"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.

Show full PR text
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


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    • 1 Second Ago
  • 284 Comments
      purrpullberra
      • 6 Months Ago
      Every hydrogen FC car is an electric battery powered car. They (nearly) have 2 entire powertrains on them like the Fisker or the Volt. Every hydrogen FC car combines the battery aspect with the hydrogen generation/transportation part too. There is no way the FC route can be MORE 'green'. Why carry around the fuel cell if you still need a battery and use an electric motor which runs on electricity? All of the problems with hydrogen production, storage and transportation (by rail, truck or pipeline) is far too dangerous to allow on a large scale. Hydrogen needs to stay in the realms of spacecraft and scientific research. There is no good mainstream use of hydrogen now or in the near future. The dangers are far worse than the supposed benefits.
      • 8 Hours Ago
      I agree that the energy required to produce hydrogen is too high and the infrastructure to deliver it to fuel cell vehicles is too complex rendering it an impractical fuel for cars. Commercial hydrogen is manufactured by reacting natural gas with water at high temperature and pressure. As a chemical engineer I tested ways to improve energy efficiency in the manufacturer of hydrogen including the process to separate the prodigious amount of carbon dioxide and other gas impurities to purify the hydrogen. Hydrogen can also be made by electrolysis of water requiring large quantities of electricity. This also requires processing to separate the hydrogen from the oxygen. Add the impracticability of producing hydrogen to the large investment in infrastructure to deliver the hydrogen to cars - it must be delivered at specialized stations and not at your house like electricity for battery powered cars - and you have a nightmare. Fuel cells join clean coal, ethanol from corn, some high speed trains, and other clean energy boondoggles which drain resources from practical clean energy solutions. Many of the designs for electric cars, smart grids, wind, solar, geothermal power, among others, include an overall development plan as well as unbiased cost benefit analysis. The world has limited resources for solving the climate crises. We need to be smarter in choosing the best solutions. Lynn Lanier
        Joeviocoe
        • 8 Hours Ago
        Exactly right... People don't realize the consequences of going down the wrong path. We cannot simply be in favor of anything claiming to be green. We lose far too much political capital on projects that are economically and/or scientifically impractical... so when it comes time for real action that would help meet our goals realistically, nobody wants to fund or support it.
      • 6 Months Ago
      I mildly disagree. Making syngas from superheating steam is energetically sound, and produces diatomic hydrogen (40%) and carbon monoxide (50%). Separation of gases is trivial, as hydrogen rises. Use the hydrogen for fuel cells. Siphon off the CO to make aldehydes that can be used to make detergents, methanol which can be used to make larger hydrocarbon molecules, and in the production of acetic acid. There's your supply of relatively cheap hydrogen. The CO was needed industrially anyway. So, there's a minimal increase in a carbon footprint involved in superheating the water/steam. Also, what about taking some methane from landfills,sanitation plants, etc and burning it in low oxygen environments to make the steam? That gives you more very hot water/steam and CO as products that can be caught and plugged into the syngas synthesis.
        mxer
        • 8 Hours Ago
        Making syngas from superheated steam?? wtf? Syngas is from coal gassification which produces H2, CO and CO2. You shift the CO by water gas shift to make more CO2 and H2. CO2 can be adsorbed and sequestered giving you pure H2.
        Joeviocoe
        • 8 Hours Ago
        It is NOT at all trivial. There is CO2 produced by this reaction... not just CO (which is still a usable source molecule for fuel)... and CO2 cannot be cost effectively sequestered. Where did you get your data that no CO2 is produced?
          • 8 Hours Ago
          @Joeviocoe
          J: Never claimed there was NO CO2, but if you run the reaction right, it can't exceed 10%, likely less. (You look it up. Syngas is old tech. Many sources are extant.) Separating either CO or CO2 from H2 isn't hard. The carbon molecules are far heavier. As for that residual CO2, maybe you pipe it into greenhouses growing switchgrass, or some such. Then, make bio diesel. If what you want me to admit is that NO system producing usable energy is 100% green, OK. But, where does that leave all of us? Circumstance catches us in the dilemma of picking between little, medium and large evils. Due to fat cats wanting to make obscene profits and getting their way, we have used far too many large evils in the past. Now, let's make an effort and move to little evils. Perfection necessarily eludes us. Put on a higher plane Entropy has us by the short hairs.
          Joeviocoe
          • 8 Hours Ago
          @Joeviocoe
          --"Separating either CO or CO2 from H2 isn't hard." Neither is burning wood for a nice warm fire... but difficulty does not determine efficiency or energy conversion products. --"maybe you pipe it into greenhouses growing switchgrass, or some such. Then, make bio diesel." I've been driving on biodiesel for long while... and no, lack of CO2 is not the limiting factor in biodiesel production. So as far as making Syngas from Steam and Methane only producing 10% or less CO2... I will be happy to see a link for that. A google search on My part won't tell me what You are talking about. But either way, that fails to account for the burning of Syngas in a combustion engine.. which produces CO2 at that location. If you are sourcing your energy from a carbon source... regardless of the many twists and turns you describe in the energy pathway... in order to extract the most energy from Carbon... it will be bonded with Oxygen to create CO2 (which is the lowest energy state for carbon, just as water is for Hydrogen) Well to wheels... if you start with any hydrocarbons.. you will end with CO2 and H2O, even at 100% efficiency.
          Jon
          • 8 Hours Ago
          @Joeviocoe
          @Red > If what you want me to admit is that NO system producing usable energy is 100% green, OK. But, where does that leave all of us? Circumstance catches us in the dilemma of picking between little, medium and large evils So lets pick the little evil. Solar panels and battery storage for grid leveling and transportation. The only environmental impact is in their production. Zero pollution in operation.
      CoolWaters
      • 8 Hours Ago
      Politico notes that, “The Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity paid at least $757,000 primarily to sponsor his [Mark Levin’s] radio show—a sponsorship that covered part of the 2012 cycle.” So, the Koch Brothers gave over $700,000 to Mark Levin, the same man who promoted Dave Brat, the Koch Brothers-funded college professor, for months. -- So Mark Levin was PAID to Shill for David Bratt. -- You got DOUBLE-CROSSED.
      Edge
      • 6 Months Ago
      Many people claim that hydrogen costs as much or more to fuel your vehicle as gas, but the main difference is what that revenue is going towards. Money for oil and gas, is used to explore, and drill for more oil and gas. Major negative use of the revenue, but the producers have to continue this, as it's their main revenue driver. Money for hydrogen will always be geared towards producing hydrogen more efficiently as that helps increases the producers profits. It's a technology driver, just as oil/gas revenue drives better exploration/drilling technology. Now generating hydrogen from oil and gas is a long term dead end. Costs are increasing, and there is less oil and gas over time. So naturally, the inclination, will be to produce hydrogen from other sources, and to develop the technologies to do so efficiently.
        CoolWaters
        • 8 Hours Ago
        @Edge
        With natural gas drillers DUMPING drilling waste into your local streams, supporting Hydrogen just supports this criminal activity against your state and your health. Also, Solar and Wind use will clean up the energy grid and once again make Fish safe to eat, eventually.
        brotherkenny4
        • 8 Hours Ago
        @Edge
        Solar and wind powered electrolysis of water to produce hydrogen. If made cost effective, people could have their own home electrolysis unit that runs of their solar panels. I love it!
      • 6 Months Ago
      Fuel cells have a couple of advantages over batteries when it comes to storing energy. They can be refueled/recharged much quicker, they're lighter for a given range, they take up less volume for a given range, Hydrogen can be stored for longer periods more reliably than electricity.. The property Fuel cell vehicles share with battery-powered EV's is that they produce no harmful emissions directly from the powered device (the car in this case). How Hydrogen is extracted for fuel and how electricity is produced for storage in a battery is where the controversy exists. Both hydrogen and electricity to charge a battery can be produced by methods that are carbon-intensive: (Natural Gas Conversion for H2 / coal fired power plants for e-) and by methods that are carbon free: (Solar powered electrolysis for H2, high temp steam electrolysis in a nuclear plant for H2 / Nuclear power plant for e-, Solar power for e-). I don't where there's such a huge difference in the challenges facing either one, either one can be used as a green facade for hydrocarbon power and either one can serve as a real contributor to carbon reduction, it depends on how we decide to use them.
        Jon
        • 8 Hours Ago
        Hi Rod. Some things to keep in mind: > Fuel cells have a couple of advantages over batteries when it comes to storing energy. They...take up less volume for a given range Not so fast. By the time you package a fuel cell, hydrogen tank, and a battery (FCEV's still need batteries) you will not be better off. A battery can conform to many shapes (see tesla model S). A hydrogen tank must be cylindrical. FCEV's struggle when it comes to cargo space. While poorly designed compliance BEVs also seem to struggle Tesla shows what you can do when you make a BEV right. > I don't where there's such a huge difference in the challenges facing either one There certainly is a difference. The vast majority of hydrogen is produced from natural gas. Julian shows that when produced this way there is hardly any environmental benefit (we would be much better off just running cars on the natural gas). The other way is to use electricity to split water. The issue here is that the process of going from electricity to hydrogen, storing it, then going back to electricity is far less efficient than just storing that electricity in a battery. There are inherent efficiency limits in this process that no technology advance can overcome. This means it will always cost and pollute more to fuel a vehicle on hydrogen produced from electricity than it will to power that car with that electricity directly. For BEVs on the other hand, even with our current grid mix the carbon footprint of a BEV is already smaller than a gasoline powered vehicle and only gets better.
        Joeviocoe
        • 8 Hours Ago
        --' it depends on how we decide to use them. ' For Hydrogen... people have very little (if any) choice. For electricity, many folks simply have solar on their roofs, or buy from renewable sources (just ask your utility, http://apps3.eere.energy.gov/greenpower/markets/pricing.shtml?page=1 ) --" Hydrogen can be stored for longer periods more reliably than electricity.." That is a myth actually. Hydrogen is known for slowly leaking out (still safely) of most containers. You cannot have a FCV sit for months and expect the same amount of hydrogen to still be there. Especially not under 10,000 psi. --"They can be refueled/recharged much quicker" True for now, but 180 KW chargers, 400 mile batteries, and 90 second swap stations, are likely to be available before a nationwide H2 infrastructure is available. --".... for a given range" This is a red herring... if range is sufficient and recharging is available at little to no inconvenience.. "for a given range" quickly becomes moot.... just as nobody demands a 1000 mile range gasoline car, if they rarely go that far, and would be able to refuel anywhere. Effectively, FCVs have shorter range anyway.. since they can only travel around a tethered radius from a H2 station... so BEVs have much longer effective range.
      • 8 Hours Ago
      I hate it when people say water vapor emitting cars are environmentally friendly. Water vapor is the largest greenhouse gas (supposed global warming gas) in earths environment. But because it doesn't contain the word "carbon" nobody gets fanatical about it... I don't understand...
        Letstakeawalk
        • 8 Hours Ago
        That's because there is a limit to how much water vapor the atmosphere can hold, at which point the water vapor condenses and becomes precipitation, dew, frost, or fog.
        mxer
        • 8 Hours Ago
        Look at a psychrometric chart, Bernie.
      hubertsaam
      • 8 Hours Ago
      hydrogen vehicles can be zero emission ....hydrogen can be made by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen with electricity produced by wind and solar. Producing hydrogen is a perfect way to store excess electricity...hydrogen vehicles make a lot of sense and have a bright future.
        CoolWaters
        • 8 Hours Ago
        @hubertsaam
        Debunked. Using Electricity to produce hydrogen is inefficient, the electricity can go directly into an EV and drive you away. No need for the loss of energy to convert water into hydrogen. The Volt Killed the Hydro car.
        Phil Williamson
        • 8 Hours Ago
        @hubertsaam
        ".hydrogen vehicles make a lot of sense and have a bright future." They make zero sense. If you're going to generate power to make hydrogen, might as well skip it and charge batteries...which have wayyy more energy storage. 0-60 mph in 10 seconds (fuel cell) or 0-60 in under 5 seconds with batteries (1.8 seconds in the "White Zombie" electric car. Hydrogen is the horse that left the gate after the race was over.
      • 8 Hours Ago
      Too funny
      Jim1961
      • 8 Hours Ago
      The round trip charge/discharge efficiency of today's lithium batteries exceeds the theoretical maximum efficiency of fuel cells. http://phys.org/news85074285.html
      DarylMc
      • 8 Hours Ago
      Sport is good too. It would be nice to see the kids healthy "and" educated. It really is a double edged sword because not only does everyone have more information but we also get to hear more about the misinformation. I can't bear to think it could be worse with all the knowledge available. Hence my glass half full outlook:)
      CoolWaters
      • 6 Months Ago
      The cars have No Constituency, not on the Left nor on the Right. Just Oil Industry CEO, who by the way, are the only ones who can afford them.
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