Hydrogen For Cars & Trucks Is An Idea Whose Time Has Come — And Gone

Sign up for daily news updates from CleanTechnica on email. Or follow us on Google News!

Dr. Patrick Plötz of the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research in Germany has published a new study at Nature Electronics (paywall) in which he says fuel cell cars and trucks have little chance of becoming commercially viable and that the urgency of the climate crisis demands decision makers focus on battery-electric vehicles instead. The gist of the study is available on Charged EVs.

It’s not that hydrogen will not play a role in reducing carbon emissions, he writes. “Hydrogen will play a vital role in industry, shipping and synthetic aviation fuels. But for road transport, we cannot wait for hydrogen technology to catch up, and our focus now should be on battery-electric vehicles in both passenger and freight transport. The window of opportunity to establish a relevant market share for hydrogen cars is as good as closed.”

At the beginning of 2021, there were about 25,000 hydrogen fuel cell powered cars on the road, two FCEV models available — the Toyota Mirai and Hyundai Nexo — and about 540 hydrogen filling stations around the world. “In contrast, by the beginning of 2022, there are likely to be about 15 million battery-electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles on the road across the world. Almost all manufacturers now sell such vehicles, with more than 350 models available globally.”

Recent technological developments have eliminated the main arguments in favor of FCEVs, namely longer range and shorter refueling times. “When battery-electric vehicles had limited ranges of under 150 km, and charging took a few hours, there was an important and large market segment for fuel cell vehicles — long distance travel. But battery electric vehicles now offer about 400 kilometers of real world range and the newest generation use 800 V batteries, which can be charged for a range of 200 kilometers in about 15 minutes.”

Even in the trucking sector, batteries have left fuel cells behind. Plötz says there are currently some 30,000 battery-electric trucks in operation, mostly in China. More than 150 medium and heavy duty battery-electric truck models have been announced. “Fuel cell electric trucks, on the other hand, have only been operated in test trials (from two manufacturers) to date and are not yet commercially available.”

“The current challenge for battery electric vehicles is long haul logistic operation (with an average of 100,000 km per year) and transport of very heavy goods (which implies high energy consumption per kilometer),” Plötz writes. “This is the use case often discussed for hydrogen trucks. Several truck manufacturers, as well as fuel cell and infrastructure providers, have joined forces and announced a target of 100,000 fuel cell trucks on European roads by 2030.

“But this seems very unlikely when contrasted with announcements from the companies about the earliest start date for the production of commercial series fuel cell electric trucks being in 2027. By that time, the second generation battery electric vehicles will already be commercially available and in operation.”

Plötz admits long haul trucking of more than 500 kilometers per day “poses a challenge” for battery-electric trucks, but European regulations require truck drivers to stop for a 45-minute break after every 4.5 hours of driving. “Within 4.5 hours, a heavy truck could travel up to around 400 km, and thus practical [battery] ranges of about 450 km would suffice if high-power fast charging for battery-electric trucks was widely available.”

He notes that specifications for the new megawatt charging system (MCS) standard, which could enable charging levels as high as 3.75 MW, are expected to be announced by the end of 2022, and a final standard is expected in 2023. According to Green Car Reports, the MCS could swing the advantage back to electric trucks, but it is not yet clear whether it will be less expensive than hydrogen. The total cost of ownership will ultimately be the determining factor in whether fuel cells or batteries dominate in trucking.

“Policymakers and industry need to decide quickly whether the fuel cell electric truck niche is large enough to sustain further hydrogen technology development, or whether it is time to cut their losses and to focus efforts elsewhere,” the study concludes.

The Hydrogen Dream

Oil and gas companies continue to greenwash their public communications with articles about the wonders of hydrogen. When it gets used to power a fuel cell (Toyota even has an internal combustion engine that burns hydrogen), the waste products are nothing more than water vapor and heat. What could possibly be “greener” than that?

The problem, as anyone who reads CleanTechnica knows all too well, is that most hydrogen available today is derived from climate-killing methane (incorrectly known as “natural gas”) or coal. While it is possible to make it by splitting water into its component atoms, that takes a lot of electrical energy. Hydrogen advocates blithely say we can simply use excess renewable energy to do it, but that assumes wind and solar farms will be able to supply all the world’s needs with plenty left over to run electrolyzers. We are nowhere near close to that point today and won’t be for a decade or more.

Hydrogen is also much more expensive than renewable energy, so the economic advantage it enjoys as a fuel will be far less than it is for battery-electric vehicles, although Bloomberg does suggest that “green” hydrogen could be cheaper than “blue” hydrogen by 2030. That still is no guarantee it will be cheaper than electrons from renewable energy sources, at least when calculating the cost of powering a motor vehicle from Point A to Point B. The dream of hydrogen-powered motor vehicles is dead. Time to move on.

The use case for hydrogen is in industry — making steel and cement and fertilizers, for example. Researching ways to make that happen is well worth the investment in time and money, as those industries pump enormous amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. By all means, let’s find ways to make those industries carbon neutral or even zero carbon.

The planet could use a rest from all the crud that gets pumped into the environment every hour of every day with the excuse that people need jobs and jobs depend on fossil fuels. They don’t. In the long term, they will depend on abundant, zero emissions energy, or else all the workers will be dead, along with virtually all human beings on Earth — a point the free market economists and capitalism advocates conveniently fail to include in their calculations.

It’s like saying humans need to breathe in oxygen to survive — which is true — while neglecting to point out they also need to exhale — which is equally true. An economy that is not sustainable is a lie told for private profit. Pursuing that lie will be the death of us all.

Have a tip for CleanTechnica? Want to advertise? Want to suggest a guest for our CleanTech Talk podcast? Contact us here.

Latest CleanTechnica.TV Videos

CleanTechnica uses affiliate links. See our policy here.

Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

Steve Hanley has 5554 posts and counting. See all posts by Steve Hanley