Widespread adoption by vehicle fleets continues to be a challenge.
The debate about hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV) being a better solution than battery electric vehicles (BEV) has my attention. I banged the drum for compressed natural gas for many years, but that was before gas-electric hybrids came to the Canadian market in 2001.
I am not persuaded that another compressed gas, hydrogen this time, will be any improvement on previous efforts to produce zero-emission vehicles.
To begin with, hydrogen may be the most abundant element in the universe, but its attraction to bonding with other elements such as oxygen and carbon means it must be manufactured to be just plain hydrogen.
Natural gas is almost the sole source of all manufactured hydrogen with its simple atomic structure of CH4. But natural gas or methane is 21 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, so the production of hydrogen eliminates any gain from the resulting zero tailpipe emissions.
Hydrogen is an incredibly expensive fuel due in large part to the cost of building an electrolyzer, storage and refuelling facility. Winnipeg Transit is planning to add eight FCEV transit buses to run on its longest routes where BEV buses may be unable to complete the routes without recharging. They have no local source for hydrogen so plan to build their own production facility. This will cost an estimated $10 million and produce just 600 kg of hydrogen per day. BEVs by comparison already have the electricity distribution grid in place. BEV charging is not free but it’s not as expensive as hydrogen.
FCEVs are not cheaper than BEVs to purchase. They can be five times more expensive than a diesel equivalent. In Canada there are subsidies, but they cover only a small fraction of the upgrade.
Own fuel producers
The non-existent refuelling infrastructure means FCEV owners are going to have to be their own fuel producers, which brings a whole new complexity to managing the business. In Edmonton, a hydrogen cluster is emerging that includes Suncor and other players that will help Edmonton Transit transition to FCEVs, but as noted Winnipeg has none of this to help.
FCEV safety seems to have just as much risk as BEV or conventional fuels. On July 18, 2023, an FCEV transit bus in Bakersfield, California caught fire while refuelling and was destroyed. Hydrogen must be compressed to an astonishing 700 bar (5,000 PSI) which is almost double the compression required for natural gas. The cost of electricity to do this (and emissions from electricity generation) are significant.
The cost of battery replacement is often cited by BEV detractors as a deterrent. However, the cost of replacing the fuel stack in a FCEV is likely to be just as much a risk as battery replacements. The life of a fuel stack is also difficult to predict, but if a heavy vehicle with a planned service life of 12 years needs one or more fuel stack replacements the total cost of ownership will be higher.
The hype around hydrogen has been referred to as “hopium”. I recall driving a Ford FCEV sedan almost 20 years ago and have to say that the progress of BEVs in the ensuing time has been much more promising. Best to watch FCEVs for now.