Hope for Hydrogen: Fueling Station Buildout

Welcome to the second installment in the Hope for Hydrogen series. In the previous article, the premise of this series was explained: Pretend there are no battery electric vehicles in the world. Imagine that hydrogen fuel cell cars are the inevitable replacement for the 155-year-old internal combustion engine and the two billion gas-guzzling cars currently roaming the roads of planet Earth.

We left off discussing the availability of hydrogen fueling stations. Currently, in the United States, there’s only 13 of them, 70 percent of which are in Los Angeles. In a country of 120,000 gas stations that thrives on convenience, the situation obviously must improve.

So, what is being done about the problem?


Genesis in California

In 2013, California Gov. Jerry Brown allocated $200 million for the construction of 100 hydrogen fueling stations in his state. While they are going up relatively slowly, at only about nine stations per year—and won’t be complete until 2024—it’s still a start. This is government attempting to kick-start what private enterprise and large energy corporations, driven (and funded) by consumer demand, must complete.

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Let’s also dispel the myth that hydrogen fueling stations cost $3-5 million to construct. California is proving that they can be built for $2 million each (if they can stay on budget). If a new hydrogen fueling station can be constructed for $2 million, it goes to assume that existing gas stations, like those operated by Shell, BP, and Exxon (or their franchisees), could be fitted for hydrogen at a lower cost. Let’s just assume this is $1 million (and maybe provides only two or four pumps, meaning waiting queues in areas of dense FCV adoption).

Criticisms that hydrogen is dangerous and highly explosive are somewhat, um, overblown here. Gasoline is also dangerous and highly volatile. Yet, we’ve managed to construct regulatory oversight, a production (refinement) infrastructure, and distribution networks that deal with it and protect consumers, ensuring public safety.

If we assume that big energy companies like ExxonMobil and Chevron must spend $1-2 million to retrofit existing gas stations with hydrogen fueling capabilities, the picture begins to clear. Despite the recent dip in gas prices, these are international corporations with deep pockets. If they choose to begin the mass conversion of petrol stations to hydrogen depots, they certainly have the funds.

Lack of Fueling Stations: Only Temporary

Criticisms that there are no hydrogen fueling stations, while currently true, are potentially very temporary. In only two to three years—if big energy companies and their franchisees wave their magic wands (bags of money)—there could be tens of thousands of such stations in the United States.

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However, let’s be realistic about the cost. Unless the driving range of fuel cell cars in the future greatly exceeds that of current gasoline cars (as in 500 or even 800 miles on a single tank), the convenience our society demands probably won’t be satisfied. There would need to be roughly the same number of hydrogen fueling depots as there currently is gas stations.

Because the genesis of hydrogen fueling infrastructure is California, let’s consider the Golden State as a case study. With 10,000 gas stations, it would cost between $10 billion and $20 billion to convert them all to hydrogen (assuming a cost of $1-2 million each).

Modeling the Nation

California is, admittedly, a large and very populated state (at 39 million, it exceeds second in line, Texas, by 12 million residents). Thus, for ballpark numbers, let’s assume that all other states would cost only half of California’s numbers to convert existing stations to hydrogen. Remember: These are just rough estimates. Pretend we’re blind and just trying to get a feel for the size of the elephant.

Thus, best case, 49 (states) x $5 billion (half the cost to equip California) = about $250 billion. Assume occasional budget overruns, unexpected engineering challenges, and consideration for heavily populated states (like Texas, New York, and Florida). This would inevitably drive this cost to $300 billion. The building of hydrogen fueling stations in the United States—minus all other production and distribution infrastructure—will cost more than a quarter trillion dollars. And possibly as much as $400 billion or even $500 billion (because this ain’t our first rodeo).

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Could this price tag be dramatically decreased by implementing a model like that developed by Toyota and the University of California (described below)? In a nation where convenience is king, will picky (and arguably lazy) consumers be willing to drive long distances to refuel? Will the millions of drivers not within a few minutes of a hydrogen fueling station eschew the technology, instead opting to continue purchasing old-school gas burners or opting for alternative clean technologies?

Enter Toyota’s 15%

That said, Toyota, the company on the verge of introducing its flagship hydrogen fuel cell car, the Mirai, begs to differ. At the January 2014 CES show in Las Vegas, Bob Carter, Senior Vice President of Automotive Operations at Toyota, said to a packed crowd, “If every vehicle in the state of California ran on hydrogen, we could meet refueling logistics with only 15 percent of the nearly 10,000 gas stations that are currently operating in the state. We don’t need a station on every corner.”

The Toyota executive emphasized that satisfying the needs of a hydrogen fuel cell driving population isn’t about the raw number of fueling stations, but rather their locations. He said that Toyota developed this model with the Advanced Power & Energy Program at the University of California and “…collaborated on a spatial model that maps out specific distribution of stations. The locations considered a variety of data, including hybrid and electric ownership patterns, traffic patterns, population density, and so on.”

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Carter stressed that this minimal refueling station distribution model centers on the assumption that owners desire to reach a hydrogen fueling station “within six minutes of their home or work.” I have to admit, I’m cynical of his assertions. I want to believe, but it simply sounds too good to be true. However, we should all support any effort to construct 1,500 hydrogen fueling stations in a single state in an orchestrated and intelligent approach to serve an entire population of drivers propelled by clean car technology.

Will the Government Help?

Will the U.S. government, which currently extends subsidies to the big energy companies equaling tens of billions of dollars per year, help fund this burgeoning hydrogen infrastructure? Will Uncle Sam allocate new subsidies and tax incentives aimed specifically at speeding hydrogen fueling station buildout?

How much of this tab is government—and, thus, U.S. taxpayers, many of whom don’t care about clean cars or the environment—willing to assume? (A 2014 study by Yale University revealed that 23 percent of Americans are climate change skeptics or deniers.)

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To start, California threw $200 million at the task—about 1 percent of the final tab to convert those 10,000 stations to hydrogen, or 13 percent of the cost to convert Toyota’s hypothetical 1,500 stations. Private enterprise and the energy company stakeholders and executives of the existing fueling infrastructure will obviously need to step up to the plate. But will dipping gas prices (lower revenue) and a sluggish economy disincentivize them from doing so?

Will Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, and other FCV manufacturers step in and help fund the buildout? Can Toyota and Hyundai afford to assist in this effort if they’re already giving away hydrogen fuel (at $50 a tank, retail) to their buyers and lessees? Automobile companies must invest billions in the development of new hydrogen fuel cells, advanced powertrain control systems, and the cars wrapped around them. Can they really afford to be helping build hydrogen production facilities and fueling stations at the same time?

Sales Will Falter Without Fueling Stations

Let’s face it: Nobody is going to purchase a Mirai, Tucson Fuel Cell, or any other FCV as long as they don’t have a fueling station within an acceptable driving distance. That means close to their home and office and on the path of their commute (like they enjoy now with gasoline). We already know that Toyota and Hyundai won’t even sell a Mirai or Tucson Fuel Cell to anyone but those who live within five areas, most of whom reside in Los Angeles.

“We expect to have over 50 stations [in California] by the end of 2015, early 2016. So it’s going to happen very quickly from here on out,” said Catherine Dunwoody, former Executive Director of the California Fuel Cell Partnership, adding “We have nine stations that are currently open, fueling cars today, and that will grow very quickly over the coming years.”

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Yes, we have a bit of the chicken and the egg here. Which Toyota is obviously trying to remedy by spending billions to introduce to market a comfortable, quiet FCV that is basically an entry-level Lexus (with a matching $58,000 price tag), despite the fact that it wears the Toyota badge.

Lest you perceive that it’s only California that’s forging ahead with efforts to establish a viable network of hydrogen fueling stations, the Fuel Cell & Hydrogen Energy Association, based in Washington, D.C., on January 16 released a document outlining national efforts. “Eight states are working to develop a network of hydrogen fueling stations to support growing numbers of zero-emission FCEVs on their roadways,” the organization wrote in its press release.

Taking Sides

For those who care about issues like clean car tech, taking sides is not only inevitable, but also human. Be your motive political, technical, financial, or environmental, if you’re reading this, you probably feel strongly about hydrogen cars, whether you’re pro or con.

Don’t allow your allegiance to any particular transportation technology or platform to stand in the way of envisioning a hydrogen future. I’d be frustrated if someone wasn’t at least willing to consider my perspective on an issue—and think them very close-minded for not even entertaining the idea that it might be a good way to go.

Critical thought requires understanding both sides of an issue. Sometimes, to gain that understanding, we need to do some intellectual gymnastics. Stay with us, dear readers. You’ll be better clean car enthusiasts—and much more informed—at the end of this journey. After you gain enough knowledge to come to your own conclusions, you can begin spreading your own gospel.

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Curt Robbins


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

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

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Hope for Hydrogen: Imagine Fuel Cell Cars

Welcome to the first installment in Hope for Hydrogen. In this series of articles and podcasts, veteran automotive journalist Nicolas Zart and I ask you to imagine a world void of battery electric vehicles (BEVs). In this contrived intellectual exercise, pretend that the inevitable replacement for conventional gas-powered automobiles will be the venerable hydrogen fuel cell car.

I’ve written before about the religious war between battery electric cars and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. We’re at the cusp of the end of the 100+ year reign of gasoline-powered personal transportation. It has been driven, literally, by internal combustion engine (ICE) technology. No, these vibration-riddled, maintenance-prone, noisy, polluting vehicles won’t go away overnight; the shift will be gradual.

However, the switch has begun. In the next few years, the speed of the transition will only increase. Prices will precipitate. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will improve, offering greater driving range, lower cost, and certainly more convenience.


Replacing Two Billion Cars

Consider that there’s more than two billion ICE cars in the world today, and 100 million new gas guzzlers are sold each year globally (with nearly 17 million of these in the United States). Only then do we begin to understand that it will take a while to overcome not only social stigma about new transport tech, but simply replacing the installed base.

It is estimated that it would take 20 years to accomplish this, based solely on existing production and consumption numbers. And this is if we could magically snap our fingers and immediately eliminate sales of all ICE cars today. Obviously, we must take a long-term view of the situation.

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As passenger cars featuring outdated ICE tech inevitably begin to vanish, what will replace them?

This is an issue of no small contention within the ranks of experts and laypeople alike. We’re a culture of duality. You’re either a good guy or a bad guy, and your white or black hat gives you away. Republicans versus Democrats, Christians versus atheists, and progressives versus conservatives split our creative and intellectual aspirations into competing cultural camps.

Typically, the respective fans of battery electric and fuel cell vehicles find it difficult or impossible to reconcile or respect one another. For many, there’s no room in the Venn diagram for an overlap. In fact, there’s no Venn diagram whatsoever (but, fortunately, no gasoline either). There are only two distinct and widely separated circles. While both feature zero emissions, neither is void of a carbon footprint somewhere in the “well-to-wheels” energy lifecycle.

Hope for Hydrogen Series

Enter this series, Hope for Hydrogen. Today our intellectual game will be to pretend that there are no battery electric vehicles in the world. We’re going to assume that “Supercharger,” “LEAF,” “lithium-ion,” and “Soul EV” are terms that never entered the lexicon. We’ll psych ourselves into believing that our vernaculars are free of phrases like “range anxiety,” “charge time,” and “CHAdeMO socket.”

Instead, assume the new kid on the block is hydrogen. Pretend, for just a few hundred words of text, that hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are the clean car model that will be embraced by one and all (which could turn out to be the case; none of us has a crystal ball). This is, of course, what reputable corporate titans like Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai are telling us. Organizations such as the California Hydrogen Fuel Cell Partnership and the South Carolina Hydrogen & Fuel Cell Alliance, among others, are touting the advantages of hydrogen over gasoline and aggressively advocating its use for personal transportation.

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Family heir and Toyota Motors president Akio Toyoda has said that his company will migrate away from petrol-powered piston pumpers within a decade. “I do believe that [the] fuel cell vehicle is the ultimate environmentally friendly car,” he told Businessweek last December. Even the Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, is promoting hydrogen fuel cell cars. He took delivery of Toyota’s first Mirai in a public ceremony in Tokyo in mid-January.

Thus, as a mental exercise, let’s embrace the mindset of hydrogen and explore its merits.


Excitement For a Better Car

I don’t know about you, but I’m not a big fan of ICE cars (with the exception of a few classics, like the Porsche 911, those gorgeous C2 Corvettes from the 1960s, and that Audi TT I owned a few years ago). The expense of gasoline and maintenance alone is enough to make me jump ship from internal combustion and the noise and pollution that it brings. One might as well just hitch a horse to a buggy and try to find a blacksmith. This is the 21st century, and old-school 19th and 20th century tech just won’t cut it. At least not where our wallets and the environment are concerned.

This being the case, many are excited about the availability of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCVs). Toyota will begin selling its flagship FCV, the Mirai, in September. Hyundai has already begun a limited leasing program for its first hydrogen-powered car, the Tucson Fuel Cell. That’s right, all of us now have the ability to lease or purchase a space-age hydrogen car that emits zero polluting emissions and features a familiar driving range of 265 to 300 miles (just shy of what most ICE cars achieve; improvements to these first generation versions will obviously extend this freshman effort).

Lack of Fueling Stations

Well, not so fast. These groovy vehicles aren’t really available to all of us. In fact, not most of us. Why? Because we don’t live close enough to a hydrogen fueling station. According to PC World, Toyota won’t even sell you a Mirai if you don’t live within a “reasonable” distance of a hydrogen fueling station. The same is true of the new Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell.

And here’s the rub, especially if you pride yourself in being an early adopter and want to put your money where your mouth is in terms of progressive transport tech: There’s currently only 13 hydrogen fueling stations in the United States. Nine of these 13, or 70%, are clustered around Los Angeles. The other four? One each in downtown San Francisco and downtown Sacramento, plus Wallingford, CT and another in Columbia, SC. Unfortunately, that’s it.

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If you look up hydrogen fuel cell cars on Wikipedia, it will indicate that there are more stations, like some in Dearborn, MI, Phoenix, AZ, and at Ohio State University in Columbus, OH. However, these either no longer exist, are private (like for corporate and commercial fleets), or are prototypes. In other words, you can’t drive up in your Mirai or Tucson, swipe your debit card, and fill your hydrogen tanks. As such, residents of cities like Portland, St. Louis, Miami Beach, Ft. Worth, Boston, and Indianapolis couldn’t even purchase a fuel cell car if they wanted to.

Creatures of Habit

Humans are creatures of habit. Thus, many will enjoy that FCVs offer the familiar experience of visiting a fueling station and standing next to their car for three or four minutes as they inject pressurized hydrogen into two or three tanks that reside under the back seat. Unfortunately, hydrogen fuel costs more than gasoline. In fact, the cost is about identical to pre-dip gasoline prices (think the first two-thirds of 2014).

Although both Toyota and Hyundai will be incentivizing new customers to purchase their fuel cell vehicles by offering free fuel for the first three years of ownership (including lessees), owners of other models—and Mirai owners after 36 months—will be paying roughly $50 to fill their cars with hydrogen (deriving about 300 miles of travel from the expense).

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This is somewhat disappointing. Can’t we come up with a transport tech that would allow us not only more flexibility in filling stations, but also a lower fuel cost? No wonder people don’t like to give up their gas guzzlers or be early adopters. There may be savings in maintenance (no oil changes, tuneups, transmission work, or conventional exhaust repairs), but there clearly are not in terms of fuel costs. At least not currently.

Only the Beginning

However, let’s be fair. This is, after all, the genesis of a revolution in personal transportation. Passenger vehicles didn’t instantly overtake the horse and buggy at the turn of the last century. Henry Ford’s Model T, introduced in 1908, didn’t spontaneously replace competing forms of transportation. Unlike today, there wasn’t a gas station on every corner when the Model T was first introduced (there are now 121,000 in the United States, with nearly 10,000 in California alone).

To make hydrogen fuel cell cars practical, we need not only a solid network of hydrogen fueling stations, but also what pundits call “infrastructure.” By this, they mean not only the consumer-friendly stations at which people will swipe their card to fill their tank (and buy a soda or a pack of smokes), but also the production and distribution networks that produce (extract), pressurize, and transport hydrogen to these stations.

Lest this become a 4,000 word article, let’s consider only the fueling station side of the equation. You already know that there are paltry few hydrogen fueling stations in the United States. Basically, it’s currently practical to own an FCV only if you live in one of five areas in the U.S. (and, to be practical, mostly Los Angeles). It’s easily possible that you live 30-45 minutes from one of the stations in any of these regions. Personally, I have a gas station that’s two minutes from my front door. Anything less convenient or more challenging than their current situations will be perceived as a pain by most consumers.

But that’s just the here and now. What does the future look like? What is currently being done to alleviate the lack of hydrogen fueling infrastructure?

Find out in the next installment of Hope for Hydrogen….


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:3d1

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his auto-related articles on CarNewsCafe, check out his Apple-themed articles on Apple Daily Report, and read his AV-related articles at rAVe Publications. You can also view his photos on Flickr.

Why the Toyota Mirai May Flop

[For more information regarding the Toyota Mirai, see Clean Car Comparison: Model S vs. Mirai.]

Since Toyota’s announcement of the September release of its hydrogen-powered Mirai sedan, there’s been a lot of press and social media chatter regarding this ground-breaking new vehicle. Hydrogen proponents and environmentalists far and wide are hailing this innovative car for its clean exhaust and edgy design. Toyota even calls it a “turning point.”

The Religious Debate

However, there’s a long and ongoing debate within the circles of automobile enthusiasts and clean energy advocates regarding hydrogen fuel cell cars. On one side of the issue are fans of all-electric vehicles, like the Nissan LEAF and Tesla Model S, who think hydrogen is a half-baked and inefficient tech that may never be truly economical, clean, or competitive.

Brian Cooley, when hosting an episode of CNET on Cars, said the Mirai is being released “At a time when most people think hydrogen fuel cell is either yesterday’s failed experiment or distant tomorrow’s technological witch.”

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Conversely, hard-core hydrogen proponents believe that electric cars (EVs) are mostly hype that are based on trendy sex appeal, technophilia, and the impulses of ignorant tree huggers. EV opponents also cite the replacement expense and relatively short lifespan of batteries, which don’t last as long as internal combustion engines, but are much less expensive to operate and maintain.

The Mirai, which in Japanese means “future,” is a bold and controversial step for the world’s number one automaker. I’m generally a fan of Toyota’s vehicles. I got car envy when the company’s Prius first hit the streets, and have admired the quirky and ubiquitous hybrid as a powerful statement of how battery technology can improve—and eventually replace—internal combustion engines.

High Costs, Limited Availability

But there are several problems with the current Mirai. Most notable is acquisition cost: It will start at $58,000. This pricing is more befitting one of Toyota’s other brands, Lexus. In fact, for roughly the same cash ($61,300), one could get their hands on the significantly more luxurious Lexus GS 450h, a hybrid vehicle sporting 34 MPG, 338 HP, and acceleration from zero to sixty in only 5.6 seconds. The Mirai delivers only 153 HP and does the 0-60 jaunt in a sluggish nine seconds.

In fact, for those who care more about performance than saving the environment, the Corvette Stingray is available for only $54,000, $4,000 less than the Mirai. More expensive than a Corvette? Really, Toyota?

Regardless of relative values, few middle class consumers will be able to afford or justify a four-seat sedan costing $60K.

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Also, only 200 units of this limited-production vehicle will be made available in California in the fourth quarter of 2015. Toyota reported that it anticipates only 3,000 Mirais will be on American roads by the end of 2017. In a country where 16.5 million vehicles are sold each year, the Mirai is arguably a media stunt on the part of Toyota. In fact, some experts argue that Toyota is simply trying to satisfy government fuel economy regulations so it can continue to sell its gas guzzling trucks and SUVs.

Another problem with the Mirai will be fuel prices, which—at the very few fueling stations available—will be nearly identical to that of gasoline. Temporarily, however, fuel will be…free. That’s right. But guess why. According to Motor Trend, “[Fuel will] be free because presently, there’s no certified way to meter hydrogen’s dispensing.” And you thought Toyota was just being generous.

“What happens when the shoe drops after three years and Mirai drivers start paying for their fuel? At the moment, hydrogen is costing between $9 and $10 per kilogram; assuming it isn’t subsidized, the Mirai could end up costing about twice per mile what the Prius v currently does,” reported Motor Trend.

Wow. Twice as expensive to fuel than a Prius v (which gets 44 MPG). Is this really progress?

Lack of Fueling Stations

There’s also the problem of the lack of hydrogen fueling stations in the U.S. According to AutoBlog.com, in early 2014, Toyota’s Lexus division “had to retract a pro-hydrogen ad…when it was discovered that the ad made incorrect claims about [hydrogen], including that there were ’20 states with an established infrastructure for hydrogen [refueling].'”

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There are actually only three states with hydrogen fueling stations in the United States. And two of the three feature only a single station. The folks at Toyota and Lexus apparently can’t be bothered with the facts; they’re too busy revolutionizing the world with impractical, ridiculously expensive cars.

In the words of a colleague from Los Angeles who’s a senior advisor for electric mobility and battery storage, “The thing that dawned on me when I first saw the Mirai was: This is the end of Toyota.” According to a friend in Portland, Oregon who owns two Nissan LEAFs and an electric bus, the Mirai “…may become the Betamax of electric cars.”


The Dialog

I recently commented on a post from a Facebook friend’s timeline regarding the forthcoming Mirai. The following exchange features Thomas Earl Moore, a project scientist at NASA Goddard and Tesla Model S owner.

Thomas Earl Moore: There are only about 30 hydrogen filling stations in existence right now, all in southern Calif. versus 300 Supercharger stations [for Tesla vehicles] all over the world, thousands and thousands of public charging stations, and millions of potential home chargers.

At present, you can only take a round trip to half your range in a hydrogen car, and will have to return to one of those stations because you are never going to get hydrogen delivered to your home, because of what you also pointed out. The stations cost $2-3M a pop to build, so the hydrogen sellers are looking for public funding of them.

Curt Robbins: Hi Thomas. Are there really 30 hydrogen refueling stations? I checked the California Fuel Cell Partnership website. 60 were listed, but—upon further inspection—most were under construction or planned. Only nine were actually available for use.

TM: Curt, I was guessing based on recent reading. I thought the claim was somewhat higher than that, but it’s interesting that it’s still mostly wishful thinking!

CR: Thomas, I was shocked by the low number too. I know that California’s Governor Jerry Brown, in 2013, signed a law that funds $20M a year to build 100 hydrogen fueling stations in Cali by 2024 (not exactly an aggressive construction schedule; only about nine stations per year).

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With all due respect, regarding Duncan Fowler above saying “locally is definitely the key word”: It’s really not. The only true math is “well-to-wheels,” considering the entire power generation food chain.

All electricity generated via coal is crap in terms of carbon footprint, so I agree with anyone who suggests that an EV that is charged from a coal power plant is of little environmental benefit (burning coal is the dirtiest form of power in the world). To Mr. Fowler’s point, a coal-powered EV delivers very little benefit to one’s local environment because the coal-burning power plant x-number of miles away pumps poisonous exhaust into the air, which then creates smog, acid rain, and other nasty side effects that directly impact your home, community, and neighboring crops (and eventually travel to other communities and combine with the exhaust from other dirty power plants).

In fact, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, “Coal plants are the nation’s top source of carbon dioxide [CO2] emissions.” Even more than cars. If these plants are generating the electricity that fuels electric cars, we still have a major problem.

Sorry for the long post, but this topic is neither trivial nor simple.

Better ≠ Best

Brian Fowler: I give Toyota credit for taking a step in WHATEVER direction in an effort to decrease the need to burn fossil fuels, and whatever technology comes out on top, be it electric or fuel cell, or whatever, it is something the entire planet needs, the sooner the better.

TM: Right, Brian. They got the Prius right for its time and who knows, someone may figure out how to make hydrogen work better than it currently does. My suspicion is the Japanese are trying to avoid building more nuke plants….

CR: I agree, Brian, that the world simply needs to be rid of fossil fuels. Considering melting ice caps and other evidence of climate change, you’re certainly correct in wanting this sooner rather than later.

However, just because an approach (hydrogen, or Mirai’s implementation of it) is better doesn’t mean it’s our best option. Many hydrogen pundits suggest that forthcoming (currently in development) hydrogen production and storage technologies will revolutionize the industry and make it a clearly superior option for all types of vehicles. If so, I’m all for it.

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But I doubt Tesla Motors would bet the farm on a $5 billion battery factory in Reno (that won’t be complete until 2017) if this was the case. The company certainly has the resources to purchase emerging technology companies or license patents. I’m not claiming Tesla is perfect, but they are very focused, intelligent, and determined. I don’t the company would go the electric-only route if it was inferior to hydrogen.

Hard Numbers

Given current and foreseeable tech, don’t give Toyota too much credit. As part of my book research, I just got off the phone with Wally Rippel, who worked on GM’s EV1 and the Tesla Roadster. When the efficiency loss not only for the power grid, but also for storage in the EV battery and other mechanisms is considered, EVs have a 70% overall efficiency. When one compares 70% full energy lifecycle efficiency in an EV to the 20% energy lifecycle efficiency of a hydrogen vehicle (current tech and infrastructure, which the Mirai leverages), the reality comes to light.

Many argue that Toyota is simply playing the regulation game (with California’s CARB mandate and the U.S. Government’s CAFE standards) and producing the Mirai so it can continue to sell it’s entire vehicle fleet into the largest car market in the U.S.: California. I won’t argue the nuances of that issue because I’m a technology writer and consumer advocate, not a political scientist or marketing strategist.

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But on the technical side, if you do an objective well-to-wheels analysis of the situation (or, as Mr. Rippel suggested to me, a “wind-to-wheels” consideration), the only benefit of the Mirai is no local emissions and a somewhat cleaner—but not truly clean, like solar or wind—energy source in the form of hydrogen.

Since most hydrogen in the U.S. is produced from methane, a natural gas, ownership of the Mirai still consumes fossil fuels. In fact, in the total energy lifecycle, hydrogen from methane produces about 50% of the CO2 made from the burning of gasoline in an internal combustion engine (according to Tim Lipman, co-Director of UC Berkeley’s Transportation Sustainability Research Center).

In its current state, the Mirai—and all hydrogen fuel cell vehicles—still produce CO2 when the method by which their hydrogen fuel is produced is taken into account. Even though it’s only half of what is released by conventional cars, it’s still significant. Lesson: Don’t believe the hype.

I’ll save the rest for the book, lest this get even longer. But it again emphasizes that achieving truly sustainable energy for personal transportation is complicated and more than meets the eye. Fueling the Mirai will cost as much or more than gas-powered vehicles and the car will be priced at $60K when it debuts in September. I don’t see how this is a move in the right direction.

Only in Los Angeles

TM: With a bit more research I find there are a dozen or so stations in the U.S. [Moore then linked to a Wikipedia article regarding hydrogen fueling stations in the United States].

CR: Hi Thomas. According to the Department of Energy, there are 13 hydrogen refueling stations in the U.S., but with 11 in Southern California and only two outside the state: One in Wallingford, Connecticut and another in Columbia, South Carolina. And that’s it.

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Assuming these stations are accessible, we have 13 hydrogen fueling stations in a nation with 254 million passenger vehicles (according to a 2007 U.S. Department of Transportation study; one blogger’s unofficial estimate claims 305 million as of 2014). The state of California alone has nearly 10,000 gasoline stations.

Yet, the Mirai goes on sale in September. But how is this supposed to work? As you pointed out, Thomas, an EV can be plugged into any electrical outlet in the United States (tens of billions of them). The ubiquity of the charging locations for EVs is clear. Electric vehicles have a monumental advantage over hydrogen cars in this respect.

I’ll again emphasize “same team,” that we’re all trying to rid ourselves of fossil fuels and adopt clean, sustainable energy for our homes and cars. But my brain cannot wrap around the present-day practicality of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. If someone can convince me otherwise—via the Mirai or any hydrogen car—please, I want to be educated.

So far, no one has been able to do that.

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Curt Robbins


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

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