Renault Scenic Vision HFC extended battery-electric fantasy, image courtesy of Renault

Renault’s Hydrogen Fantasy Debunked

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Renault’s hydrogen concept car is a fantasy that needs to be debunked. The concept is to make a c-segment MPV / SUV with a smallish battery (40kWh) and a hydrogen fuel cell range extender that can add an extra 500 miles of range using a 15 kW fuel cell. This sounds nice, but the devil is in the details.

At the moment, there is no hydrogen filling infrastructure. You can not get it when you need it while you are traveling. But there is a usable charging infrastructure in some countries, and a mediocre one in other countries, both for AC charging for daily needs and DC charging for traveling needs. So this car is for at least five, perhaps ten years into the future.

In those five or more years, with tens of billions in subsidies, there could be an European-wide H2 filling infrastructure in the making. In the same time, mostly financed by commercial parties, there will be a very usable European DC charging infrastructure for drivers traveling with electric cars.

This is only about Europe, because Renault sells mainly to Europe with some sales in Africa and Latin-America. Any large scale hydrogen infrastructure as needed for cars is highly unlikely in those places.

This concept car has a 40 kWh battery. In five years it will be no problem for most drivers to charge their car overnight. For those with charging on their own property this goes without question. For most parking in public spaces, the number of chargers in walking distance will be adequate for most people. This charging infrastructure is augmented by charging at shopping centers and at workplaces. For traveling to places without an electric grid, rent a big diesel SUV and put a few jerry cans with reserve fuel in the trunk.

As is mentioned in many discussions before, 40 kWh is more than enough for daily use by the vast majority of people. Charging every few days or once a week would suffice for their needs. That makes the 500 miles of extended range by expensive hydrogen an option for traveling. This extra energy is supplied by a 15 kW fuel cell.

With that kind of range you should not be forced to travel at say 55 mph. On European highways 75-80 mph is more customary. The Scenic name is the name of the Renault midsized MPV, perhaps evaluating into a SUV. That is not the most economical of body styles.

Hydrogen tanks for 500 miles of range are requiring a lot of space. While big on the outside, this car will not be big on the inside, or it would be really big on the outside, making this car not the first choice for holiday travel with a family.

Two of the three 53-liter, 700 bar hydrogen tanks that provide about 350 miles EPA range

The 15 kW supplied by the fuel cell is hardly enough for 55 mph when you have a very efficient, streamlined vehicle. But who knows what five more years of electric drivetrain development can bring. Perhaps it is enough for driving a big, fully loaded MPV at 50 mph. For traveling at 80 mph, what is normal for these trips, with a family and luggage, perhaps even a roof coffer, it will be over 25 kW that the motor is consuming.

Now some not so complicated math. When consuming 10 kW, the battery is flat after 4 hours driving. When driving at 80 mph, that means a flat battery after 320 miles and slowing to less than 55 mph (some energy is needed for the airco in summer, and heating in winter, the two most popular times of the year for traveling).

Now we have only 320 miles of range total, not an extra 500 miles of extended range.

In five years, battery technology will be a lot better. The current high prices because of demand being larger than supply, both for raw and processed materials as it also is for battery cells, can not last for ever. Not in five years, but likely well within ten years, battery prices will return to normal, according to the battery technology cost curve.

This cost curve has been in effect for at least the last 20 years with an average decline in prices of just over 14% each year, halving prices every five years. The cost curve does not look at chemistry. It does not care if it is NMC, LFP, sodium-based, or even nano-scale flywheels inside the black box. The energy storage cost per kWh are lower each year. Scarcity caused by disasters or supply and demand being out of balance can disrupt this trend. After a while, the price will return to the normal level.

In ten years, the cell price for batteries will likely be around $25/kWh. A 100 kWh battery will be a lot smaller, cheaper, and possibly not heavier than this construction, with its battery plus giant hydrogen tanks and a fuel cell. A 100 kWh battery will also bring you 320 miles further before it is flat. But a stop to charge every 2.5 to 3 hours (200-240 miles) while using the bathroom and getting some refreshments is smart on long trips. Only when traveling on the German Autobahn with speeds over 100 mph do you need a larger battery.

Now with the business case for this hydrogen dream truly debunked, what rest is a simple question. What are they thinking at Renault? Or better, why aren’t they thinking at Renault?

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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 280 posts and counting. See all posts by Maarten Vinkhuyzen