The Zero-Emissions Debate Continues: Batteries or Hydrogen?

As the vehicle market evolves, industry insiders debate the future of hydrogen fuel cells, and how the most plentiful element in the universe can be the answer to renewable energy and zero-emissions transportation.

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Hydrogen fuel cell technology powers only a small fraction of electric vehicles. Advocates say it could be the answer for zero-emissions transportation in the maritime and aviation spaces.
As cities and utilities move to expand electric vehicle charging infrastructure, technology insiders are debating the use cases and challenges of hydrogen fuel cells compared to rechargeable batteries.

“If batteries keep getting better, cheaper, more energy dense, then the market that’s available for hydrogen mobility will be eroded potentially, over time … because the cost advantage will not be there for hydrogen,” said Richard Bruce, director of Environment and Future Mobility at the UK Department for Transport, in a recent panel discussion organized by CoMotion LIVE.

The vast majority of electric vehicles in both the United Kingdom and the United States are battery electric vehicles. In California, which makes up the lion’s share of the zero-emissions car market, there were just more than 6,900 hydrogen fuel cell cars on the highway by the end of 2019, according to Veloz, an EV advocacy group in the state. This compares to nearly 560,000 battery vehicles on highways by the end of 2019.

Battery technology keeps getting cheaper, while producing longer drive ranges. Battery costs for EVs are down to about $144 per kilowatt hour, while only a few years ago EV batteries cost about $1,000 per kilowatt hour, said David Turk, deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of Energy, during a recent roundtable discussion with the Zero Emission Transportation Association (ZETA).

Advocates for hydrogen fuel technology — which reacts hydrogen and oxygen across an electrochemical cell to produce electricity — say use cases for hydrogen technology may lie primarily in maritime and aviation applications. In both cases, ships or planes need to be quickly refueled and travel for often long distances, making them unsuitable for battery technology. On the other hand, hydrogen works much like diesel or gasoline in its ability to be stored, transported and pumped into vehicles in only minutes. Hydrogen vehicles are also known for their exceptionally long range.

There is “massive opportunity for hydrogen” in maritime and aviation, said Bruce.

Also, as electric utilities look for sources of energy storage to balance grid demands, hydrogen could fill these storage gaps, said Janice Lin, founder and CEO of Strategen and founder and president of the Green Hydrogen Coalition in California.

“I think hydrogen represents the best, most exciting, blue ocean strategy for market potential expansion for renewable electricity,” said Lin, in some of her comments on the CoMotion panel, making the argument to overbuild solar and wind electric production, which can be used to develop hydrogen. Hydrogen can then be used to balance grid demands when the sun isn’t shining, or the wind isn’t blowing.

“To operate the grid reliably, and affordably, there is no other pathway for balancing the grid, you need very large-scale storage … In the future that will be satisfied with hydrogen, and storage,” said Lin.  

Demand for reliable and plentiful electricity from renewable sources will likely only increase. Cities are moving quickly to expand car-charging infrastructure as more electric cars drive off the lots. Officials in Long Beach, Calif., announced dozens of new EV charging ports at numerous locations across the city.

“Currently, we believe our EV infrastructure is sufficient for consumer demand, but we realize that EV charging demand will continue to increase as EV vehicles become more commonplace so the goal of future installations is to keep up with demand,” Jorge Godinez, an administrative analyst in the city’s Public Works Division, told Government Technology. “Also, given our City’s aggressive plan to replace all fleet vehicles with EVs, we will need to constantly expand our EV charging capability for our fleet network as well.”

Electrifying transportation is also a key component of President Joe Biden’s massive infrastructure and jobs proposal. If passed, the plan would build out a national network of 500,000 EV chargers, all but solidifying the ubiquity of the rechargeable battery-powered electric car.

“It’s hard to think of a scenario where the running cost benefits of battery electric light-duty vehicles will be overcome by hydrogen vehicles,” said Bruce.

“All of our support mechanisms say we want zero emissions,” he added. “And we’re not saying what should be in their place. Consumers will choose, I suspect.”
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.