Whatever happened to hydrogen-powered cars?

By Lee Epstein

About 25 years ago, when transportation engineers, urban planners, environmental regulators, and others began thinking seriously about alternatively fueled motor vehicles to control for pollution, hydrogen power was smack-dab in the middle of the mix. Relatively easy and cheap to produce, the fuel seemed to have lot going for it. Since dealing with climate change has become a scientific imperative, and there is significant movement in some countries (e.g., Japan) to move hydrogen-fueled vehicles up the queue, it may be time to give this fuel another long, hard look.

What does hydrogen have going for it?

Compared with most of today’s electric-powered vehicles, the driving range of hydrogen-powered vehicles is impressive, and we know that range, and its complement, “range anxiety,” are significant impediments to the rapid and extensive adoption of alternatively fueled vehicles. Hydrogen fuel cell cars can get the “gasoline equivalent” of 70 miles per gallon, and the range of a (limited production) hydrogen fuel cell car today is from 300 miles (Toyota Mirai), to nearly 400 miles (Hyundai Nexo).

While some gasoline-powered and hybrid cars can get farther than hydrogen cars before refueling, and the (very expensive) Tesla Model S Long Range electric claims 375 miles, 300–400 miles is significantly higher than — or even double — most of today’s all-electric vehicles.

Another major advantage is that fuel-cell cars can be refueled quickly, in less than five minutes, quite similar to filling up at your neighborhood gas station. Even “quick” electric charging systems take about a half-hour. Convincing the traveling public to take that much time for refueling several times during a long car trip is a fairly heavy lift — unless, of course, the fueling stops are easy and plentiful to find, and combined with decent food or rest stops.

Where would we obtain the hydrogen, and what about pollution? First, hydrogen is a renewable fuel, made from water. Hydrogen gas can be created using electrolysis, whereby electric current passing through water separates the H2 (hydrogen gas) from the O2 (oxygen gas) of our familiar H2O. If solar or wind is the source of that electric power, fossil fuel need not be part of the production chain at all. There is research ongoing to find other ways to obtain the hydrogen gas, including biological means that use microorganisms activated by sunlight.

In terms of pollutants out of the tailpipe, there are none: Because hydrogen is used to produce electricity to power the vehicle (rather than being itself burned for this purpose), the sole waste product is water or slightly heated water vapor. No other byproducts are produced, in comparison with both toxic refining byproducts from gasoline and toxic byproducts from burning gasoline in internal combustion engines.

Hydrogen power trains, however, do require some precious metal components, such as a platinum catalyst, and of course mining and refining that metal has environmental impacts. At the same time, electric cars require heavy lithium battery arrays, which are toxic and must be recycled, while hydrogen cars carry relatively light, nontoxic compressed hydrogen.

Generally speaking, hydrogen cars are quiet, quick, efficient, and essentially non-polluting. So what’s not to like? There are a few “flies” in the pollution and energy efficiency “ointment,” however, as explained below.

What’s the real cost, and what are the real efficiencies?

First, fuel-cell vehicles are still priced like luxury cars (in the $60–100,000 range), a lot higher than the lower-priced electric, Tesla Model 3. That’s not unexpected, since these are first-generation vehicles that are being produced in limited numbers; the first-generation Tesla prices were about the same. But the price today is certainly a disincentive. The limited-production Toyota Mirai starts at around $60,000.

Second, hydrogen fuel today is very expensive compared to gasoline, because the extensive service system for delivering it is not widely available — the “Catch-22” for all new technologies. The California Fuel Cell Partnership quoted a price back in 2015 of nearly $6.00 per gallon-equivalent. On the other hand, the high efficiency of these motors in comparison with conventional gasoline power trains, and the high energy output of hydrogen gas, purportedly provide for a generally lower operating cost, once the overall cost of hydrogen delivery is reduced. Additionally, auto companies producing these cars are currently offering several years of fuel with the price of the vehicle, as an incentive and market price shield; an example is for Toyota’s Mirai.) The price and ease of use, however, are all hypothetical, since the infrastructure is almost non-existent.

Third, a single hydrogen fuel pump with an underground tank costs more than a million dollars, and the distribution system is extraordinarily immature, so the actual costs of hydrogen gas to the consumer are still unknown until a market is created and achieves some stability.

Right now, the consumer cost at the hydrogen pump is about $14–16.00 per kilogram of hydrogen, and the two cars available (Toyota and Hyundai) get about 65–70 miles per kilogram. Thus, today’s consumer cost of hydrogen fuel is close to 21–23 cents per mile, compared with 2019’s far cheaper gasoline price of about 11–13 cents per mile. Electric vehicles today run on less than one-half cent per mile, assuming a per kilowatt hour residential cost for electricity of 12 cents.

One would expect that, as the market matures, the price of hydrogen will drop significantly. And of course, one would like to be able to conveniently find these pumps during travel; right now, except in a small handful of markets, that’s just not possible.

Also, there’s a question as to whether the energy efficiencies of hydrogen fuel are real. This is because producing and distributing hydrogen is currently an energy-intensive enterprise. As noted above, producing hydrogen with electrolysis uses a considerable amount of energy. An alternative, and the currently least-expensive and most-prevalent means of production, “steam-methane reforming,” uses a thermo-chemical process to extract hydrogen from natural gas, producing significant carbon pollution.

Even if, say, wind-powered electricity is used to break apart the oxygen and hydrogen molecules, the energy efficiencies of the end product are currently not that high — because significant amounts of energy are “lost” with each step in the cycle of fuel production, gas compression, storage, shipping, and delivery at the pump. Of course, refining gasoline, storing it, and delivering it to gas stations is also an energy-intensive enterprise, but if the comparison is to today’s battery electric vehicle, the battery electric is two thirds more energy efficient, according to a recent Norwegian study. However, there are competing analyses, reaching the opposite conclusion; “manufacturing a lithium-ion battery for an electric car is a ‘very energy-intensive’ process.”

All in all, it appears that battery electric cars currently have the efficiency edge as long as the costs of producing and delivering hydrogen fuel to the driving public remain relatively high. That could change, of course — but, as with electric cars, what comes first, the chicken or the egg? The hydrogen car hasn’t disappeared, but until an economical system for fuel production and distribution is created, it is not likely to power your visit over the river and through the woods to Grandma’s house next Christmas.

Lee Epstein is an environmental lawyer and urban planner who has worked on all aspects of environmental policy for several decades.

This article was published in collaboration with the Island Press Urban Resilience Project, which is supported by The Kresge Foundation and The JPB Foundation.

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A changing climate means a changing society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project (URP) is committed to a greener, fairer future. www.islandpress.org/URP