Clean Transport hydrogen fuel celll electric vehicles (FCEV)

Published on October 30th, 2014 | by Tina Casey


Energy Dept. Still Chasing Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle Unicorn

October 30th, 2014 by  

Weren’t we just saying that like it or not, fuel cell electric vehicles are here to stay? CleanTechnica has logged in more nots than likes on the topic, but the fact remains that the Energy Department is still pumping wads of cash into hydrogen fuel cell R&D. The latest development is a $1 million competition, announced just yesterday, to develop affordable small-scale hydrogen fueling stations for FCEVs (fuel cell electric vehicles).

Given the agency’s successful incubation of innovation in the US wind and solar industries, we’re going to keep a close eye on this one.

hydrogen fuel celll electric vehicles (FCEV)

Hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle fueling station (Image cropped. Courtesy of US DOE).

The FCEV Unicorn

Before we get to the meat of the competition, here’s a quick sketch of the hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle issue.

Our colleagues and contributors at CleanTechnica (here’s the latest example) have done a thorough job of outlining the points against FCEVs from the standpoint of technology and costs relative to battery EVs, hence the unicorn reference.

On the other hand, this is not the first time in automotive history that BEVs have made a good run for it. At the beginnings of the industry back in the late 19th century BEVs were poised to dominate the emerging consumer market, only to give way to another form of fuel.

We’re not saying the BEV industry will find a new way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory this time around — given the pace of innovation today, the field could swing either way in the foreseeable future, or it could accommodate both technologies. However, FCEV tech has been attracting a lot of time, effort, and dollars in recent years, and those stakeholders are not going to give up without a fight.


With that in mind, our friends over at Energy Storage Report have just come out with a pro/con overview of the future of the energy storage industry, in which they link to an article that leverages a cradle-to-gate lifecycle analysis to make a new case against BEVs. Of course, that article was scribed by a fuel cell industry stakeholder, but then again one of our strongest contributing FCEV critics is a battery industry stakeholder. Just sayin’.

An FCEV Unicorn In Every Pot

Our more immediate concern is the use of natural gas as the primary source of hydrogen for FCEVs. Along with our sister site PlanetSave we’ve covered the natural gas fracking issue exhaustively, which is why we give hydrogen FCEVs the stinkeye under the current scenario.

However, that picture could change pretty quickly as new solar-to-hydrogen technology emerges, and that’s where the new Energy Department fuel cell competition will come into play.

The new competition, called the “$1 million H2 Refuel H-Prize,” is aimed squarely at the distributed market for refueling electric vehicles, which includes homes, retail businesses, and other commercial sites.

Distributed BEV charging has already gone mainstream to the point where major developers are offering new home buyers an integrated charging station package, and it’s becoming a common feature at workplaces and retail sites, too. That puts the FCEV industry way behind the curve now. However, the trend is a good one for the EV industry overall because it mainstreams the idea that individual consumers can integrate their vehicle into a more holistic treatment of household energy use.

The new competition aims to jumpstart home-scale hydrogen production technology, using two fuels that are currently available in most homes. One is natural gas, so we’re not particularly rooting for that side although we should note that many grid-connected BEV charging stations are still supplied by electricity sourced from natural gas and, for that matter, coal.

The other source is electricity itself, and that’s where you’re going to get your renewable energy options for FCEVs, in much the same way that the BEV market can take advantage of improved access to both distributed and grid-connected renewable energy.

Here’s the Energy Department’s happy recap of FCEV progress to date:

With support from the Energy Department, private industry, and the Department’s national laboratories, significant progress has been made in reducing costs and improving performance for fuel cell and hydrogen technologies. These research and development efforts have helped reduce automotive fuel cell costs by more than 50% since 2006. At the same time, fuel cell durability has doubled and the amount of expensive platinum needed in fuel cells has fallen by 80% since 2005.

If you want to get in on the H2 Refuel H-Prize, you can get all the details from the H2 Refuel site.

H2 Refuel and the H-Prize are being administered for the Energy Department by a non-profit organization called the Hydrogen Education Foundation.

The HEF website is rather thin on stakeholder support but if you follow the links to some of their other fuel cell projects, along with Energy Department sponsorship you can get a handle on some of the other stakeholders.

Drop us a note in the comment thread if you find anything of interest there.

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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+.

  • Pete Marevich

    The debate is over. This article sounds like a round table for people who don’t understand fuel cells and cannot see how simple it is: energy is neither created nor destroyed, use energy to create hydrogen so the hydrogen can later be used to provide energy. It’s that simple.

    The silver lining from the Fukashima disaster is that Japan is now fully committed to the Hydrogen Economy and leads the way for others (like Jim below who just doesn’t get it). South Korea is in 2nd place. California is in 3rd. Hawaii in 4th. And the European Union rounds out the top 5. Unfortunately, my home state of Michigan, is asleep at the wheel.

    Hydrogen has always been our source of fuel: oil, coal, and natural gas all have hydrogen as their active ingredient. The only change anyone is proposing is using the hydrogen from water as we phase out hydrocarbons. But, the hydrogen has always been there as our #1 fuel provider and will always remain the constant as we transition from hydrocarbons to just hydro.

    It is amazing how the simple common sense truth elicits such emotional and religious type zeal in people; nothing provocates quite like the truth. Here’s a question for the religious types of battery promoters: How do you generate the 5 trillion kwh per year that America needs to run their electricity needs? If you don’t have a legitimate answer for that, you cannot be taken seriously. Sorry.

    • Martin WINLOW

      “…Japan is now fully committed to the Hydrogen Economy…” Yeah! Right up ’till when they actually realise how much it’s all going to cost… and then they’ll be sneaking back to nuclear again as if nothing ever happened! Zealotry is one thing, insanity is another – and I think I’d rather be in the former camp than the latter as far as a replacement for traditional fossil fuelled transport is concerned.

      • Bob_Wallace

        Hydrogen made from electricity is not an energy source. It’s a storage system. And a very inefficient storage system.

        If you’re talking about H2 extracted from natural gas, better to use the NG directly and not suffer the energy losses created by reforming and compressing. And since Japan has little of its own NG that is not going to be a cheap route.

        Hydrogen as storage doesn’t compete well against battery or PuHS storage.

        Nuclear doesn’t compete well against renewables. Paid off plants are somewhat competitive, but even they sometimes fail for economic reasons.

        The ‘establishment’ in Japan is kicking the can around. After a while longer the game will get tiresome and they’ll go ahead with the move to renewables.

    • Bob_Wallace

      People on this forum have a very good understanding of fuel cells and hydrogen. They understand that hydrogen from natural gas is not good for the climate and is a short term solution, at best. They also understand that hydrogen is a very lossy, thus expensive, storage technology. It’s that simple.

      ” How do you generate the 5 trillion kwh per year that America needs to run their electricity needs? If you don’t have a legitimate answer for that, you cannot be taken seriously. Sorry.”

      How? With a combination of renewables and storage.

      If you’re worried about how we generate 5 trillion kWh with renewables then you need to worry even more about how we would be able to generate an even higher amount of electricity were we to use H2 as a storage technology. The stuff is just too lossy. For example, for every FCEV we might use in place of an EV we’d have to generate >2x as much electricity.

      Learn the facts if you with to be taken seriously. Seriously.

  • Michael Miller

    In my opinion Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles solve a few problems at once. Nice article.
    Just found technical paper that says probable price for 1kg of Hydrogen should be under $2.00 per kg. (while also producing power at under .10 kwh) So if FCV (Hyundai “Tuscon” FCV) holds 5.6kg to travel approx. 350 miles it would cost approx. $12.00 usd. vs. what we pay now? Impressive!!!

    The Air Products Construction group developed installation estimates. To match the fueling station criteria in DOE’s Multi-Year Program Plan,
    two DFC-1500s would be required. In this configuration a total of 1,400 kg/day of hydrogen would be produced with a net power production from the fuel cell of 2.4 MW. Using H2A criteria, analysis by DOE-EERA shows that hydrogen price of $1.63/kg is achievable. In this scenario, power is being sold for 8 cents/kWh.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Is that not H2 extracted from methane? If so, that’s no significant progress toward avoiding severe climate change.

      EVs will rarely use rapid charging stations. For most people that’s perhaps four times a year. FCEV drivers will need to fill up at stations on a regular basis. For a 13,000 mile driver that will be 40 to 50 times per year. A larger number of H2 stations would be needed. Add that infrastructure cost in.

    • Martin WINLOW

      Michael – Doesn’t it bother you even the tiniest bit that you (and other like-minded people) appear to be prepared to continue to destroy our environment by your continued use of fossil fuels rather than just accept a very small adjustment to your motoring habits? All that driving an EV over an ICEV requires is an extra 50% on your long journey times for rapid charging (or an extra 10% if you are fortunate enough to be able to afford a Tesla). There are many benefits to EVing that easily compensate.

      As Bob says, migrating to FCs from ICEs just gets us hooked on a different form of fossil fuel – and will cost hundreds of billions of dollars in infrastructure installation as well. Why not just ditch fossil fuels once and for all and spend the money instead on a renewables-based energy generation and distribution infrastructure that could last us forever? Oh, wait! We already have the distribution infrastructure. It’s called the grid!

      It is your elected politicians and their bed-fellows in the oil industry that are preventing us from progressing. However, you can easily and (relatively) cheaply do your bit – put your money where your mouth is and install a couple of kW of PV at home. If everyone did, we would be a huge step further down the road of responsible coexistence with our planet and everything else that lives here. OK, I know I’m sounding like a died-in-the-wool tree hugger. But that doesn’t make what I have said any less true. MW

  • dwells

    First, let me clearly state that I am very much pro-BEV. However, we must remember that for the past hundred years we have been forced into using only one fuel for our cars. We must not allow that to happen again, otherwise we are just trading one monopoly for another. Although it is unlikely that fuel cell research and H2 production research will directly benefit the owners and drivers of cars, the economy as a whole needs to have as many sources of energy as possible to avoid contrived shortages and predatory pricing. A million dollar plum to entice thousands of individuals and corporations to spend their own money on research to find a better means of producing H2 is money well saved.

    • Martin WINLOW

      I take your point but if you are suggesting that by doing away with all forms of car fuel other than electricity we are stuck with a monopoly you are in error for the simple fact that, unlike diesel and petrol (or H2 for that matter), you can’t make it practically and cheaply on the roof of your house.

      • dwells

        1. Many car owners do not have a roof of their own.

        2. It is impractical to take the roof of your house on extended trips. Thus your range would be limited unless you have access to energy either from grid or another source.

        3. The economy does not rely on personal vehicles. It depends on freight haulers.

        • Bob_Wallace

          It’s likely that the only monopoly involved in electricity will be the company that owns/maintains the “wires”. And their profits will be regulated.

          The days of large central generating plants are coming to an end. And the number of companies which are allowed to sell over the common wires are increasing.

  • dogphlap dogphlap

    At the risk of being off-topic I wonder where the four syllable phrase “natural gas” (the indirect source of fuel cell hydrogen) came from when we could have stuck with the two syllables of “methane”. I’m aware the domestic variant has additives to provide a smell test capability but the stuff coming out of fracking wells which does not is still referred to as natural gas (when it’s still methane).
    Have we been led by the nose by marketing.
    Best regards.

    • Martin WINLOW

      For me ‘methane’ has always had a ‘man-made’ connotation whereas ‘natural gas’ is just that, natural as in it occurs naturally. The stuff that comes out of a cow’s derrière is also methane because the cow is ‘man-made’…?

  • Vensonata

    If you live off grid, one little lightbulb (led) will go on in your head when you think about hydrogen. Its the only way remotely efficient to store seasonal energy. Batteries are good for winter storage for 3-5 days but with solar panels now so cheap batteries are comparatively 3 to 4 times as expensive. So one triples the solar array and cuts the battery bank in half. Now what? The over production 8 months a year is huge and still just enough to scrape by in winter. So even if we can harvest 25% of that pv over- production in summer for winter use, it is free electricity and balances out the seasonal solar deficit North of 30 degrees latitude. Where I am, December has a total of 47 hours of bright sunshine per month. July might have 5 times that amount. Seasonal storage is the next big thing.

  • Excellent article, Tina. Thanks. Wish they would listen sooner rather than learn it the hard way that FCEVs are inferior to EVs.

  • Michael G

    I’m not sure people understand the point of research. It is to explore possibilities and see which of many ideas work out, what problems need to be solved, and if they are solvable, or if solvable, economically viable.

    Claiming (as some do) that the issue shouldn’t even be explored assumes perfect knoweledge on the part of the claimant of what will work and what problems can and can’t be solved. Claiming such “perfect knowledge” is the height of arrogance – essentially claiming god-like omniscience not only now but of the future as well.

    Maybe FCs won’t work out but you don’t want a lot of people running around claiming they would have worked if only some research money had been put into it.

    And (this may be a shocking concept) you may not have god-like omniscience. Are your stock picks all working out perfectly?

    • Hazel

      Michael, the question is not about whether to do research. There is a lot of research to be done for hydrogen, with priorities such as safely reaching high energy density, generating it directly from solar energy or electricity at better than 30% efficiency, getting platinum group metals out of fuel cells, and making sure it doesn’t destroy the ozone layer.

      The main issue people have is that with all of these open research questions, why on earth are we spending so much on deployment?

      • Michael G

        Same reason we are spending a lot of money deploying ocean wind turbines. It is not economical now, by quite a bit, but the hope is that it may be if we can solve the right problems. We won’t even know which problems need solving unless we get some out trials out there to see what works and what doesn’t. I cannot go buy a Toyota FC vehicle now despite their position for FC, because everything out there is an engineering prototype.

        The money you are concerned with is a pittance. It is less than 0.0001% of the amount of money currently going into the doomed high-speed rail in CA – around $8 billion now with another $60B projected (not counting the inevitable cost overruns) at the same time that the number of all air flights to/from SF is declining while passenger use at the neighboring San Jose airport is only 2/3 of what it was in 2000. Now there is some *serious* wastage.

        • eveee

          Its how much and when. Why are we spending so much on FCEV deployment now, when costs are so far away from practicality? The comparison with offshore wind fails, because in some areas, offshore wind already has acceptable cost. Hydrogen research should be concentrated on its achilles heels, efficiency, cost, and infrastructure. One cannot help wonder if Toyotas pressing need to put FCEVs in the field is a forced response to the success of BEVs in the market. A premature introduction of FCEVs will not correct that.

          • Hazel

            What eveee said. And, not only are FCEV costs far away from practicality, but the required infrastructure will cost tens to hundreds of billions, with some estimates of a trillion dollars.

            We already have three massive energy infrastructures. There is the grid for electricity, which EVs can use — and BTW which offshore wind can feed into. There are pipelines for natural gas, which are unusable for hydrogen. And there’s a fleet of trucks for liquid fuels, like diesel, gasoline and E85, which are also unusable for liquid hydrogen.

            Are you really going to build out a complete fourth energy infrastructure for hydrogen, when its energy footprint and GHG emissions are already worse than EVs in many places? That’s especially true in California, with very high renewables penetration, charging an EV from the grid is already much cleaner than making hydrogen from natural gas. And charging an EV from renewable electricity is more than twice as efficient as making hydrogen.

            Finally, EVs sit parking for 20-22 hours per day, but only need to charge for 2-5 hours per day (level 2). So they can charge at times which are convenient for the grid: low demand and/or high intermittent renewable generation.

            If you try to make hydrogen by electrolysis only during such times, your capacity utilization is about 20%, and capital costs five times higher than in today’s cost models. The costs go through the roof.

            Hydrogen is just impractical, unclean, inefficient, and a huge waste of money. If you’re gonna even *think* about building out a fourth energy infrastructure, there had better be some darn good savings. And they’re just not there.

            At least high-speed rail is a lot more energy efficient and lower GHG than air travel. You just can’t say anything like that about hydrogen.

          • eveee

            Excellent. Hazel, you are one of the few that gets it. EVs are like portable phones. They are in the hanger charging 95% of the time. EVs when used with V2G are little different than adding a huge amount of battery storage to the grid. And I mean really huge. Each EV holds the equivalent of 2 to 3 days of storage, but the residential need is only for a few hours each night. The potential is obvious.

            Given the fact that auto interests promoted FCEVs heavily over BEVs, prodding CARB to give FCEVs are 5 to 1 ratio of ZEV credits over BEVs, and that most hydrogen will be made inexpensively from natural gas releasing more carbon than gasoline, FCEVs are suspect.

          • eveee

            I forgot. EVs connected to the grid 23 hours a day means that PV solar on residential rooftops and in carports at work both allow daytime charging of EVs. That is not how it is today, but as solar increases, daytime electricity surpluses will spur the need for loads to soak it up.

    • Martin WINLOW

      Are you serious!? FC research has been going on for decades – 50 years or more – by extremely well financed organisations the world over and where have we got to? You STILL can’t buy a FCV ‘off the shelf’ and even if you could there is no-where to fill it up and even if there were you would just be using a fossil fuel to do it (natural gas) and at barely any better efficiency than a petrol/diesel vehicle. The amount of money spent on this ridiculous nonsense must be in the 10’s of billions of $.

      Had that money been spent (or even a 1/10th of it) on battery and renewable energy generation research instead, we would have no energy issues at all and we’d all have been driving around in 300 mile range EVs 30 years ago.

      The H2 fuel cell vehicle idea is, for me, *absolutely* the quintessential modern take on Hans Christian Andersen’s morality fable ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’. In short; an utterly scandalous farce.

      • dogphlap dogphlap

        “STILL can’t buy a FCV”
        Is that true, what about the fork lifts the fuel cell lobby are always crowing about.
        Maybe they are only for lease (I have no idea). Great for 24 hour food warehouses where exhaust gas could taint the flavour of the food but I do wonder about the risk of a hydrogen explosion in a closed or poorly ventilated space. Is not a quick battery swap BEV fork lift option available ? On the face of it it sounds to me as if an expensive and dangerous path was chosen, why ? Were there inducements ? Given an order of magnitude improvement in energy density and price this would be a great place for super/ultra capacitors.
        I am as always anxious to learn.
        Best regards.

  • Marion Meads

    Fuel cells are more efficient than ICE for electricity generation as the case for biogas as the feedstock fuel in a stationary power plant. For use in vehicles, it would be riding the unicorn.

    • Kyle Field

      Thanks for that awesome visual. Now I’m going to have to buy a Honda/Toyota FCEV just to fulfill some long repressed childhood dream 🙂 All joking aside, I agree that there may be a place for FC tech in home generators/Recreational vehicle generators, etc. This could have a natural synergy with the auto industry.

      I personally have no idea why someone would want to buy a car that you still have to go fill up (for $50/tank no less!) vs something you can charge at home/on the go/etc for much less. To fully charge a Tesla (picking the biggest battery with the most range) at retail here in california (.15/kwh), that works out to 12.75/”tank”. On top of that, I can “pre buy” my fuel by putting a few solar panels on the roof, driving that cost (and environmental impact) down to next to nothing.

      I’ll drive on sunshine thank you very much. Have fun with that Hydro bit.

      • Pete Marevich

        Kyle your viewpoint is the most interesting kind to me because you have convinced yourself not to learn anymore. You say “I”, “me”,a and “my” in your post quite a bit.

        What about factories that need electricity? Where does the electricity from your wall outlet come from for $12.75 a tank when the sun isn’t shining? How do you power a factory on batteries? Where do you dispose of your batteries when they’re spent? They’re toxic to water you know.

        The question you have to ask yourself is whether there is more to this equation than your personal pocketbook. Energy solutions need to work for the whole world and future generations. How would you generate 5 trillion kwh’s per year for America?

        I don’t mean to sound disrespectful, but this is serious business. Batteries will play a part to be sure in migrating toward a hydrogen economy, but they do not provide an economically viable long term solution to 100% of the world’s energy needs.


        • Kyle Field

          Funny. I just commented about how it’s important that we not demonize hydro in another post, then I hop over to see this. Here in california, we get LOTS of sunshine so we’re good. We’re also a very dense, energy hungry area, so that fits well with Solar. Wind is great and I believe there could be a place for hydro somewhere…just haven’t found that spot for it yet.

          Batteries are recyclable and yes, we need to ensure that recycling is a part of the spent/tired li-on cells similar to what Tesla is doing (

          I’m not concerned with the US, but the world. The US is well positioned to generate quite a bit of energy from renewable sources…we are critical as we have a large global influence and need to leverage that to drive global change – that’s the huge opportunity here. Helping developing regions skip the dirty bits of the industrial revolution and hop straight to the new clean (and now cheaper) renewable future.

          About learning…I’m all about it. I love it, thrive on it, wither without it. Having said that, facts are tough to argue with and Hydro just doesnt make sense to me (after learning the facts). To break it down for you, here are the big sticking points for me:
          1) Generating hydro is dirty and generates pollution (whereas I can make my own electricity with MY solar panels for MY EV on my roof).
          2) Generating hydro introduces an element of inefficiency (total energy loss going from Electricity to Hydro)
          3) Converting hydro to electricity introduces another element of efficiency loss (from the hydro in the fuel cell back to usable electricity)
          4) FCEVs require new infrastructure (hydro fueling stations) whereas electricity infrastructure already exists.
          5) To be cost competitive, Hyrdo stations would get hydro from central generation stations, thus requiring tankers on the road to supply, introducing more carbon/emissions.

          • Martin WINLOW

            Gad! I was reading this post out of context and I got almost to the end before realising you were talking about hydrogen not hydro-electricity! H2 might be a clearer (and shorter) abbreviation! MW

          • Kyle Field

            Sorry about that! Made a few updates to clarify 😀

        • Bob_Wallace

          How do you power a factory on renewables?

          The largest wholesale grid in the US serves thousands of factories as well as very large commercial buildings and millions of homes.

          If you’d like to see what it would take to power all that with 99.9% renewables then read this research article –

          They used four years of actual demand data as well as wind and solar information to build their model. When you read it keep in mind that the prices of wind, solar and storage are going to be cheaper than what they projected for 2030. Quite a bit cheaper.

          BTW, batteries are largely recyclable. And H2 is not likely to play much of a role in our future energy mix. It’s just too lossy.

  • Jan Veselý

    Fuel cells may have its place as a range extender for hire and “residual load filler” (after PV, wind, hydro, load shifting and batteries).

    • Mike333

      Fuel cells might be great in an industrial application, but they don’t compete with plugin cars you power with Solar energy, which is where the market is headed.

    • Martin WINLOW

      Not when a fuel cell merely powerful enough to run a car still costs $60k! You could get at least 100kWh-worth ( 5 to 10 days of a typical house’s electrical power consumption) top spec battery storage for that sort of money and the overall efficiency would be 10 times better!

      • Jan Veselý

        That’s why I wrote “for hire”. It is pure nonsense to buy this expensive device and have it in the car as a dead weight most of the time. But if you could just hire this device and put it in your car for occasional long trips … could be much cheaper than to buy extra bateries. But I’m afraid it is still too expensive. Fuel cells need to lower their cost by an order of magnitude, maybe they just need to find some “angel investor” as was Germany for Photovoltaics.

  • anderlan

    I think fuel cells “smell” good because hydrogen smells like fusion/nuclear and that means magic. The concept of hydrogen sounds good to laypeople and some of those are politicians. The good vibes from it can’t be killed easily. Though a ride in any BEV greater than a hundred horsepower helps.

    • Martin WINLOW

      If all politicians were ‘laypeople’ we might actually get stuff done. As it is they are mostly a bunch of self-serving profiteers who live an existence so far removed from ordinary people that their job could be better done by frog-spawn.

      • Martin, don’t hold back from saying what you really mean!

        • Martin WINLOW

          Ah, yes. One of those posts one should write… and then leave till the next morning before actually posting… maybe.

          • Kyle Field

            Nah, you’re in good company here 🙂

  • Jim Smith

    Renewables do not change the equation. Rather than wasting a _ton_ of renewable energy generating H2 from H2O, use that energy to power BEVs and the grid.

    FCEV will never work without some miracle scientific breakthrough which totally rewrites the books on physics, chemistry, and thermodynamics. Or of course, government mandate.

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