With the government’s commitment to clean vehicles, all eyes are on the electric vehicle industry. President Biden’s Executive Order focusing on making half of all new vehicles sold by 2030 zero-emissions vehicles focuses heavily on the implementation of electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles. While this prioritization bodes well for electric vehicle manufacturers, the widespread adoption of electric vehicles isn’t without its challenges. Charging station availability and the capability of our national power grid to withstand the increased demand are just a few of those potential barriers.
As manufacturers focus on clean vehicle production and look for ways to overcome such challenges, the appeal of hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) is increasing. In certain situations, long-haul trucking and heavy industries like mining come to mind, FCEVs may be the most logical powertrain.
Why the Argument for Hydrogen Vehicles Is So Compelling
Manufacturers are tasked with producing efficient vehicles that don’t rely on diesel or petroleum. Electric vehicles seem like an ideal solution, but they need to meet common consumer and workday needs, including the ability to travel long distances on a single charge, be capable of remaining in use for a full shift, and to be easily and quickly rechargeable.
That’s more challenging than you might think, and hydrogen vehicles might meet those milestones sooner.
FCEVs can be fueled in just minutes, whereas electric vehicle batteries can take an hour or so to charge, depending on their size and the type of charging station. FCEVs can also travel longer distances than traditional electric vehicles, and their faster fueling time offers a significant advantage, especially given society’s demand for fast services that keep Americans on the go. This increased range and shorter charging time is ideal for heavy machinery, trains, and trucks, which might have limited time to charge and need to almost continuously be in transit. The greater range would also be advantageous for rural settings and work vehicles that travel to remote locations far from fueling stations.
Because hydrogen fuel cells aren’t reliant on an electric grid, disruptions to the electric grid won’t affect drivers’ ability to fuel their vehicles. Whereas widespread electrical outages could leave the drivers of electric vehicles stranded, hydrogen vehicles would fare well in these situations, offering increased reliability, especially in areas frequently affected by natural disasters or grid outages.
Hydrogen vehicles also offer a distinct advantage when it comes to sustainability. Electric vehicles are closely tied to fossil fuel power generation. In fact, according to MECO, thermoelectric power plants generate about 90% of the electricity created in the United States. In doing so, those plants use about 195 billion gallons of water per day to cool the equipment. They also use water to produce steam to power turbines. This electricity is used to power most electrical grids, which, in turn, are used to charge electric vehicles.
In comparison, hydrogen vehicles could use green hydrogen, which doesn’t have any reliance on fossil fuels. According to IBERDROLA, the process of creating green hydrogen relies on a chemical process called electrolysis. By using an electrical current from a renewable electrical source to separate hydrogen from oxygen in water, the production of hydrogen becomes sustainable and won’t release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The use of green hydrogen would allow for carbon-free fueling and transportation.
That’s not to say that hydrogen vehicles solve all of the challenges of implementing zero-emissions vehicles. In fact, hydrogen vehicles come with challenges of their own. Hydrogen is flammable, so safety is a consideration. However, lithium-ion batteries and gasoline are also flammable.
The cost of hydrogen is a barrier, but it’s not one that can’t be overcome. Hydrogen is significantly more expensive than gasoline; CNBC reports that 1 gallon of gasoline offers about the same amount of energy as 1 kg of hydrogen. In California, hydrogen is $16 per kg. To make hydrogen a more competitively priced fuel option, there needs to be increased demand and reduced production costs.
The cost of hydrogen vehicles, themselves, is another challenge. The Hyundai Niro has a starting MSRP of $59,345, while electric vehicles averaged $56,437 in November of 2022, according to Kelley Blue Book. Again, as the vehicles become more popular and manufacturing increases, their prices are likely to drop.
Infrastructure also needs to support the growing use of hydrogen vehicles. Similar to the electric charging infrastructure, hydrogen fueling stations also need to be established to support FCEV use. So far, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center map identifies only a handful of public hydrogen fueling stations, all located within California.
Movers and Shakers in the Hydrogen Vehicle Industry
Some of the largest car manufacturers have added hydrogen vehicles to their lineups. Toyota and Honda are working to create hydrogen infrastructure in Canada, and Toyota introduced the Mirai, a FCEV, in 2015. Honda created the Clarify Fuel Cell vehicle, and Hyundai is working to bring FCEVs into the Northeast. Truck manufacturers are busy as well. Cummins has a hydrogen-fueled engine development program, Kenworth has built a Class 8 truck using Toyota’s fuel cell electric system, and the Volvo Group has a Fuel Cell Test Lab.
And offering a glimmer of hope for racing enthusiasts who are less than enthusiastic about the whine made by the race cars in a certain electric race car series that shall not be named, Arrington Performance showed a hot rod powered by a hydrogen combustion engine at last year’s SEMA.
There have also been significant advancements in the technology needed for hydrogen vehicle manufacturing and fueling. CNG Fuels, a supplier of low-carbon fuels for hydrogen vehicles in the UK, is hosting fuel trials through its public access refueling station network. CNG Fuels is planning to dedicate 100 acres of land to hydrogen refueling.
According to CB Insights, National Grid is building a $14-million hydrogen test facility in England. The facility will explore the transmission viability of hydrogen when it comes to traditional pipelines. Core Energy is developing underground hydrogen storage projects, and FirstElement Fuel has created the largest hydrogen network in California to date. AFC Energy, a hydrogen power specialist, and ABB have partnered to create charging infrastructure in the UK, Europe, and United States.
Hydrogen vehicles may not be perfect, but paired with other types of clean vehicles, they could help lay the path toward increased use of zero-emissions solutions. The ultimate solution may be a combination of hydrogen, electric, and hybrid vehicles to meet the varying needs of consumers, the transportation and shipping industries, and more.