What about Hydrogen?

Last spring the New Brunswick government created a committee with a mandate to make recommendations on how the province should respond to the threat of climate change. The committee sought input from both expert witnesses and the general public. I prepared both a written brief and made a presentation to the committee – simply as a concerned citizen. Here is an excerpt from my brief on a topic which I have not posted on previously.

What about Hydrogen?

Electric vehicles (EV) also include a category of vehicle which uses a tank of compressed hydrogen as the main energy store rather than a battery. These are known as fuel cell vehicles (FCV). The fuel cell component in a FCV uses hydrogen to create electricity which is then used to power an electric motor. The primary advantage FCV have over BEV is a faster refuelling time. The fastest chargers so far still require 30-60 minutes to fully recharge the battery in a BEV. Refilling the hydrogen tank of a FCV requires about the same amount of time needed to refill the tank of a gasoline/diesel vehicle.

While having the advantage of quicker refuelling, FCVs have a long list of disadvantages:
1. Most hydrogen is produced using a fossil fuel: natural gas.
2. The energy requirements to create, compress, distribute, and convert to electricity make hydrogen 2-3 times more expensive as a fuel source than simply charging a battery.
3. The hydrogen molecule is very small hence difficult to contain.
4. Hydrogen is explosive and burns with an invisible flame.
5. FCVs must fill from a hydrogen filling station. Most of the time, BEVs are charged overnight at home.
6. A FCV must have access to a hydrogen filling station locally and where ever it goes. A BEV can be easily charged at home and, given enough time, anywhere else with a basic electrical outlet.
7. Estimates for installing a hydrogen filling station range in the area of $1–2 million. Estimates for high-speed BEV chargers are roughly in the $30-60 thousand dollar range. 

One of the largest proponents of fuel cell vehicles is the automotive giant Toyota. Toyota has worked on the development of FCVs for 23 years and invested several billions of dollars. As of May 2016 only 210 of Toyota’s flagship FCV, the Mirai, have been sold in the US and all of those were sold in California, the only state with hydrogen filling stations.

So I couldn’t find much to recommend about hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. In fact, since I wrote my brief, sales of battery electric vehicles (like my Leaf) increased by over 7,000. During that period maybe a few dozen Toyota Mirai were sold in the US. Also during that period, Toyota’s fuel cell technology partners, Honda and Hyundai, have hedged their bets by announcing battery electric vehicles of their own.

Of course, you never know. Fuel cell technology could surprise everyone and make a break through which resolves all or most of its issues.  While you’re waiting for that miracle, may I suggest a nice Leaf, Bolt or Model 3?


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