Diess Says Nein To Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars & Trucks

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Hydrogen is a dirty word at CleanTechnica’s chromium and carbon fiber intergalactic headquarters. While it seems pretty cool in theory, in reality, most hydrogen comes from natural gas and most natural gas comes from a very unnatural process known as fracking. Anther not so climate friendly source is coal. There are 5 kinds of hydrogen — green, blue, grey, brown, and turquoise, according to the Financial Times.

  • Green hydrogen — made by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen using electricity from renewable sources.
  •  Blue hydrogen — made from natural gas but with any carbon emissions captured and stored or reused. Carbon capture is expensive and unproven to work at scale. This term does not take into account emissions from fracking, particularly methane.
  • Grey hydrogen — made from natural gas via steam methane reformation but without emissions capture.
  • Brown hydrogen — made from coal.
  • Turquoise hydrogen — made via a process called methane pyrolysis to produce hydrogen and solid carbon. This process is experimental.

Toyota Mirai. Courtesy of Toyota.

Lots of people think using hydrogen to power cars and trucks is a good idea. After all, the only waste products of fuel cells are water vapor and heat. What could be more climate friendly than that? That’s the theory, anyway. But Herbert Diess, chairman of the board for the Volkswagen Group, says the reality is very different. “You won’t see any hydrogen usage in cars. Not even in 10 years, because the physics behind it are so unreasonable.”

The devil in the details is efficiency and the number of energy conversions that need to take place in order to make the wheels of a hydrogen fuel cell powered car go around. First, the powerful bonds that hold hydrogen and oxygen together in a water molecule must be broken. Next, there are losses associated with converting the hydrogen to a liquid so it can be transported. Then the hydrogen has to processed by a fuel cell to make electricity. A modern fuel cell has an efficiency rating of about 70%. Take them all together and the well to wheel efficiency of a fuel cell is less than 50%. Better than a gasoline powered vehicle but not that much better. By comparison, an electric motor is more than 90% efficient.

Some industry executives think hydrogen could be a zero-emissions fuel for heavy trucks that need to travel more than 300 km. Battery-powered trucks are fine and dandy up to that point, but they say beyond that, the weight of the batteries needed takes away from the amount of cargo a truck can carry. Once again, Diess disagrees. Volkswagen, which owns truck makers SCANIA and MAN, stopped all development work on fuel cells for trucks last month. General Motors, however, is continuing to promote its use for long-haul trucks. Tesla’s Elon Musk also says his company’s electric Semi will have up to 500 miles of range while towing an 80,000 lb trailer.

It’s time for politicians to accept science: Green hydrogen is needed for steel, chemical, aero,… and should not end up in cars. Far too expensive, inefficient, slow and difficult to rollout and transport. After all: no #hydrogen cars in sight.

— Herbert Diess (@Herbert_Diess) February 11, 2021

The advantage of liquid fuels like gasoline and diesel are they pack a lot of energy into every pound of weight. The disadvantage is that when they are burned, they create harmful emissions that pollute the atmosphere. We used to think we could fill the skies with carbon dioxide and methane forever without consequences but now that we know better, we must do better.

The Excess Renewable Energy Conundrum

In an email to CleanTechnica today, Bloomberg says solar power has become so abundant that it is upending the pricing structure of the utility companies that distribute it. There is too much available when demand is low and not enough when demand is high. But there is a solution — put all that excess electricity to use doing productive things, like electrolyzing water into hydrogen and oxygen.

Create new sources of demand, Bloomberg contributor Nathaniel Bullard suggests. “Abundant, inexpensive, zero-carbon electrons are in search of companies and business models to use them. Those could include electrolyzing hydrogen, performing energy-intensive computation in large data centers, charging electric vehicles, or — just as importantly — other electricity-intensive processes and businesses that do not yet exist.”

Of course, that electricity can also just be put in batteries and recovered later with much less energy loss than it takes to create hydrogen.

Hydrogen can work wonders when it comes to lowering the carbon footprint of steel making and cement production. Combined, these two industries are responsible for about 15% of all the world’s carbon emissions every year. New technologies that use hydrogen to reduce iron ore instead of coke made from coal or to power the furnaces that convert limestone into cement are emerging. Carbon capture is also part of the plan for reducing emissions from those industries, but it has yet to be proven effective at keeping carbon emissions out of the atmosphere.

Let hydrogen do what it is good at and stop trying  to force it to do something it’s not so good at. Let’s let the dream of hydrogen-powered cars and trucks go. Toyota has been banging its head against a wall trying to get Americans to buy its HFCEV, the Mirai, for years. How’s that going? Toyota just announced it is offering a gigantic $20,000 rebate on the car now through the end of March. Add in state and local incentives and the $50,495 car can be had for under $20,000 if you finance with Toyota. That price includes free hydrogen — assuming you live near a hydrogen fueling station. Very few Americans do.

Bullard’s idea about creating new businesses that can take advantage of hydrogen produced by abundant renewable energy sources is a good one. Let’s stop looking longingly over our shoulder at the past and start imagining what the future could hold. There are proposals to add electrolyzers to offshore wind platforms so excess electricity can be used right at the site where it is most available. That’s smart thinking and something we could use more of as we figure out what the low carbon economies of the future will look like.

The one thing we must avoid at all costs is letting traditional oil and gas companies blow sunshine up our skirts by telling us how they want to make hydrogen from oil or natural gas. That is a false promise and one we should reject as just a shameless way to continue monetizing their reserves while the Earth slowly becomes uninhabitable for humans. As Nancy Reagan might say, “Just say no to hydrogen from fossil fuels.” A scam by any other name is still just a scam.

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