Electric or hydrogen-based vehicles? Why not have both alongside each other?

The eye-catching all-electric Tesla might look great for commuting but hydrogen cars could be better for longer drives, H-Tec says.

The eye-catching all-electric Tesla might look great for commuting but hydrogen cars could be better for longer drives, H-Tec says.

By Jason Deign

The debate over whether we should drive battery or hydrogen-based cars has an easy answer, according to Heinrich Gärtner of German hydrogen electrolyser firm H-Tec Systems. We should drive both, he said.

In an ideal de-carbonised transport world, believes the German company’s chief executive officer, “everything that is used more than approximately two or three hours a day will run on hydrogen.”

Motor transport that moves around for less than a couple of hours a day “is cheaper and easier with batteries,” Gärtner said.

“Anything over a couple of hours is almost impossible because you have limited [battery] capacity and high price.”

The notion of having differently-powered vehicles for different types of use may seem far-fetched. But it is in fact not so far away from today’s reality.

Historically, for example, high-mileage vehicle users in Europe have tended to buy diesel instead of petrol cars, for financial reasons.

 

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The same trend could extend to battery and hydrogen vehicles if both become readily available and access to recharging and refuelling infrastructure is not restricted.

Already, hydrogen is being considered as a potential transportation fuel source in a number of settings, from trains in Britain to boats in France.

H-Tec, which is exhibiting at Energy Storage Europe, is itself planning a community-based hydrogen mobility pilot project in North Germany, Gärtner said.

Because of its potential for use in high-mileage applications, many hydrogen transportation projects to date have focused on public-sector transport systems such as buses.

A week ago, for example, the Belgian bus maker Van Hool said it had taken an order for 40 hydrogen buses, powered by fuel cells from Canada’s Ballard Power Systems, for the streets of Cologne and Wuppertal in Germany. 

Investments in hydrogen technology

“Last year, the heads of some of the world’s biggest oil companies and automakers agreed to push investments in hydrogen technology, saying it could cut annual carbon emissions by 6 billion tonnes by 2050,” Reuters said.

Underlying this, there are tentative signs of growing demand for hydrogen-fuelled private cars.

In California, one of the top markets worldwide for low- or zero-carbon vehicles, fuel-cell cars still accounted for a tiny percentage of total vehicle sales in 2017.

They made up only 0.1% of all new vehicle registrations in 2017, based on the California Green Vehicle Report. This compares to 1.7% for plug-in hybrids, 1.8% for electrics and 4.7% for hybrids.

However, growth in fuel-cell car registrations far outstripped that for any other form of powertrain. Sales grew more than 117% between 2016 and 2017, compared to around 30% each for electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids. 

“We don’t think about public or not”

In any case, although H-Tec sees public rather than private transportation driving early adoption of hydrogen fuel, “in our company we don’t think about public or not,” Gärtner said.

“We think about the use of the car or of the bus or the truck.”

Having electric and hydrogen vehicles on the same road makes sense in terms of overall energy efficiency.

Electric vehicles are generally considered to be highly energy efficient because they have simpler drivetrains and fewer internal losses than internal combustion engines.

(Their carbon emissions naturally depend on the source of the electricity they are charged with, although the US Union of Concerned Scientists estimates there is a saving of at least 50%.) 

Cost-effective, short-term transport

For this reason, it makes sense to use them where possible for cost-effective, short-term transport.

Hydrogen, on the other hand, is a relatively low-efficiency fuel because it needs to be created through electrolysis and converted back to energy through a fuel cell, both steps that involve significant energy losses.

This lack of efficiency might not be a problem if a significant proportion of the transportation sector goes electric.

Gärtner believes electric cars could largely be charged using electricity from solar car parks, while hydrogen for transportation might come from renewable energy that is currently curtailed when production exceeds demand.

As long as that is the case, then the efficiency of hydrogen production might not matter too much, either.

“The efficiency is not really interesting for me as long as the input of energy is really cheap,” said Gärtner. “If we have curtailment on wind farms, then we will lose the energy anyway. Everything I do is better than 0% efficiency.”

One thought on “Electric or hydrogen-based vehicles? Why not have both alongside each other?

  1. I’ve been driving a BEV for the last year and can see fuel-cell EVs fitting into the market for the areas where BEVs are less attractive, namely for those drivers who need to do large distances without stopping for charges (sales people, field service, delivery services, non-urban public transport). However, once battery energies density reach the levels hinted at by Tesla’s NG Roadster (200kWh in a car that size), you include the vast majority of normal car journeys in the range available, leaving hydrogen more for the delivery services and the non-urban public transport. With that in mind, I’d imagine less of a split in personal mobility, with BEVs better fitting their usage pattern, especially considering the “full every morning” factor, and hydrogen reserved for the more utility-oriented use-cases. That said, the inefficiency of hydrogen still concerns me, with it being less efficient to produce and then adding the need to distribute and dispense it. That seems wasteful.

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