Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles is a fools journey

Is there enough Grid Capacity for Hydrogen Fuel Cell or Battery Electric cars?

Which fuel has the best likelihood of replacing the gasoline/diesel stranglehold that’s threatening humanity with a global warming catastrophe? Hydrogen? Electricity?

Recently someone on Twitter made the claim shown above – that a car industry insider, with over 30 years of experience, claims that many senior people in the car industry believe that battery electric cars are a dead end. The bright future is instead hydrogen fuel cell cars. This issue, fuel cell EVs versus battery EVs, has bogged down the progress toward clean vehicles for over 20 years. Both technologies are under development, receive government funding, and have their flocks of advocates. Years ago, fuel cell vehicles were seen as the solution because of total driving range and refueling times. But, battery EV (BEV) capabilities grew enough to destroy that idea.

The tweet shown above has a new theory that I’ve never seen before. Namely: There isn’t enough electricity generating capacity to support battery electric vehicles.

This phrase, “generating capacity,” refers to the total number of electricity generation plants. There is a different issue, the grid capacity, or the ability of each grid segment to provide charging for the cars connected to that segment. Grid capacity has to do with the wiring, and generating capacity has to do with the number of generating plants.

Another detail to note is the timing. This phrase, “the generating capacity doesn’t exist,” is said in the present tense. Indeed, it is true that, at the current moment, there is not enough electricity generation capacity to support an immediate and complete switch to battery electric vehicles. But, there are also not enough factories or recharging facilities to support such a switch. The complete switch to battery electric vehicles, if it ever happens, is instead in the future.

In other words, that unnamed senior auto industry engineer made a flimsy argument. Shouldn’t he have said there will never be enough generation capacity? That’s at least in the future tense.

The task is to build enough cars (either hydrogen fuel cell or battery EV) to replace the existing fleet of gasoline or diesel cars, and to build the hydrogen or electricity generation capacity to fuel those cars. Those tasks cannot be done overnight. That unnamed senior engineer is correct to raise the question of which fuel can support a fully developed fleet of clean-power vehicles. But he is incorrect in making the measure of success a present-tense statement that generating capacity doesn’t exist when we do not need that capacity today.

Capacity Required – Hydrogen versus Fuel Cell

The first issue is that hydrogen doesn’t magically appear at zero cost. Instead, it must be separated from the resources surrounding us. For example, using electricity to electrolyze water converts it into hydrogen and oxygen. Pure hydrogen gas does not exist on its own, and it must be extracted from other materials. Every hydrogen extraction method requires energy which must be generated.

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Therefore, both hydrogen fuel cell and battery EV cars depend on electricity generation capacity. The question is which of the two requires more capacity. Put another way, for each fuel type, how much energy is required to power the entire vehicle fleet? The fuel type requiring the least amount of energy should win because it will require the least electricity generation capacity.

This article is discussing hydrogen versus electricity, but there is a factoid about gasoline production that should be considered. Namely, it is claimed that it takes 6 kiloWatt-hours of electricity to refine a gallon of gasoline, which gives roughly 30 miles range. Or, that 6 kWh of electricity can drive an electric car approximately the same distance. Consider the complex system required to produce gasoline, and all the toxic chemicals involved, some of which are spilled into the environment. Contrast that with the potentially simple renewable energy system. Which is more desirable?

Regarding hydrogen, the follow-up tweet in the image above points out the complicated hydrogen production system for fuel cell vehicles. Isn’t it likely that the more complex the production system requires more energy?

I’ve seen it claimed that it takes 3 to 4 times more energy to power a fuel cell vehicle than a battery electric vehicle. In part, this is due to the multiple conversion steps. The first conversion step is to extract hydrogen using electricity. The next step occurs in the vehicle, where hydrogen is converted to electricity. These conversion steps introduce inefficiency which adds to the energy cost. If the 3-4x figure is accurate, it means the electricity generation capacity required for FCEVs is 3-4x the capacity required for BEVs.

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Put another way, if electricity generating capacity exists to support hydrogen FCEVs, then it clearly exists to support BEVs. That’s because the electricity generation capacity required would be 1/3rd to 1/4th that required for hydrogen production for fuel cell vehicles.

But, we cannot rely on a half-remembered hand-waving statistic, we need actual measurements. Fortunately, scientists have been studying both kinds of vehicles for over 20 years.

The Sierra Club has a comprehensive article discussing hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. Some points raised are:

  • Hydrogen is not inherently “green” because most often it is extracted from natural gas.
    • Gray hydrogen comes from natural gas and should be considered a fossil fuel.
    • Green hydrogen uses electricity from renewable energy sources (solar/wind/etc) and is what should be adopted, but it is more expensive.
  • Using electricity to generate hydrogen is 20-40 percent less efficient than directly using electricity. This is supported by a link to a comprehensive paper by the Energy Transitions Commission about the hydrogen economy. This figure is in line with the 3-4x figure I named earlier.
  • Hydrogen is less dense than natural gas, meaning hydrogen storage tanks, and distribution pipelines, must be 3-4 times larger than natural gas tanks for the same energy content.
  • Hydrogen causes steel to become brittle, making it difficult to reuse natural gas pipelines to distribute hydrogen.

While the Sierra Club describes a few scenarios where fuel cells make sense, they strongly recommend against hydrogen fuel cells for most vehicle applications.

Another source is a Recharge News article discussing the system requirements for producing enough green hydrogen by 2050 to meet the climate change goals in the Paris Agreement. The key point is:

According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena), the world will need 19 exajoules of green hydrogen in the energy system in 2050 — between 133.8 million and 158.3 million tonnes a year.

Recharge calculations show that producing such a volume would require at least 6,690TWh of dedicated electricity every year — the equivalent of 1,775GW of offshore wind farms, 2,243GW of onshore wind, 4,240GW of solar PV or 957GW of nuclear power (see panel below for details)

— Recharge News

That is a lot of new energy generation capacity that must be constructed. How long is required to build the necessary systems? And, this gets us to our next point.

Ramp up both vehicle fleet size and generating capacity

It’s true that there is not, today, enough electricity-generating capacity to power enough electric vehicles to replace the existing gasoline/diesel fleet. But, today’s vehicle fleet is, unfortunately, overwhelmingly diesel or gasoline powered. It will take many years to replace that fleet with either hydrogen fuel cells or battery electric cars, meaning the generating capacity can be built over time.

For example, Tesla delivered a total of 1.31 million vehicles in 2022 across all its sales territories. By contrast, there were 13.4 million light-vehicles sold in the USA in 2022. Those are not quite apples-to-apples figures, but it tells us expanding electric vehicle sales to the level required to replace gasoline/diesel vehicles will take many more years.

The unnamed automotive industry expert quoted above should have been aware of this fact. And, he should be aware that new electricity generation can be built as electric vehicle sales increase. And, he should be aware that renewable energy technologies will likely improve over the next few decades, which will make it possible to completely transform the electricity system.

The coming distributed energy system

The traditional centralized energy system is being replaced with a newfangled distributed energy system. No longer will our society be dependent on centralized huge fossil fuel electricity plants. Instead, Internet-based communications are enabling the development of a decentralized system of computer-controlled energy resources that can be rapidly reconfigured to support changing electricity grid needs.

Solar power, wind power, battery-based energy storage, or even hydrogen fuel-cell energy storage, all operate at the speed of computerized digital control. These systems can rapidly change energy consumption, or energy production, behavior to meet current grid conditions in a way that fossil fuel plants cannot.

The new system is a distributed orchestration of energy resources from a variety of companies. Instead of centralized control of centralized resources, multiple companies are attaching energy resources to the grid, where they earn revenue by offering smart grid services.

A trivial example is a kind of electricity price arbitrage. Daytime electricity prices regularly fall close to $0 due to excess electricity production from solar arrays. The grid operators can send a price signal for energy storage systems to absorb this excess electricity. In the evening, the solar arrays go offline, but electricity demand continues, causing the wholesale electricity price to rise. Traditionally, a natural gas peaker plant would come online during the evening, but grid-connected energy storage offers an alternative. In the new model, grid operators would send a price signal for the energy storage systems to sell electricity to the grid.

The companies owning those grid-scale energy storage systems then earn revenue on the difference between daytime and night-time electricity prices. Buy low, sell high, is the key to any price arbitrage business. Further, such systems can time-shift renewable energy from daytime production to night-time consumption. With enough energy storage systems, enough solar power could be generated during the day, and time-shifted to night consumption, to completely power whole cities without touching a drop of fossil fuels.


The author of the above tweet followed up by saying:

The man in question has over thirty years of experience in the industry, he repeated to me what is the opinion of the majority of the automotive industry but some people who have “been on the internet” know better.

Sure, don’t trust some random dude writing articles on the Internet. You’re using the Internet to read this article by a guy on the Internet who has just claimed those automotive industry experts are wrong. How can you, the reader, trust what I’ve said?

For the issue of the switch to a distributed energy system, I happen to work in the field on software for systems meant to implement a part of the vision. I have studied the IEEE 2030.5 and OpenADR protocols, and am in the middle of implementing an OpenADR system to assist in controlling electric vehicle charging stations.

As for the rest, consider the relatively small effort required to find the credible sources referenced above. One simple search on the web is all that’s required to validate the claim that hydrogen production for fuel cells requires 3-4x the electricity that is required to power a battery electric vehicle. That one fact would make a big difference in the amount of electricity generation systems that must be built for the green/renewable powered system we all need.

Bottom line is that a switch to battery electric vehicles would require much less electricity generation capacity than would a switch to hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. That makes battery electric vehicles the clear winner.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

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