The Reality of Hydrogen Cars

I recently posted to LinkedIn some quotes by Tesla Motors and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk regarding the practicality of the current state of hydrogen fuel cells as applied to personal transportation.

The post was inspired by the research I’ve been conducting for my next book, Understanding Alternative Cars. The book will feature a chapter regarding hydrogen-powered vehicles in an effort to eliminate confusion for consumers–while also accomplishing some myth-busting.

My LinkedIn post:

elon musk for twitter 2In January 2014, in an interview with British magazine Autocar, Musk said the following regarding hydrogen fuel cells as applied to personal transportation:

“They’re mind-bogglingly stupid. You can’t even have a sensible debate.”

“Consider the whole fuel cell system against a Model S. It’s far worse in volume and mass terms, and far, far, worse in cost. And I haven’t even talked about hydrogen being so hard to handle.”

“Success is simply not possible.”

“Manufacturers do it [FCEVs] because they’re under pressure to show they’re doing something ‘constructive’ about sustainability. They feel it’s better to be working on a solution a generation away rather than something just around the corner.”

“Hydrogen is always labeled the fuel of the future—and always will be.”

There’s currently quite a bit of contention regarding the topic of hydrogen power for cars. Given Toyota’s recent announcement that it will migrate from fossil fuels to more modern technologies, like hydrogen and electricity, and BMW’s recent statement that it will no longer employ gas-powered internal combustion engines by the year 2025, this is a big deal. The economic and environmental repercussions of the migration from fossil fuels to alternative, modern technologies will be felt by everyone.

A commenter to my LinkedIn post, Joe Wojdacz, who identifies himself as a “disruptive innovationist” within the motion picture and film industry in Los Angeles, posted the following:

“I’m sorry but, what a dumb thing to say by someone claiming the mantle of the incomparable Nikola Tesla! How about looking more than a generation behind at the man himself who found the Cosmos to be a battery. No need for Li or Hydrogen. WTF people?!”

In response, I emailed Mr. Wojdacz the following:

“Joe: I love the ‘idea’ of hydrogen, but every time I research the numbers and efficiency ratio, it makes no sense. The most reputable recent source I consulted stated an efficiency ratio of 1.3 to one. Meaning that 1.3 units of energy are invested to deliver one unit of energy (in this argument, to propel a vehicle).

American consumers love convenience. There’s a fast food drive-thru on every corner and all pizza shops provide home delivery for a reason. Convenience is king, few would argue. Ok, given that, how are we to assume that an expensive network of hydrogen fueling stations is more convenient for drivers than simply plugging in at home or work?

Centralized fueling stations are a thing of the past in an all-EV world. They die, along with the 155-year-old propulsion tech they supported, internal combustion engines.

A factor that will actually generate a surplus of energy on the grid will be rooftop consumer solar power. This will be especially true for those who can afford a storage battery and, thus, engage in the time shifting of energy (charging one’s car after dark/post-work commute, the same way that consumers currently time shift TV entertainment using DVRs).

Even if we assume that the majority of the future hydrogen fuel station infrastructure is derived from stations that currently dispense gasoline, it doesn’t change the fact that consumers will choose the $4 at-home, in-the-garage, overnight refueling over the $50 hydrogen fuel cell, only-at-the-dispensing station, approach.

I would love to engage with an informed and reasonably balanced hydrogen fan/enthusiast/proponent regarding these points. I’m not against *any* clean, renewable tech, given the nastiness of the gasoline production life cycle (fracking, high cost, refineries, and exhaust from tail pipes). But when I do the math for fuel cell vehicles versus EVs, fuel cells always lose by a wide margin.

Unless there’s some magic (and magically inexpensive) leapfrog propulsion fuel on the immediate horizon–like Star Trek-inspired dilithium crystals or something–electricity makes so much more sense that it isn’t even funny.

Joe, thank for you opinion on all this. But is there something I’m missing here? Everything Musk says has made sense to me so far.”

Please consider this post an invitation to both pro- and anti-hydrogen enthusiasts alike to participate in a mature, professional, and educational debate regarding the merits and practicality of hydrogen and electricity as power sources for the next generation of personal vehicles.

I’m sure we’ll all learn something. Because, after all, we share the same planet and we all pay a significant portion of our incomes for personal transportation.

curtsig2 - trans
Curt Robbins


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

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10 thoughts on “The Reality of Hydrogen Cars

  1. Good read. All of the major change necessary to move off our 19th century fuel sources will require governmental intervention either through tax incentives for the car manufacturers and energy companies (which is tough to do since many are essentially at net zero taxation anyway) or through massive consumer tax incentives. Unfortunately, at this critical juncture, climate-change wise. there doesn’t seem to be any gumption to do this. It could be trans-formative for our economy to make the major switches to 21st century energy now but quarter to quarter financial requirements by investors and primary financing requirements for politicians will likely kill the drive to do so.

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  2. There are some pretty smart people willing to advocate for HFCEVs but in my opinion, the best they can do is to argue that they would be more energy efficient than a PHEV (ICE hybrid). Even that is marginal and hardly seems to justify the infrastructure developments needed…

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  3. While I’m hardly in opposition to electric cars, which I think are already winning this “race” on economic grounds alone, I think I need to correct some misconceptions in the second quotation above. The energy efficiency of the production of motor vehicle fuels from crude oil varies significantly depending on the refinery and the grade of the crude feedstock, but I’d be astonished to learn that any refinery takes as much as 4.5 kWh of electric power from the grid to produce a gallon of motor fuel.

    Rather, that would be a typical (or slightly low-ball) figure for the total amount of energy lost or consumed in the refining process, most of which would have come from the crude oil itself rather than from electricity.

    Electric energy inputs would be limited to pumps and control equipment, perhaps as little as 0.2 kWh per gallon of gasoline manufactured. Process heat is supplied by burning low-sale-value byproducts of the refining process such as heavy residual oil and volatile aromatics. Refineries *are* significant consumers of electric power, but the throughput of chemical energy absolutely dwarfs their electric usage, and indeed many refineries will generate their own electricity from those same low-value byproducts and even export power to the grid.

    Therefore the power requirements of electric vehicles do not displace significant power requirements from oil refineries as you argue. They are indeed, as their opponents argue, additional incremental consumers of electric power. Fortunately there are many ways to supply that additional electric power, not all of which require major increases to fossil-fuel-dependent infrastructure.

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    • A fair point, and the goal is to wean ourselves from the fossil energy entirely. Still, the point stands that the overhead of heat energy needed to refine oil into gasoline is itself a significant fraction of the energy value of the gasoline produced, which would be sufficient to power a great deal of electric transportation, if it were put into that form instead.

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  4. Hi Jonathan. I updated this blog post with attribution to the “Volts for Oil” video available on YouTube and published in May 2014. The video is hosted by Robert Llewellyn (a British television personality) and part of the Fully Charged series. It cites the source for the 4.5 kWh figure as the United Nations Statistics Division. I thought that would make me pretty safe, but possibly these numbers are being misinterpreted by a few parties. I’m intent only on learning reality, not defending myself or a particular stance.

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    • Thanks Curt!

      I’ve done some back-of-envelope calculations with US EIA figures for US refinery throughput and I’m confident that in the US at least, electrical energy inputs to refineries are only around half of one percent of the energy content of the crude oil feedstock. Over 80% of the energy in the feedstock is still present in the refinery products (of which in the last couple of years only around one quarter has been gasoline), so the external electrical energy contribution is still less than 1%. Even if we apportion *all* electrical input to gasoline alone, it works out to just one kWh per gallon, or less than 4%.

      Source for crude oil inputs is here:
      http://www.eia.gov/dnav/pet/pet_pnp_unc_dcu_nus_a.htm

      Source for electricity purchases is here:
      http://www.eia.gov/dnav/pet/pet_pnp_capfuel_dcu_nus_a.htm

      Source for refinery product volumes is here:
      http://www.eia.gov/dnav/pet/pet_pnp_refp2_dc_nus_mbbl_a.htm

      Obviously doing energy equivalence calculations with these EIA figures involves a lot of funny unit conversions. Product output varies a lot from year to year and we don’t really know the energy content of the input crude oil, which also varies significantly depending on the geological source.

      Why the figures given by Llewellyn for the UK are so very different, I’m not sure. Perhaps the UK refineries do use more electricity, proportionately, than US ones. Perhaps he is apportioning all electrical input to the gasoline output alone Gasoline (aka “petrol” in British English) has traditionally been a much smaller fraction of European refinery output than US refineries. It’s very hard to know for sure where the difference comes from. I will try to find out when I have some more time to dig into the details 🙂

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      • So, Jonathan Maddox, where did the 20% of energy in the crude oil go that prevents it from showing up in the refinery products? This is really not as much about *electricity* used as it is about how much loss there is the energy flow. 80% out is not terrible, especially compared to the 20% of the gasoline energy that makes it to turning the wheels, but it is more than enough to power a more efficient technology like electric generation and motors.

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      • “… where did the 20% of energy in the crude oil go that prevents it from showing up in the refinery products? ”

        Most of it as waste heat, some as byproducts such as elemental sulphur (coming out of the Claus process) and other impurities which are not considered to be energy carriers although they do have “embedded” energy.

        80% certainly isn’t bad as an average, but that’s crude-to-products and not counting other purchased energy inputs such as natural gas (frequently a significant energy input, especially for manufacture of hydrogen for desulphurisation of sour crudes), steam (sometimes purchased from neighbouring facilities such as coal- or gas-fired power stations), electricity (very minor), and coal (very very minor, but yes, some oil refineries actually burn coal). Counting all energy inputs the average energy efficiency of US refineries is only about 70%. That’s still better than any thermal power station, mind you!

        Many older, smaller refineries are likely much less efficient, while some larger, shinier new ones would do significantly better.

        Internal combustion engines burning refinery products and similar fuels like ethanol are supremely inefficient when used in the traditional manner to drive single-occupancy cars in stop-start traffic, but when used more judiciously in less intermittent and larger-scale applications, their efficiencies aren’t bad at all.

        Electricity generation from refined oil products is still significant, especially in island economies which do not have the economies of scale to make large power stations burning cheaper fuels viable, but the engines and fuels in such mid-size “diesel” power stations are the same as those in heavy shipping, burning not high-value refined products but heavy bunker oil, actually heavier and lower in price per unit of energy content than unrefined crude. The big marine diesel engines of the last several decades are not only fuel-flexible, making useful power from what used to be considered basically a waste product, they are also surprisingly efficient, approaching 50% thermal efficiency and putting almost all thermal power stations to shame.

        It really doesn’t seem worthwhile skipping the refining step until/unless demand for the higher-value refined oil products collapses altogether. Since aviation cannot be converted to run from grid electricity, and the conversion of heavy road and rail haulage to electric power is a long process and unlikely to be profitable except with a very high oil price, I would anticipate that even if *cars* were ultimately to stop using oil altogether, jet fuel and (light) diesel will be in demand for a long time to come, and cheap bunker oil for ships and island power stations will remain readily available as long as crude is being refined. But I don’t see significant amounts of crude oil being used for power on continental grids in non-exporting countries, given its high cost of production and competition from cheaper, incumbent coal and gas and ever-growing, ever-cheaper intermittent renewables.

        If electric vehicles really do take off in the mass market and displace the bulk of oil consumption in cars and light trucks before oil *production* collapses in the face of high costs and low prices (remembering that the cost of production in most US shale oil plays, which have delivered almost all of the crude oil production growth over the last four years, is *higher* than the present price of crude), why then, very cheap oil might just begin to displace natural gas in the market for firm dispatchable electricity supply, complementing the troughs in generation from intermittent sources like wind and solar. However it’s equally likely that oil and gas supplies will remain volatile with unpredictable speculative booms and debt-driven busts, fuel prices will fluctuate correspondingly, wreaking havoc with demand, and scarcity will over the long term force gas and oil supplies down and prices up. In this scenario power storage, the very same class of technology which enables battery-electric vehicles, will increasingly take over the stationary dispatchable power market, leaving all three fossil fuels in terminal demand decline for cost reasons alone.

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