It is now clear beyond any doubt that we need to get off of our addiction to fossil fuels, if we want to avoid drastic after-effects of climate change and preserve the Earth as a heritage for our kids to thrive in. The electrification of the transport industry is well underway: the sales of the electric vehicles are rising worldwide; there are more and more electric buses in the streets of the Greater Helsinki Area; there are 365 fast charging stations in Finland (as of 2020), and the number is scheduled to grow rapidly. However, there is another very vocal contender for the future of transportation: hydrogen. Does hydrogen have its place in personal transportation? The answer is no.
Now that was rather harsh. Hydrogen has a huge advantage after all – it has an energy density of almost three times more than diesel or gasoline and almost 200 times more than that of a lithium-ion battery. Therefore, hydrogen’s application is highly viable in places where every kilogram counts (for example airplanes) or for long-range hauls such as trains. However, in this text, we’re going to focus on car personal transportation only, and in such an application the hydrogen makes no sense.
Hydrogen Does Not Solve The Climate Crisis
Over 95% of the world’s hydrogen is produced using the “steam methane reforming process” (or SMR for short). In this reaction, methane (CH4, a highly potent greenhouse gas itself, 30 times more potent than the carbon dioxide – CO2) is reacted with steam at an elevated temperature to produce carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrogen (H2); the steam then further reacts with carbon monoxide to produce CO2 and more hydrogen.
In other words, hydrogen’s “dirty secret” is that it is produced overwhelmingly from fossil fuels, creating 2 kilograms of CO2 for every kilogram of H2 produced (this information can be found here). Only 5% of hydrogen is created via electrolysis, simply because it is a very energy-intensive process that is more expensive than the SMR. Please find more information in Robert Rapier’s article.
Hydrogen Energy Efficiency Is Horrible
According to Tom Baxter, if we take all the losses stemming from the production of the hydrogen, transportation, compression and the driving itself, the hydrogen car is only 38% efficient. That means that of all the energy used to create the fuel, only 38% is used to propel the car – 62% of the energy is dissipated as losses.
Compared to hydrogen, electric cars are much more efficient. The electricity production and distribution is much more efficient, and the electric car itself is much more efficient. All in all, a whopping 80% of the energy produced is used to propel the car, and only 20% of the energy is lost.
There are 365 fast charger stations in Finland alone; there are roughly 280 000 charging stations in Europe according to statista.com; you can explore the map of chargers in the plugshare.com webpage.
Moreover, the electric vehicle (EV) can often be charged for free at bigger stores (IKEA, Lidl, some Prisma/S-Market shops), at hotels during the trips, at parking lots. The electric vehicle can also be charged at home, from a regular household 220V socket. The EV charging infrastructure is already ubiquitous throughout Europe.
In comparison, there are 0 (zero) hydrogen refueling stations in Finland alone, and there are only 29 hydrogen stations in the EU as of 2020, with only 20 additional stations planned for 2022 according to the h2me.eu page. The h2live web page shows slightly more stations in use throughout Europe – an estimated 100 hydrogen stations in the EU, which still pales in comparison with the sheer amount of charging stations.
The number of hydrogen refueling stations might be in decline since the explosion of the hydrogen filling station in Norway – the refueling station has been closed as a precaution, and four more hydrogen refueling stations have been closed in Germany as well.
The downside of electric charging is that it takes at least 30 minutes to fully recharge a car, compared to 3 minutes of hydrogen refueling. However, the devil is in the details. The hydrogen refueling station needs to re-pressurize the hydrogen to reach the H35/H70 pressure level needed to serve the next car. This re-pressurization takes around 30 minutes. That means that a single hydrogen station can serve 36 cars per day, which means that it takes 40 minutes to serve one car. If you’re waiting in line, you better be prepared for a very long wait. Compared to that, Tesla Supercharger can serve a multitude of cars at the same time, cutting the wait times to almost zero.
In short, compared to the electric car charger infrastructure, the hydrogen refueling infrastructure is virtually non-existent and the infrastructure growth is almost invisible.
The price of hydrogen at a hydrogen station in Germany is €9,5 per kilogram. Since a hydrogen car consumes roughly 1kg of hydrogen per 100km, the price of the fuel per 100km is €9,5.
The electric car consumes electricity, and the amount of electricity consumed is measured in kilowatt-hours or kWh in short. The most effective electric car today is probably the Tesla Model 3 which consumes roughly 13kWh per 100km. The price of fast charging is usually 0,4€ per 1kWh which means €5,2 per 100km. However, most of the time you drive around the town, which means home charging. The price of the home electricity is much cheaper, say 0,15€ per 1kWh, which means only €2 per 100km. On top of that, certain grocery shops offer free charging (Lidl, Prisma), driving the price per 100km down towards almost zero.
In short, the electric vehicle driving cost is much less than the hydrogen car driving cost.
The Oil Industry Lobby
There is a major force behind hydrogen: the oil industry. At first sight, it doesn’t make sense: using hydrogen as fuel directly competes with fossil fuels. However, as said above, 95% of hydrogen comes from methane; the methane itself comes from natural gas which is a byproduct of pumping of the oil from the ground. This makes the oil industry the biggest producer of hydrogen, and a de-facto monopoly.
What’s even worse, according to Michael Liebreich, who founded BloombergNEF (originally New Energy Finance), Big Oil is allegedly lobbying for hydrogen cars to delay electrification, allegedly creating FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) amongst consumers. That causes the consumers to feel uncertain and fearful to make an informed choice between an electric vehicle and a hydrogen vehicle (since thanks to FUD it’s not clear which one will win), causing them to choose the “safe” option of gasoline or diesel.
Compared to hydrogen, the electricity market is much more open. There is a multitude of charging operators competing in the same market; the competition is good for the consumer in the end. On top of that, there is always an option to charge the electric car at home. And with a solar array large enough, you can charge your car for free, using the free energy beamed down to earth, also called the sunshine 😉
Electric Car Has Already Won
Compared to the hydrogen car landscape, the electric cars have many advantages: the fuel is much cheaper; the charging station infrastructure is dense enough to already allow travel throughout Europe today; the competition drives the prices of both the electricity and the cars down rapidly; electricity solves the climate crisis and provides a plethora of options to charge.
It’s not there yet – the charging station infrastructure needs to grow much more, to provide the same experience as the current gasoline pump infrastructure does – but it’s light years ahead of the hydrogen infrastructure. The electric motor is so simple it’s virtually maintenance-free: it’s a closed system where no checkups are needed and no oil changes are necessary.
And if the RethinkX guys are right, we are on the cusp of the fastest, deepest, most profound disruption of the energy sector in over a century, bringing in a future with almost free electricity.