The future of hydrogen in personal mobility

There seems to be a feud between supporters of BEVs and FCEVs. Headlines as Letters: We have backed the wrong option. Hydrogen should be the clean fuel of the future and Hydrogen Cars Appear Dead as EVs Take the Reins are not unfamiliar. The headline Electric or hydrogen — which will win the clean car race? is typical of the current narrative. The media sure likes to portray it as a battle between technologies, and a lot of people agree with the rhetoric. It is blatant in the BEV world, and I am sure it is in the hydrogen world as well.

I do not like this polarization. It gives people, companies and governments the perfect excuse that the technology is not mature yet, that it’s an unsafe bet to invest in zero emission mobility. It promotes the status quo of ICE vehicles.

And it should not be: Battery Electrical Vehicles and Fuel Cell Electrical Vehicles are both electrical vehicles. They share a lot of technology. In fact, all FCEVs have a battery: they have regenerative braking. Which makes sense in any electrical drivetrain.

There’s a lot to say about both technologies. But since this is a blog post, I’d like to point out some of the facts and opinions that are under-represented at this moment.

  • FCEVs are far less efficient than BEVs, and this is irrelevant.We’re talking about personal vehicles, about cars. Efficiency never has been, and never will be the most important thing in a vehicle. Otherwise we’d all drive Smarts, Fiat 500 or even smaller vehicles. We don’t.
  • If we produce hydrogen with excess renewable energy, there’s no more surplus of energy. By definition, it’s not reasonable to think that hydrogen will thrive because of negative pricing. Note that negative or close to 0 prices are very damaging to investment in renewables, and hydrogen production can solve this.
  • If we focus on battery technology (business models), we’ll keep needing gas. Lots and lots of gas. In fact, you’ll need to be able to provide a 100% backup during a dunkelflaute: a period without sun and wind. Only hydrogen can solve this on a European or global scale.
  • Smart charging and V2G will not magically solve issues of peak demand. Especially in areas with a lot of (semi)public parking, people will demand to be charged while it is plugged in. It will be impossible to offset this with other vehicles doing smart charging and Vehicle to Grid. BEV’s will cause bigger peaks in demand on hours of the day where there’s less production from renewables. And then we’re back to hydrogen vs gas peaker plants.
  • Hydrogen can be used for onsite generation. While expensive, I see business models arising for fast chargers that are cheap at 50kW, and more expensive at 200kW.
  • Innovation is always slower than expected. And this is especially true for items that are replaced every 8 years on average.
  • Executives from car manufacturers see a future in both battery and Fuel Cell technology. And ICE’s as well. Executives are paid to think decades ahead. They’re not always right, but don’t give up on hydrogen just yet because some projects have been put in the fridge.
  • The charging and BEV industry ignores business cases and people who will not use BEVs. While true for every industry, most people in the BEV and charging industries still claim that BEVs are for everyone. It is not, forget it. It’s not just a question of investing in charging equipment and getting the price down of batteries. Shared vehicles and ultra fast charging with mega batteries are not the solution for everything.
  • FCEV’s of the future will come with a plug. The Honda Clarity FCEV released in Japan can be used with their Vehicle to Load portable generator based on CHAdeMO. But more importantly, FCPHEVs can use cheap electricity at work, or from home. And for longer distances, or when charging is inconvenient, run on hydrogen.

In short: FCPHEVs are the future. What kind of vehicles will emerge from this tech is hard to say. Sports cars will probably more lean towards the FCEV’s. Small vehicles for people with garages will possibly be available without the fuel cells. We’ll see.

We have to keep pushing for charging infrastructure. And personal vehicles can follow the innovations that are being done with buses and cargo trucks in regards to hydrogen.

Let me finish with the most important message for all: fuel cells and batteries are complementary technologies, not competing.

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