept is not rocket science and it is irrefutable.

  • There is a prolific amount of unrealistic buzz about hydrogen and personal vehicle applications. The energy economics don’t work (hydrogen a very low density energy carrier), the cost economics don’t work (high production, refining, storage costs), there is no distribution network, and current fuel cell technology is woefully more expensive than the simple battery, which now has 160 years of technological advancement. (Fuel cells have been around for about half that time, but have not experienced the same success as a durable technology) Battery technology advancement is now accelerating much faster as EVs now have a fast growing market to sell into.

    H2 may be a good technology for building co-gen energy storage and heat production, but it is simply not efficient or cost enough to ever be a successful consumer technology in motor vehicles.

    The first indication of problems was when the hype of fuel cells crashed with Ballard Power Systems stock in the early 00’s. Despite insights from that experience, there persists a flock of hydrogen zealots for vehicle use, such as Toyota and Daimler’s Mercedes Benz automotive units. From my understanding of the technology and business model, I can’t figure out what secret sauce they think exists, or, do they really just want to protect an planned obsolescent product model for their business?.

    Today the smart and sober money in financial markets are on electric – just look at the market leader [Tesla] putting a transportation vehicle that works extremely well and creating the potential for whole new micro-grid opportunities with your home, solar panels, and plain old existing electrical grid. It’s a new energy paradigm that’s right for what the world’s environment needs, which is also “code” for what long term economic prosperity is all about. It also puts energy and cost control back to consumers and businesses who have long suffered from planned obsolescence from the auto industry, and “this is the way we’ve always done it” grid engineering, essentially un-changed since the turn of the last century! That is what any consumer would be willing to pay for, at least up front, because the operating benefits going forward are very sweet indeed.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Good comment from a business perspective.

      Hydrogen fuel cells vehicles, along with nuclear reactors (especially thorium-fueled), seem to have developed a small group of true believers who start from the position that they hold the true knowledge and aren’t swayed by facts.

      While both H2 FCEVs and nuclear energy might have been acceptable, even the best, ways to get off fossil fuels at one time technology continues to improve and the best of ideas become not so useful later.

  • rockyredneck
    • Roger Pham

      For gaseous fuels, you have got to add the heavy weight of the container to have a valid comparison. For example, for H2 at 5,000 psi using carbon container, the weight of H2 is only 6% of the combined wt of fuel and container. So, to carry 1 kg of H2 at 5,000 psi, the weight will be 1 kg / .06= 16 kg. 142 MJ / 16 = 8.9 MJ / kg.

      • rockyredneck

        Yes, the volumetric energy density is a major factor limiting the use of smaller tanks. Less of a problem with large trucks or farm equipment.

  • Matt

    The only thing we can be 100% sure about is that the future will hold surprises!

    • Jouni Valkonen

      Sometimes you can just tell. If some technology is inferior by its very fundamentals, it is not likely that it will be never happen.

      E.g. we could in principle power our cars with hamster wheels, but as this kind of technology is not very economic or practical, it is not likely that it will ever happen. Same is with hydrogen. It is just inferior form of automotive power compared to alternatives such as gasoline, synthetic fuels, biofuels or battery electricity.

      • “we could in principle power our cars with hamster wheels, but as this kind of technology is not very economic or practical, it is not likely that it will ever happen” — Classic πŸ˜€ I have to remember this one for future articles.

  • Defendor

    This is a lab experiment at this point. There is almost weekly announcement of some battery breakthroughs, but until any of these start delivering, they are little more than entertaining vapor.

    • Jouni Valkonen

      But the “entertaining vapor” is the speciality of Tina Casey.

      • Bob_Wallace

        Kut the krap.

    • Bob_Wallace

      The fact that we are using lithium-ion batteries was a breakthrough. And since the breakthrough they have been steadily improving.

      Air-zinc batteries are now on the grid. That’s another technology that has gone from lab to real world. And earlier on we took NiMH batteries from lab to real world.

      • Defendor

        That means squat. Maybe 1 in 1000 lab reports results in something that will see practical production. Treating each lab report like the next big thing is nonsense.

        • Bob_Wallace

          If you don’t want to know what is happening in the lab that might make it to the road then just don’t read these kinds of articles.

  • Roger Pham

    If this can beat the economics of solar PV and wind turbine per kWh output of the H2, then we will be in for a treat! That is, solar energy will no longer be an intermittent and non-dispatchable power source. The stored H2 will be used just like natural gas for fully-dispatchable power production, home heating, or the combination thereof, for ground transportation, and for industrial use and fertilizer production and synthesis of liquid hydrocarbon fuels for planes and ships…etc

    • Roger Pham

      I must hasten to follow that it very unlikely that this can match solar PV in cost per kW. Solar PV panel cost is but a small fraction of total installation cost, and solar PV is far simpler than any H2 generation rooftop collector, with a lot of plumbing involved. Furthermore, solar efficiency depends on how much of the solar spectrum can be utilized, and photosynthesis typically can only use a narrow spectrum. Plus what is the Columbic efficiency?

      • Calamity_Jean

        I’m under the impression that PV uses only a small range of wavelengths also. I could be wrong.

        If artificial photosynthesis uses one range of wavelengths, and PV a different range, could they be combined for greater efficiency?

        • Roger Pham

          Monojunction solar PV is now capable of 20% efficiency, so must cover a larger swath of visible spectrum. Double and triple jct PV’s are even a lot more efficient but too expensive. By contrast, photosynthesis in nature is only 1-2% efficient. Those could be combined if the top layer can allow non-absorbed photons to pass through.

          • Calamity_Jean

            Thank you for the clarification.

  • TedKidd

    For Hydrogen to work won’t the beginning and end use need to be in the same place?

    I think most people recognize it will NEVER NEVER work for mobility. Even if they figure out how to build vehicles at reasonable cost, fueling infrastructure is simply too costly. #nevergonnahappen

    But maybe it will work where production and consumption happen at the same location.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Hydrogen is one of the candidates for long term storage, for deep backup.

      At this point it is up against pump-up hydro (85% – 95% efficient) and vanadium flow batteries (65% – 75% efficient). Hydrogen is somewhere below 50%.

      It comes down to cost of infrastructure. Hydrogen infrastructure would have to be a lot cheaper than vanadium flow batteries to offset the higher round trip energy loss. And that might be hard to do. The chemicals for flow batteries can be stored in ordinary unpressurized tanks.

      PuHS might also be a tough opponent for H2. We have thousands of existing dams that could be converted to pump-up.

    • So many reasons it will never, never happen.

    • Billyboy

      Please post about something you actually have knowledge about. The OEMs ALL ALL know how to reduce costs, and that’s one of the reason so many of them are pursuing hydrogen.

      Your comment about station costs is just plain ignorant. Linde is already gearing up for mass production of dispensing equipment as is Air Products. Or go to the National Fuel Cell Research Center for real, as opposed to made up information.

      For a handful of vehicles charging is cheaper, however one station can fuel over 200 cars each day. On a mile driven basis hydrogen infrastructure will be an order of magnitude less costly and a order of magnitude more effective.

      • TedKidd

        Instead of looking like an idiot Billy boy, why don’t you share this “knowledge” you have about how cheap hydrogen fuel stations are, and why charging 200 vehicles a day has anything to do with my comments?

        I happy to learn something new, but simply saying I’m wrong without anything to support your contentions makes you look like an ignorant troll.

        • Billyboy

          Ok I’ll make this easy. Read the reports from NFCRC on station costing.

          I was discussing thru put from cost of individual infrastructure point of view.

          $800,000 can likely build a h2 station for 200 cars each day.

          That same $800,000 will fund about 10 level 3 charging stations which can handle about 12 cars each day.


          I used ignorant in its strict literal sense “having no knowledge concerning a topic”.

          • Why is your model only showing 12 cars per day for EV DC Quick Charge? (It isn’t actually Level 3 although some mistakenly call it that)

            Even at only 20 hours of operation (assume 4 hours of non-use overnight) a typical *single* DC QC could manage 40 refuelings.

            A typical DC QC is less than $50k installed, and rapidly coming down (BMW now sells a 20kW unit for $6k, Nissan 50kW for ~$15k)

            When pooled, like Tesla does, the installation numbers get even better.

            An H2 station is more like $2,000,000 not $800k.

            So $2m could provide infrastructure for 1,600 charges per day, vs 200 H2 refills per day for the same investment.

            Except that the cost of fuel dispensed would be a non-insignificant

            $3,800 for 1,600 EV refuelings (20kw x $0.12)
            $4,000 for 200 H2 refuelings (2kg x $10)

            The most damning comparison is that the only EVs that need to refuel at the DC QC are the few that traveled more than 80 miles in a single day.

            All of the H2 vehicles need to use the H2 station every time they refuel.

            The BEV and PHEV drivers sleep through the experience most nights.

          • Billyboy

            Interesting and likely made up numbers.

            At an average of 2.5 miles/kWh and a cap of 50 amps/240 VAC is about 12 kW/ station. If runs for 20 hours you can get about 100 miles of mobility for each hour of operation.

            On the other hand at 5 minutes/fill and 300 miles of range each pump can provide 3000 miles of mobility each hour. Typical installations are 4 pumps or 12,000 miles of mobility.

            You $/installation are completely made up. Your EVSE costs are fine for the specific equipment, but considering transformers, concrete and conduit are laughable.

            $2,000,000/station are yesterday. Costs have come down.

          • Mint

            Interesting and likely made up numbers.

            LOL that’s rich coming from you:

            $2,000,000/station are yesterday. Costs have come down.

            Really? Then why is California spending $200M for 100 stations in the next few years, with Toyota and Hyundai contributing next to nothing?

            That same $800,000 will fund about 10 level 3 charging stations which can handle about 12 cars each day.

            Oh please. Even Tesla’s vastly superior superchargers cost only $35k for inefficient single-stall temporary units.

            You also forget that the vast majority of charging is done overnight at home. An H2 car will need 5-20x as many station fillups per year than a typical EV/PHEV.

          • Jouni Valkonen

            You forgot that 80 to 95 percent of EV charging happens in own carrage overnight or at workplace. And also one Tesla supercharger with two charging point costs about $30 000. If average supercharging time is about 30 minutes, then it can theoretically serve 48 cars per day.

            Therefore in practice one supercharging station can serve about 400 cars per day with $30 000 investment cost. So your “calculations” were off the mark by only two orders of magnitude from real world figures!

            And it is expected that supercharging speed can be improved β€” Tesla has already upgraded superchargers to handle power over 120 kW. Also it is expected that the range of EVs improves and therefore it is not required to supercharge that often. And it is also probable that costs can be pushed down from that $30 000 figure when the production is scaled into higher volume.

            But of course you have never heard about the company called Tesla Motors. Tesla has already demolished most of the myths considering electric cars. In real life EVs are more practical than ICE cars. Can you say that Fuel cell cars are more practical than ICE cars?

          • TedKidd

            $800,000 is a low number, irrelevant anyway, other than it begs question where ignorance lies…

            Fuelling 200 vehicles a day, irrelevant also. Not likely to sell enough cars those 10 stations, that get built only in CA, will ever see 10 cars a day.

            Lots of pretty informed (both battery & hydrogen) in this discussion.

            Do you know anything about EV’s at all? Any personal experience, because your concept of fueling seems stuck in the last century.

            Walk the talk question – when are you buying a fuel cell car?

          • Bob_Wallace

            You might want to read about this state of the art H2 fueling station in Japan, Billy Boy.


            30 cars in a 10 hour day. Only $4 million.

          • Doug

            Why would ten level 3 stations only charge 12 vehicles a day? 1.2 per station seems a bit low given their theoretical capacity of ~40+ per day each. Also, FCEVs must refuel at these stations – they have no other option. BEVs charge at home the vast majority of the time – level 3 charging is infrequent.

      • Most of the OEMs are bullish about BEVs. A few are pursuing HFCVs as a marketing/compliance/smoke and mirrors game. Just as they have been doing for decades. They know hydrogen isn’t competitive, but they can continuously say that it might be in the future, and can say they’re working on it. It’s BS.

    • rockyredneck

      Agriculture comes to mind.

  • Roger Pham

    Missing variables are solar efficiency, or kW yield per meter square, and total cost installed per kW, in order to compare this to the economics of solar PV.

    Solar PV is very versatile and low cost and the product being electricity can easily be transmitted via wires and stored in battery at very round trip high efficiency. Long-term and vast seasonal storage can be done via low-cost alkaline Electrolyzer that will have nickel/nickel oxide electrodes instead of expensive and scarce platinum.

    Direct solar-to-H2 might work is there is a local H2 piping system and local H2 storage depot (underground cavern), so that the H2 produced from the rooftop solar collector can go through an H2 flow meter into the local H2 piping system.

    Then, solar PV will provide day time power, while the stored solar H2 will step in to provide power when the sun is out via Fuel cell that will use the waste heat to make hot water and to heat the house in winter. This can only work if it can beat the future low cost of battery energy storage.

    Wind energy will still be very important for cloudy days and winter season in order to reduce the magnitude of H2 and battery storage required.

    • Mint

      And that’s basically why stationary applications is where fuel cells are most valuable. Indeed, every fuel cell company’s bread and butter is low capacity factor stationary power.

      Reliable, low maintenance stationary power costs are on the order of a dollar per watt. Transportation application needs costs around 5-10 cents per watt.

  • JamesWimberley

    I think Tina is missing the main argument deployed here again hydrogen cars. It’s not the accidental advantages accruing to a first mover, VHS against Betamax. It’s the energy detour: renewable electricity -> hydrogen -> fuel cell -> electricity -> motor is necessarily less efficient than renewable electricity -> battery -> motor.

    On paper, direct production of hydrogen from artificial photosynthesis would not be subject to this critique. But it comes up against a parallel one: what ‘s wrong with natural photosynthesis -> plant material -> fermentation -> methane? Methane is much easier to transport than hydrogen – we do it by the million cubic metre every day – and can be burnt in a current ICE. OK, it’s a GHG if leaked.

    If you ask me, artificial photosynthesis would only be attractive if it could be combined with carbon sequestration, Though planting trees is much easier.

    • Mint

      Fuel cell’s primary competitor is not EVs, but rather gasoline fueled cars.

      Even with the loss, renewable hydrogen could eventually match gasoline’s cost, because gas is an expensive energy source. A rather inefficent electrolyzer need 50kWh/kg. If produced at a wind/solar farm when wholesale prices are low (<4c/kWh), you're looking at energy costs of $2/kgH2. So theoretically $5/kg after all other costs are considered is reasonable with large enough scale, and there will be price parity with a gallon of gasoline since H2 takes you further.

      But this is all moot, because the primary problem with FCEV is up front cost. ICEs are so freakin cheap. Fuel cells and tanks are not.

      • Doug

        A natural gas vehicle could also be considered a direct competitor – both run off the same feedstock. Which one is better in terms of cost, CO2 emissions and mileage?

        • mambero

          NGVs are clearly cheaper with existing infrstructure and are an excellent transition fuel from benzine in terms of CO2. Comparing mileage costs is difficult because there is generally preferential tax treatment for NGVs.
          I see NGVs as a great choice on the way to H2. EVs are great for getting groceries or getting the kids, but H2 is clearly superior for any serious highway driving.

  • Jouni Valkonen

    yet again Tina Casey in action!

  • Ronald Brakels

    A hydrogen producing solar panel isn’t going to change the energy costs of cracking water. At best it will just change the capital costs. Now maybe it will be possible in the future for water cracking solar panels to produce hydrogen for less than using PV panels to generate electricity for electrolysis, but solar PV will continue to fall in cost and this system is going to need water in and hydrogen out, and as my grandfather could tell you, “Plumbing, that’s where the real money is, boy, plumbing. That, and insurance fraud.”

    • Jouni Valkonen

      It is good to understand than in renewable energy economy there is from time to time huge loads of surplus electricity because there must be enough electricity production also on the darkest winter days. This inevitably leads into surplus electricity production on windy and sunny summer days. Therefore when producing hydrogen with electrolysis, we can count that electricity used is more or less free.

      But unfortunately, even if we assume free electricity, hydrogen fuel cell cars still cannot compete with present day battery technology. And also if we have cheap hydrogen available, it is ALWAYS better and cheaper to synthetize from hydrogen methane and longer synthetic carbohydrates that can be used in airplanes, trucks and ICE cars.

      Fuel cells are just utter nonsense even if assume free fuel cells and very cheap hydrogen. They still cannot compete with battery electric vehicles or synthetic fuels + ICE.

      • Billyboy

        Renewables are 4% of the grid. Wake me up when we get there. For AFVs it’s natural gas for decades to come. In that instance SMR is more efficient that a simple cycle gas turbine.

        It’s great you have better insight then NREL, the DOE and all thenOEMs combined.

        • Jouni Valkonen

          In Denmark Wind power production is already about 33 % of electricity useage and close to 40 % of electricity supply. This is already more than Danish grid can absorb on windy days and they plan to rise the share of wind power to 50 % by 2020.

          And Then there is solar. In Germany roof-top solar + battery storage is the cheapest form of electricity. Therefore it is likely that in germany there is about 100 GW installed solar power by 2020. The peak demand of electricity in Germany is about 60–80 GW.

          Of course United States is a developing country and it comes few years behind what we are doing here in Europe, but it really does not take that many years. When solar + storage reaches its parity, it takes just few years that 100 % electricity is produced with solar power.

          And this will happen soon. In Germany, Italy and Australia it is already happening and by 2019 solar + storage has reached parity globally.

      • Doug

        Hmmm. Here’s an easy choice:
        1. Reform natural gas to make hydrogen, transport it to H2 filling stations and fuel up a FCEV (Investment = $1T in the US)
        2. Leverage existing natural gas infrastructure and use natgas to fuel natgas vehicles (Investment = a few billion)

        Also, might be worth determining the efficiency of the process. From what I’ve read, it would be twice as efficient to go with option 2 in terms of equivalent amounts of natural gas per mile.

        Of course, a battery EV is more efficient than either options above.

        • Jouni Valkonen

          I guess that the problem with natural gas vehicles is that range is too limited. Therefore people do not want to buy those, but they would rather take an EV.

        • mambero

          How about making hydrogen from renewables, like wind & PV? Onsite where it is used?
          That’s what is being done at the Berlin Schoendorf airport. They fuel vehicles in 3minutes with a range of 400 miles per tank. EVs ca’t touch that.
          Not to mention that transporting, breathing and cleaning up hydrocarbons has an additional price that does not appear at the pump.
          EVs have gotten quickly out of the gates. Lest we forget, though, it was the turtle that beat the rabbit πŸ˜‰
          My choice is H2.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Enjoy your choice. You’ll be paying about 3x as much per mile to drive as will people driving EVs.

    • Calamity_Jean

      Was your grandfather a plumber?

      • Ronald Brakels

        I have three grandfathers. None of them were plumbers, but at various times they committed fraud. Having three grandfathers may sound impressive, but it’s really nothing. According to the Gettysberg Address, Americans used to have four fathers.

        • rockyredneck

          Are there no transported felons in your ancestory?

          • Ronald Brakels

            No transported convicts in my background. My ancestors were Flemmish merchants. They were very cunning and clever people, but then you have to be to make a living from selling flem.

          • rockyredneck

            My ancestors were Viking. You don’t need to be clever to make a living from pillage and rape.

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