Hydrogen or Electricity? Carmakers take Different Paths

by | Mar 25, 2022

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BMW has long been on the cutting edge of automotive technology. But its most recent endeavor into hydrogen-fueled transportation could be its most consequential. It’s taking the twin routes of developing electric vehicles alongside those that run on fuel cells to sidestep fossil fuels. The goal: to mass-produce hydrogen fuel cell cars by 2030. 

BMW is not alone. Hyundai and Toyota are making similar moves. The fuel, which leaves no emissions when combined with oxygen in a fuel cell, can run everything from vehicles to factories to power plants. In the case of cars, it is safer than gasoline, lighter than air, and easily maintained. And one hydrogen station can service 400 cars a day with fill-ups lasting five minutes.

“BMW is convinced that hydrogen can make an important contribution to sustainable mobility alongside battery-electric vehicles in the future – provided the necessary hydrogen infrastructure is in place and offers a good price for hydrogen, and the price of the vehicles falls,” the company says in a statement. “In those circumstances, hydrogen fuel cell cars can be the zero-emissions technology that allows users to maintain the flexible driving habits they are accustomed to.”

Pure hydrogen is stored in a tank before piping it to a fuel cell to create clean electricity. For it to become mainstream by 2030, prices have to fall. Central to that is electrolyzers — the device that creates an electric current to split apart the hydrogen and oxygen from the water where it is found. Those costs have to fall from $840 per kilowatt to $420 per kilowatt.

BMW says that a critical advantage of hydrogen cars is that they have a longer range than all-electric cars. A full hydrogen tank runs for about 300 miles. Cars with large batteries can match that, but they cost notably more. Furthermore, they take longer to charge. Consequentially, electric vehicles lose range in cold weather. But hydrogen cars do not. Most importantly, the exhaust gas from a hydrogen engine consists of pure water vapor. It is therefore emissions-free. The carbon footprint is neutral if renewables generate the electricity used to break down hydrogen and oxygen.

“We should also not forget that hydrogen technology is not new, but is tried and tested in a range of fields,” BMW says. “By way of example, refineries today use large quantities of hydrogen as a process gas in the processing of crude oil. Pipelines and hydrogen storage have also been in operation for decades.”

Commercial and Industrial Fleets to Benefit 

Even hydrogen’s most ardent advocates acknowledge that significant energy losses occur when hydrogen is produced and transported: as much as 70% of the energy content may get lost. BMW says that it is half the overall efficiency of a battery-powered vehicle. However, if the electricity comes from abundant wind and solar, then it does not matter how inefficient the making of hydrogen is.

“With so much renewable energy, who cares if hydrogen production is inefficient,” says Mike Strizki, founder of the Hydrogen House. “Free is still free. We can do seasonable storage of energy and pump the hydrogen into the existing pipelines — as much as 20%. Once the infrastructure gets in place, we will be hard-pressed to resume burning carbon. With renewable energy, you never drill a dry hole. Right now renewables are cheaper and energy storage makes it viable.”

FedEx already has a delivery truck running on hydrogen in New York State.
Meantime, Fuel Cell maker Plug Power says that it is on track to build out 70 metric tons of green hydrogen per day by the third quarter of next year. That compares to the current global capacity of 300 metric tons that is produced from fossil fuels. So almost 20% of hydrogen production next year will come from clean sources. Moreover, green hydrogen prices will keep falling, and ultimately, it will be the lowest cost fuel for transportation — made possible by the dramatically falling cost of wind and solar energies.

But hydrogen proponents say that more government incentives are needed, similar to electric vehicles. There will be a need for significant investments in the infrastructure. But clean car buyers must also get tax breaks, a move that is working in Norway where 75% of all new vehicles run on electricity.

As for the Volkswagen Group, it says that it concentrates on producing battered-powered vehicles for the masses. But it is continuing to research fuel cell technology. For example, the Audi division started in 2021 a small-scale hydrogen-powered vehicle. That said, global climate commitments necessitate immediate solutions — ones that have greater possibilities for electric vehicles. The car company is on the verge of selling more than a million electric vehicles a year.

“In the push-phase from today to 2023/2025, manufacturers will push e-mobility. The main reasons for this are the strict CO2 standards,” says Volkswagen, in a statement. “Added to this are the initial high investment costs. Both of these factors mean that purchase incentives must be set in order to bring e-cars onto the market. In the subsequent pull phase until 2030 and above all until 2035, e-cars will also become more financially interesting for customers.

“This cost advantage is supplemented by lower service costs: because the e-car has fewer service-relevant components such as oil and petrol filters than a combustion engine, less maintenance and repair is required. And: the costs for oil and lubricant changes are completely eliminated,” Volkswagen concludes.

Commercial and industrial fleets will undoubtedly get cleaner — a function of hydrogen-powered vehicles and those with electric batteries. The big carmakers are moving in that direction. BMW is dedicated to zero-emissions cars and focuses on hydrogen, while Volkswagen has a similar mission — but has put more of its marbles on e-mobility. They are destined to achieve more significant economies of scale, and businesses will be the beneficiaries.

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