Published on January 30th, 2021 |
by Dr. Maximilian Holland
January 30th, 2021 by Dr. Maximilian Holland
Sweden’s Scania AB, one of the world’s largest heavy duty truck and bus manufacturers, is benching its fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV) program and pushing ahead with full electric powertrains for its zero emission transport future.
The 110 year old company, which employs over 50,000 staff worldwide, is owned by Volkswagen AG. Scania in a recent public announcement appears to be following in Volkswagen’s footsteps in expressing scepticism over the commercial viability of hydrogen fuel cells for road transport applications.
In March 2020 Volkswagen released a statement saying that, on the basis of their analysis: “The conclusion is clear: in the case of the passenger car, everything speaks in favor of the battery and practically nothing speaks in favor of hydrogen.”
Now VW’s Scania subsidiary has come to a similar conclusion:
“Scania has invested in hydrogen technologies and is currently the only heavy-duty vehicle manufacturer with vehicles in operations with customers. The engineers have gained valuable insights from these early tests and efforts will continue. However, going forward the use of hydrogen for such applications will be limited since three times as much renewable electricity is needed to power a hydrogen truck compared to a battery electric truck. A great deal of energy is namely lost in the production, distribution, and conversion back to electricity.
Repair and maintenance also need to be considered. The cost for a hydrogen vehicle will be higher than for a battery electric vehicle as its systems are more complex, such as an extensive air- and cooling system. Furthermore, hydrogen is a volatile gas which requires more maintenance to ensure safety.” (Scania statement, January 2021, emphasis added)
Scania do note that they are looking forward to sourcing “fossil free steel” for their products, and that hydrogen has a role in such industrial processes. They note that hydrogen may also have a role in stationary fuel cells for off-grid applications. However, Alexander Vlaskamp, Head of Sales and Marketing at Scania, emphasized that:
“It is clear that Scania’s focus in the here-and-now perspective as well as short-term is a combination of renewable fuels and battery electric vehicles. We see that for basically all segments” (Alexander Vlaskamp, Scania)
All of Scania’s heavy duty combustion vehicles can already run on bio-diesel or bio-gas, but the company is now pushing ahead with plugin offerings, including both PHEVs and BEVs. They launched their first BEV buses in 2018 and their first BEV trucks in September 2020.
The existing BEV trucks have two battery size options with the larger 300 kWh battery giving a rated range of 250 km for 29 tonne gross combined weight.
Scania are now working on longer range 40 tonne (~”class 8″) trucks, saying:
“The rapid development of electric solutions for heavy duty vehicles includes the fast advancement of battery technology in respect of energy storage capacity per kg. Charging time, charging cycles and economics per kg are improving rapidly. This means these solutions will become more cost effective, primarily in repetitive and predictable applications. They will gradually overtake Scania’s industry-leading fossil and biofuel powered solutions in most transport applications…
…In a few years’ time, Scania plans to introduce long-distance electric trucks that will be able to carry a total weight of 40 tonnes for 4.5 hours, and fast charge during the drivers’ compulsory 45-minute rest.
By 2025, Scania expects that electrified vehicles will account for around 10 percent or our total vehicle sales volumes in Europe and by 2030, 50 percent of our total vehicle sales volumes are expected to be electrified.” (Scania statement, January 2021)
Since almost all of Europe has a 90 km/h (56 mph) speed limit for trucks on highways, the goal of 4.5 hours highway driving (the maximum permissible duration between driver rest breaks) equates to ~400 km (~250 miles) of range, and is obviously well matched to the region’s driving health and safety regulations.
Hydrogen Fuel Cells Outcompeted For Road Transport?
At this point, the only established global passenger vehicle brands still prevaricating with hydrogen fuel cells are Toyota and BMW (who are Toyota’s junior R&D partner), Honda and Hyundai.
The list of global automakers who have already explicitly benched their passenger FCEV research include Volkswagen (March 2020), Mercedes-Benz (April 2020), and Mercedes’s FCEV research partners Nissan and Ford. General Motors and Volvo have also effectively ditched FCEV research for passenger vehicles, having announced their pursuit of an all-electric future. Most other automakers are also now firmly on this path.
China is often misrepresented by fuel cell holdouts as being all-in on FCEVs across all vehicle categories. The reality is that FCEVs are pretty much only still alive in China as a possibility for heavy duty commercial vehicle applications, a position was clarified by former science and technology minister (and the country’s leading policy voice on NEVs), Wang Gang (万钢), in April 2019:
“Some friends asked where will fuel cells be located in the future? Through in-depth research last year, we concluded that as a means of transportation such as long-distance public transportation, work rental, urban logistics, and long-distance transportation, fuel cell vehicles have the characteristics of clean, zero emissions, continuous mileage, and short filling time, which is suitable for market demand. best choice. And you can use small fuel cells plus batteries to meet the needs of all-day operation, and long-distance transportation.” (Wan Gang, April 2019, translated)
However, BEV trucks, buses and other commercial vehicles already outsell FCEV powered rivals by several orders of magnitude in China, and there is little prospect of FCEVs ever catching up.
Because of the hydrogen-energy conversion processes at both ends, as well as energy lost in hydrogen storage, the energy equation for hydrogen FCEVs will always be 2 to 3 times less efficient than simple BEV powertrains. In road transport applications, even with today’s nascent battery energy density, BEVs are already commercially superior for the vast majority of use-cases. And as if that’s not enough, batteries will continue to quickly improve in energy density and in charging speed over the coming years, giving no remaining space for arguments relating to the only two theoretical strengths of hydrogen’s potential in FCEVs (high energy density and decently fast refilling).
I’m open to hydrogen and fuel cells still having a potential remaining role for very long range heavy ships and very long range aircraft, due to hydrogen’s decent gravimetric energy density. But for all other transport use cases, batteries have much better economics and are steadily and inexorably improving in energy density (with no end in sight). The rule of thumb should be to battery-electrify everything possible (and recognize ever improving battery technology) and only use much-less-efficient renewable hydrogen (or other potential renewable fuel) when there is no practical alternative.
It’s good to see that Scania have recognized that BEVs for heavy road transport are already viable today and make much more sense than FCEVs.
Article images courtesy of Scania
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About the Author
Dr. Maximilian Holland Max is an anthropologist, social theorist and international political economist, trying to ask questions and encourage critical thinking about social and environmental justice, sustainability and the human condition. He has lived and worked in Europe and Asia, and is currently based in Barcelona.
Find Max’s book on social theory, follow Max on twitter @Dr_Maximilian and at MaximilianHolland.com, or contact him via LinkedIn.