A new paper titled The Relative Merits of Battery-Electric Vehicles and Fuel-Cell Vehicles (PDF) weighs the benefits and disadvantages of battery electric vehicles compared to hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. Thankfully, it gives us some actual numbers to work with. Authors Brandon Schoettle and Michael Sivak from the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI), cite technical literature and interviews with automotive and energy experts to compare the two alternative energy powertrains, and uses gasoline vehicles as the standard.
Many of the pros and cons are well-worn information at this point, since the debate between BEVs and FCEVS has been ongoing for some time now. While many automakers say they're working on many different future solutions, others have placed their bets one way or the other, and they aren't shy about detailing the advantages of their own pet alternative powertrain projects while pointing out the failings of the competition. Toyota, for instance, is happy to talk up its hydrogen powered Mirai while taking shots at the BEV model. Likewise, Renault and Nissan have committed to battery power, and have extolled its virtues for years now (though they are hedging that bet with hydrogen a little).
BEVs use an average of 54 Btu per mile, while FCEVs range from 27 to 67 Btu/mi.
What we already know – and the UMTRI paper reiterates – is that BEVs are more readily available, have more available models, lower operating costs, and the required infrastructure is relatively inexpensive. More specifically, there are 13 battery-powered models to choose from, while the authors of the study count just three available fuel cell models. BEVs do take longer to charge, but it only costs about $1,000 to install a charger at home, while public chargers cost anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000. Compare that to the $3 to $5 million a hydrogen station costs, and it puts the infrastructure problem into perspective.
FCEVs have the obvious advantages of quick refueling and longer driving range. The only other somewhat significant advantage hydrogen vehicles have over their battery-powered counterparts is their well-to-wheels petroleum consumption. BEVs use an average of 54 Btu per mile, while FCEVs range from 27 to 67 Btu/mi (though either beats the heck out of gasoline-powered cars at 3,791 to 4,359 Btu/mi). On the other hand, BEVs produce fewer well-to-wheels greenhouse gas emissions, averaging 214 g/mi compared to FCEVs' 260 to 364 g/mi (gas vehicles emit 356 to 409 g/mi). BEVs beat FCEVs in average fuel economy (105.2 mpge vs. 58.5 mpge) and operating costs ($0.04/mi vs. $0.09/mi).
BEVs beat FCEVs in average fuel economy (105.2 mpge vs. 58.5 mpge).
The paper points out that gas cars, besides having a multitude of available models and robust fueling infrastructure, also have the advantage of being familiar. Mechanics already know their way around them, and the alternatives require extra training for the high voltage of BEVs and the pressurized hydrogen in FCEVs. On the other hand, gasoline-powered cars are less efficient and require more maintenance.
So on paper, at least for now, it appears that battery power has the edge on hydrogen – unless, perhaps, you live in California and regularly need to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time. This information might actually be a bit discouraging to the FCEV camp (though we can be sure that automakers like Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai will continue to double down on H2, at least rhetorically). Still, if you care about energy efficiency, clean air and our addiction to oil, you can feel good about either choice of alternative powertrain if you've moving away from gas.