Toyota FCV, a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle concept

"Isn't it a bit chilly in here?" Ever have one of those crazy, somewhat embarrassing dreams where you're going about your day as normal, when suddenly you realize you've forgotten to put on pants before leaving the house? Scary, right? Well, this is the nightmare scenario certain automakers might soon be waking up to if a recent criticism of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCEVs) is correct. It's all about the customer. Or lack thereof.

Who, exactly, is the target market for the first generation of commercially available FCEVs?

While Mercedes-Benz, Toyota, Hyundai and others have spent many years and billions of collective dollars taking fuel cell technology from the lab and making it work inside a standard sort of vehicle, they might have skipped over an important consideration. Having mostly conquered size, durability, power output and other concerns, the companies are now poised to release their hydrogen-fueled, water vapor-emitting vehicles into showrooms and sell them to ... well, the that's the thing. Who, exactly, is the target market for the first generation of commercially available FCEVs?

One might imagine fans and advocates of environmentaly-friendly vehicles to be gathered in hungry packs, salivating for a ride that is so often touted as zero-emissions. But, they are not. Why? Because hydrogen is not a zero emissions fuel, as it requires energy to separate it from the molecules in which it resides in the natural world. Lots of energy. In fact, if calculations offered up by one Julian Cox (and sent directly to the California Energy Commission (CEC)) are correct, these technological-breakthrough vehicles are every bit as carbon-intensive as similarly-sized ones powered by gasoline.

We encourage you to read the whole thing, but here's the gist. Cox argues that the process used to turn natural gas into hydrogen and prepare it for use in cars puts just as much CO2 into the atmosphere as that which sees gasoline burned for transporting ourselves about. Moreover, he takes assorted hydrogen-promoting agencies to task for glossing over – nay, outright lying about – the environmental impact of using hydrogen as a fuel. Here's a taste:

"The entirely inevitable economic outcome of funding natural gas based hydrogen infrastructure will be to create a Trojan Horse. ... Fossil fuel derivatives publicly endorsed as "green energy" is already precipitating a travesty of both public and private sector resource-misdirection as well as media confusion resulting from the blurring of boundaries between investing for emissions and for emissions-reduction simultaneously under the banner of "green".

Seriously, read the details and the counter argument.

For their part, hydrogen boosters have responded to the charges by sending a letter of their own to the CEC. The complete text, along with Cox addressing the counter claims (highlighted in red), can be found here. When the author, longtime hydrogen supporter Sandy Thomas, forwarded the original document to colleagues for their perusal, he also included several additional points, as you can read below.

Cox argues that hydrogen car puts just as much CO2 into the atmosphere as gasoline vehicles.

Firstly, Thomas says electric vehicles can not be called truly zero-emissions until all the power generation is fossil-fuel free, while FCEVs could earn that title if powered exclusively by "hydrogen made from biogas or a municipal solid waste plant...". Secondly, the battery-powered drivetrain has limited potential to reduce greenhouse gasses because it can't be implemented in all types and sizes of vehicles like hydrogen fuel cells can. Finally, the retired president of H2Gen Innovations argues that greenhouse gas figures should use marginal utility grid mix and not the average grid mix for each region, since those would be higher. Maybe it's just us, but those arguments would seem to be both the smallest and most transparent of fig leaves.

The reality is that the most prospective set of would-be buyers of low-carbon vehicles already have a growing number of electric and plug-in hybrids to chose from, so who's going to shell out money for a fuel cell vehicle that is range-restricted due to a lack of refueling infrastructure, when a similarly powerful and polluting people mover can be had for half the price and driven anywhere in the country. Some, sure, but not many, we suspect.

While some may call out the exorbitant cost of a hydrogen refueling infrastructure as being the biggest challenge to it as a potential future fuel, it may be that consumer non-acceptance will knock it out in the first round. If you think the critics are wrong or that the FCEV emporer has no clothes, let us know in Comments.

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Dear Colleagues,

As some of you may have learned, a man from California, Julian Cox, wrote to the California Energy Commission on May 19, urging them not to fund hydrogen fueling stations on the grounds that FCEVs will not reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The attached letter is a rebuttal to Mr. Cox's letter. I have included three items not normally included when comparing BEVs with FCEVs:

in order for a large number of BEVs to be true well-to-wheel zero emission vehicles, all fossil fuel power plants must be retired or carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) equipment must be added in each utility grid (although wealthy persons can add solar panels to charge individual BEVs); no such requirement exists for FCEVs, since many zero emission FCEVs could be powered today by hydrogen made from biogas or a municipal solid waste plant such as the Fountain Valley system.

The ability of BEVs to reduce GHG and local emissions is limited by the market potential of BEVs, a limitation that does not apply to FCEVs since fuel cells can power all sizes and types of vehicles, and when calculating GHG emissions, one should use the marginal utility grid mix and not the average grid mix for each region, which increases the GHGs from charging BEV and PHEV batteries.

My thanks to Bob Boyd, Catherine Dunwoody, Jeff Serfass, and Bob Shaw for their contributions to crafting this response.

Best regards,

C.E. (Sandy) Thomas, Ph.D.
Former President (ret.) of H2Gen Innovations, Inc. of Alexandria, Virginia