Hydrogen Cars can Suit Cities Everywhere, University of Houston Says

A car door with a hydrogen and h2 logo on it.

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by | Dec 7, 2023

The University of Houston is bullish on hydrogen fuel cell cars, calling them a competitive and environmentally friendly alternative to traditional gasoline-powered vehicles.

The cars suit Houston, which is jam-packed with traffic and congestion. But they are also good for the global community, which is bent on reducing carbon levels.

In its white paper titled, Competitive Pricing of Hydrogen as an Economic Alternative to Gasoline and Diesel for the Houston Transportation Sector, researchers said that more than 230 million metric tons of carbon dioxide gas are released each year by the transportation sector in Texas. The Texas Department of Transportation added Houston had 5.5 million registered vehicles in 2022.

Consider that Houston is home to several hydrogen facilities used for industrial purposes. Grey hydrogen — made from natural gas — is commonly used today in petroleum refining and fertilizer production. Specifically, it cracks heavier oils to form lighter petroleum products and produces ammonia for fertilizers. But green hydrogen has a lot of potential in the transportation and electricity markets.

“It has more than sufficient water and commercial filtering systems to support hydrogen generation,” the study said. “Add to that the existing natural gas pipeline infrastructure, which makes hydrogen production and supply more cost-effective and makes Houston ideal for transitioning from traditional vehicles to hydrogen-powered ones.”

The study compares steam methane reforming with and without carbon capture and electrolysis using grid electricity. It finds that businesses can benefit significantly from using hydrogen as a fuel source for cars environmentally and economically.

Of course, electric vehicles using lithium-ion batteries lead the alternative car market. The European Union is phasing out the internal combustion engine by 2040, while the Biden Administration wants half of all U.S.-sold vehicles to run on electricity by 2030.

Electric vehicles comprise 2% of the global car market. The U.S. Energy Information Administration says hybrids that run on electricity and gas will make up 34% of cars in developed countries and 28% in emerging economies by 2050.

Cities and Businesses Want To Avoid The Traditional Route

Hydrogen-fueled cars have some advantages over EVs, namely that they can run for longer distances before needing a refill. Most importantly, the exhaust gas from a hydrogen engine consists of pure water vapor. It is, therefore, emissions-free.

Congress has allocated “billions of dollars to develop and implement a demand for hydrogen. Now, that’s going to be complementary with fossil, because we can produce hydrogen with steam reforming methane and put in carbon capture — and it might well qualify for the clean hydrogen tax credit,” Mark Menezes, chief executive of the United States Energy Association said at a recent forum where this writer was a panelist.

“Countries could choose to go the traditional route,” Menezes added. “But they may now see an opportunity to jump over a lot of steps that we had to go through; they see leadership here in the United States on hydrogen. We’re making a choice in response to the environmental issues.”

By 2030, Mike Strizki — founder of the Hydrogen House — said that green hydrogen as an energy form will become mainstream: Toyota and Hyundai are betting on it. 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 daily with 10-minute fill-ups.

Hydrogen Infrastructure Needs to Increase

The main thing is to build out the hydrogen infrastructure. While Strizki is upbeat about the falling costs of green hydrogen and technology, others say it will take time. The primary issue is driving down the cost of electrolyzers, which creates an electric current that splits the hydrogen and oxygen from water.

However, the drive to hit net zero by 2050 is causing policymakers to enact rules to motivate companies to invest and scale up production.

“Climate change is an existential threat to the planet,” said Melanie Kenderdine, principal for the Energy Future Initiative, at the U.S. Energy Association forum. “We need a very thoughtful sequence of policies to get to net zero. So, I think focusing on the most difficult to decarbonize sectors and helping the least developed countries as we transition are the two critical issues.”

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