It seems there is a huge debate taking place in Germany at the moment. On the one hand, we have the German government advocating for the use of liquid fuels derived from hydrogen. On the other hand, we have scientists at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) arguing in a new study: “Such fuels as a universal climate solution are a bit of a false promise. While they are wonderfully versatile, they cannot be expected to replace fossil fuels on a large scale. This can only be achieved with direct electrification. Hydrogen-based fuels are likely to be very scarce and uncompetitive for at least another decade.” That inspired Herbert Dies, CEO of Volkswagen Group, to tweet:
Das Wasserstoff-Auto ist nachgewiesen NICHT die Klimalösung. Im Verkehr hat sich die Elektrifizierung durchgesetzt. Scheindebatten sind reine Zeitverschwendung. Bitte auf die Wissenschaft hören! @ArminLaschet @OlafScholz @andreasscheuer @ABaerbock https://t.co/LfErDmBs5R
— Herbert Diess (@Herbert_Diess) May 18, 2021
What? Your high school German is a little rusty? Here’s the translation as provided by Teslarati: “The hydrogen car is proven NOT to be the solution. Electrification has established itself in traffic. Sham debates are a waste of time. Please listen to the science!”
Diess and Tesla major domo Elon Musk have been having an active bromance for a while now. After Diess’ tweet, Musk had one of his own.
Diess is right. Hydrogen is a staggeringly dumb form of energy storage for cars. Barely worth considering it for a rocket upper stage, which is its most compelling use.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 20, 2021
Here’s more from the PIK study: “Direct use of electricity would make more economic and ecological sense in the coming years, especially in the passenger car sector. It is also criticized that new hydrogen-based fuels could keep combustion technology alive longer, which in turn would ensure continued dependence on fossil fuels and thus further greenhouse gas emissions and endanger the climate targets.”
Falko Ueckerdt, the lead author of the study, adds, “Such fuels as a universal climate solution are a bit of a false promise. While they are wonderfully versatile, they cannot be expected to replace fossil fuels on a large scale. This can only be achieved with direct electrification.”
Why Here? Why Now?
If you are curious about what has Diess so riled up, this comment from the Reddit EV sub-reddit by linknewtab explains things a bit.
“Actually the current German government is the main lobbyist for hydrogen. The economy and energy minister has this obsession about hydrogen replacing oil and by Germany importing vast quantities of hydrogen made in Africa and Australia from solar power.
“Why he wants to trade Germany’s energy dependency from Russia and the middle east to Africa, instead of becoming energy independent (which renewables in Germany and Europe would allow if you don’t waste so much of it by making hydrogen out of it) he won’t say. But it’s his big dream and all the lobbyists and media are pushing for it.
“They are basically promising that everything stays like it is, that there won’t be any big change. Just switch out oil and natural gas with green hydrogen and nobody has to adjust to anything new like those weird electric cars or heat pumps to heat your home. We’ll just import hydrogen and everything will be fine.”
it’s silly season in Germany (there are elections in September) and the conservative and liberal parties are pushing hydrogen and synthetic fuels.
In a blog post in 2019, Volkswagen stated its position on the hydrogen versus battery electric transportation clearly.
Which energy has the best efficiency and is the most cost-effective for driving e-cars? Battery or hydrogen operation? With battery-powered e-cars, only eight percent of the energy is lost during transport before the electricity is stored in the batteries of the vehicles. When the electrical energy used to drive the electric motor is converted, another 18 percent is lost. This gives the battery-operated electric car an efficiency level of between 70 to 80 percent, depending on the model.
With the hydrogen-powered electric car, the losses are significantly greater: 45 percent of the energy is already lost during the production of hydrogen through electrolysis. Of this remaining 55 percent of the original energy, another 55 percent is lost when hydrogen is converted into electricity in the vehicle. This means that the hydrogen-powered electric car only achieves an efficiency of between 25 to 35 percent, depending on the model. For the sake of completeness: when alternative fuels are burned, the efficiency is even worse: only 10 to 20 percent overall efficiency.
Does hydrogen have its uses? Sure. It can significantly reduce carbon emissions in the steel production process. But for making fuels or powering vehicles, it’s a non-starter. The EV revolution won’t include significant numbers of hydrogen fuel cell cars despite what Akio Toyoda thinks or claims to think.
The graphics below explain it all. Every time energy is converted from one form to another, there are loses. Hydrogen just has far too many conversions to ever be practical for transportation purposes.