Renault Loses Its Marbles, Dissolved In Hydrogen

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Image credit: Anthony BERNIER, via Renault press office.

I am probably the biggest Renault fanboy among the contributors to this site. That I feel compelled to write a scathing comment on the latest Renault plans for zero-emission vehicles is something I did not see coming.

Renault is going with a hybrid strategy of both hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and 100% battery electric vehicles. I have tried to come up with a rational explanation to do this. I have actually tried to find this explanation for years. The more I have learned about the two technologies, the harder it has become to see an advantage for hydrogen fuel cell (HFC) technology.

Renault: “The first advantage: these vehicles meet the new environmental challenges of urban mobility. In addition, they offer increased autonomy, fast hydrogen recharging (from 5 to 10 minutes) and easy maintenance. These advantages make hydrogen electric light commercial vehicles particularly suitable for the intensive needs and uses of professionals in large urban areas up to the periphery of cities: transport and logistics, urban deliveries and multi-technical services, municipal and local authority services, express and special mail.”

The motivation Renault supplies in its press release is better served by battery electric vehicles. With the 3,500 kg limit in most of Europe on light commercial vehicles, the weight of the battery could be an argument for really long-range vans. But the range of the Kangoo is only 50% more than offered by its battery-powered fully electric brethren. The larger Master has nearly triple the range, But that is mainly caused by the pitifully small battery it currently has.

Photo courtesy Renault

The 5–10 minute speed of refueling sounds nice. But after refueling one vehicle, the station needs about 20 minutes to pressurize enough hydrogen to fill the next vehicle. In economic terms of the station operator, a €1,500,000 station can service 3 vehicles per hour. For the same amount, one can build an electric charging station with 12 outlets that can charge 36 vehicles per hour. The mass migration in summer to the Mediterranean and in winter to the Alps is a challenge for the current gasoline refilling infrastructure. Waiting times over an hour at a filling station along the highway are not unusual.

With battery electric vehicles this is going to be very difficult to handle. We will need both a massive investment in infrastructure and a change in traveling habits. The problems for a hydrogen infrastructure are insurmountable.

Due to the inefficiency of the hydrogen cycle, the energy used per kilometer is three times as high in a well-to-wheel calculation as the energy used in a 100% battery-electric vehicle (BEV). In a decarbonized energy economy, this electricity is coming from wind, hydro, and solar energy options. The hydrogen cost is three times higher than electricity for BEVs using these sources. I will not even comment on the current natural gas–based hydrogen production process, because that gas should stay in the ground.

These differences are easily overcome in the pilot and early adopter phase, when only 1–2 vehicles per day use the filling station and the hydrogen is heavily subsidized by industry and government. But not in a realistic future.

Why O Why, Renault

I can only think of two justifications for this strange offering. The first is lack of batteries. There are just not enough batteries produced worldwide to decarbonize transportation in the coming few years. The second is lack of a charging infrastructure and limited experience with superfast DC charging.

Battery production is outside the scope of expertise of the legacy carmakers. As a board member of one of the largest carmakers once said, we are in the car business, not in the chemical industry. Batteries are a commodity, we should just buy them.

That sentiment sounds completely logical, and is completely wrong. The two leaders in electric vehicles worldwide are BYD and Tesla. Both have control over their battery supplies. The third used to be Nissan, and Nissan used to have control over its battery supply.

In the D-segment, where we can compare the Tesla Model 3, Jaguar I-PACE, Audi e-tron, and Mercedes EQC, we see the Tesla offers better range with a battery 2/3 the size of its competitors. When you realize the Tesla battery is also a lot cheaper in $/kWh, it is clear that it is not a fair competition at the moment.

The solution is not hydrogen, the solution is accepting the challenges of battery electric driving and solving them.

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Maarten Vinkhuyzen

Grumpy old man. The best thing I did with my life was raising two kids. Only finished primary education, but when you don’t go to school, you have lots of time to read. I switched from accounting to software development and ended my career as system integrator and architect. My 2007 boss got two electric Lotus Elise cars to show policymakers the future direction of energy and transportation. And I have been looking to replace my diesel cars with electric vehicles ever since. At the end of 2019 I succeeded, I replaced my Twingo diesel for a Zoe fully electric.

Maarten Vinkhuyzen has 279 posts and counting. See all posts by Maarten Vinkhuyzen