Green Transport in the Age Crisis

23/06/2016 11:23 | Updated 23 June 2016

Hydrogen fuel cell automobiles have been slow to make it from testing to the retail market with heated disagreements as to fuel cell sustainability as a viable ecological option to petrol or electricity-based fuels.  The first such car debuted in 2008 with the production of the Honda FCX Clarity introduced to the Japanese market and in Southern California where the only hydrogen fuel stations were available.  The lack of this automobile's adoption by consumers has been largely blamed on the lack of hydrogen fuel stations. But there is a greater story to be told as to why, just years after its announcement of being the future of green transportation, that the fuel cell vehicle (FCV) is long from taking over the electric vehicle despite the recent release of the Honda Clarity.

Tesla Motors co-founder, Marc Tarpenning, recently spoke out about what he referred to as the "scam" of fuel cell technology explaining how hydrogen fuel cells are the least efficient of energy sources.  Because hydrogen requires energy to poured into the process of breaking up the chemical bonds of water and then compressing and transporting the hydrogen to be placed back into automobiles only to be then converted into electricity.  Tarpenning makes a damning indictment as to why he believes the fuel cell industry has been allowed to continue:

When you add that all up, it turns out that the amount of energy per kilometer driven is just terrible. It's way worse than almost anything else you can come up with - which I always suspected is one of the reasons why the energy companies have long been big proponents of it.When we were raising money the first time, we had very carefully gone through the math to understand fuel cells because there was a bunch of money going into fuel cells at the time and we also looked at biofuels and ethanols - we sort of went down the whole list to figure out what the most energy efficient system was - which turned out to be battery electric cars.

This theory is propounded by others in the green automobile industry who are very quick to discard the benefits of fuel cell technology which has been often presented as the greenest transport option, simply because nobody was accounting for the ecological waste in producing the hydrogen for these vehicles. 

I have to confess that I was very disappointed to read the data on FCVs because quite early on I too was one of the believers in this technology because the media on this form of energy often did not tell the story, sometimes misrepresenting facts.  For instance, the idea that the only obstacle to fuel cell automobiles was that there are not enough filling stations and that like other forms of transport filling up with hydrogen is pretty much like filling up any other car. Or that the mileage is more efficient and that the fuel cells will last longer than electric car batteries. Or that hydrogen is a cleaner solution to petrol or diesel. The reality, however, is quite different.

First, filling up a vehicle with hydrogen is quite difficult compared to other traditional fuel forms since hydrogen stations can take more than ten minutes just to get back to usable pressure between refills. And even if the filling process has been made somewhat simpler in recent years, one cannot discard the paltry numbers of stations in considering this as viable alternative.  That said, the one definite advantage FCVs have over electric vehicles is that the refueling time is approximately three minutes, where the recharging of batteries at a rapid electric charging point takes thirty minutes.  Fuel cells wear out and today can last up to 75,000 miles making their footprint not so ecological.  And although recent FCVs would run for 193 km, today some of these vehicles have a drive range of 750 km with a 141L, 5.0kg tank capacity.  Although the range in FCVs is considered superior to electric vehicles, EVs are expected to pose challenges this coming year with the 2017 Chevy Bolt which promises a 321km range and the Audi e-tron quattro promising a 500km drive range.   

As of today, there are three hydrogen powered cars available in various retail markets: Toyota Mirai, the Hyundai ix35 FCEV, and the Honda Clarity.  As the electric and hydrogen cell vehicle industries each promise that the other is defunct, this battle for viability is still on. While there have been approximately 7,000 pure electric vehicles registered in the UK in 2016 alone, it seems unlikely that fuel cell cars will make a splash in the UK as electric cars are out-pricing petrol vehicles costing approximately 25% the price to refuel while FCVs are matching the costs of conventional vehicles.  Yet both vehicles are still extremely expensive as car sales for conventional vehicles are still much more cost-effective for the consumer as Toyota's Mirai currently lists at £66,000 and its Yaris lists at £10,995.   What is clear is that a viable green solution to fossil fuel based vehicles must be offered beyond a lease-only basis and I would go so far as to suggest that they be legally mandated.  With record temperatures in Rajasthan, India this past month at 51C, the highest ever since written records of weather began, the earth's health must be put first before all else.  What is clear from the ongoing debate between electric and fuel cell technology is that this very polemic is pushing the industry to raise the ecological standards so desperately needed today.