Hydrogen as preferred fuel to power green economy

M. Rokonuzzaman | Published: July 29, 2018 20:34:56 | Updated: August 03, 2018 21:15:07


With the prediction of McKinsey that the battery-powered electric vehicles (EVs) could rise to almost 20 per cent of annual global sales by 2030, it may be logical to write-off the future of hydrogen to power automobiles. There has been enormous uncertainty about the fact that whether hydrogen or battery to power the green economy. Over the centuries, human civilisation was often faced with such difficulties. Recent notable ones are HD DVD vs. Blu-ray scenario or VHS vs. Beta. With the growth of competing for means to fuel next-generation clean economy, should we store electrical energy in the battery, or split water with electricity to generate hydrogen, has raised a great debate.

Making mistake in choosing one of the options may lead to colossal wastage of resources. Such error even may lead to disruption in significant industries and firms. Similarly, pursuing a possibility in a bit smarter way than the competitors may provide a significant competitive advantage. Consequential effect of whether preparing for battery or hydrogen to power green economy appears to be astronomically high. Not only industry, but also the government should carefully analyse options and take smart policies to leverage unfolding future opportunities, instead of being marginalised. 

Over a couple of decades, lithium ion-based technology has opened the opportunity for the battery to store sufficient energy to power even a family-sized Sedan over a couple of hundreds kilometre. Such technology development has opened the opportunity to power automobiles with battery without causing air pollution. The energy density, cost, and charging times are among significant factors of consideration determining the attractiveness of battery. The weight of the battery pack is a serious concern. For example, Tesla's 100-kWh battery pack powering the Model S over 335 miles weighs 1200 pounds.

Cost is another factor. As reported by Bloomberg, average lithium-ion battery pack used to be priced at $209 per kilowatt-hour in 2017, a 24 per cent decrease from a year ago and an 80 per cent drop since 2010. Still, it is almost three times higher than an equivalent gasoline engine. The $100 benchmark is when the electric-vehicle market could get exceptionally interesting. Unfortunately, the limited supply of cobalt is lowering the price reduction of the battery as the scale picks up.  Charging time is another major issue. Although every household has an electric connection, charging an electric vehicle over the night from regular electrical outlet stores only enough energy to drive 30 to 40 kilometres. Having the battery charged up to 80 per cent of capacity, a family Sedan needs to spend almost 30 minutes to a level 3 public DC charging station.

The competing technology option is hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicle. During the 90s, the fuel cell was considered to be the only option to power zero emission vehicles. A fuel cell combines liquid hydrogen with oxygen to generate electricity to power vehicles, producing water. The upside is that, it takes just a couple of minutes, as opposed to 30 minutes required by battery, to fill a tank with 5.0 kg hydrogen to power your family car over 300 kilometres. The downside is that, hydrogen needs to be produced, liquefied, and stored to refuel your vehicle. Electricity is required in order to split water to produce hydrogen, to be used in the fuel cell to generate electricity. Such cycle of energy conversion was termed as "mind-bogglingly stupid," "incredibly dumb" and "fool cells" by Tesla CEO Elon Musk. The superiority of hydrogen over the battery is that, its charging time is negligible, and a single tank full gives the mileage, which is far higher than comparable battery-powered vehicle. For example, the 2016 model year Mirai has a total range of 502 km (312 mi) on a full tank with a combined city/highway fuel economy rating of 3.6 L/100 km.

The cost of hydrogen fuel could also be a concern. As reported in the media, for comparison in 2018, gasoline costs around $6.05 per gallon in Europe as opposed to $11.75 for each kg of hydrogen, and a typical Sedan-like Ford Fusion gets about 40 miles to a gallon, making a 300-mile trip cost $45, as opposed to $57 with hydrogen. It's to be noted that more than half of the cost to produce hydrogen is the cost of electricity. Shell says that it can currently produce hydrogen at $3.54 per kg and hopes that the number will fall further in future -- thanks to economies of scale. On the other hand, the electricity cost to charge the battery pack for driving 300 miles will be around $20 in the US. With the decreasing hydrogen production cost as Shell stated, the expense for hydrogen will be comparable to the cost of electricity.

The major advantage of hydrogen is negligible refuelling time and long range. The downside is the lack of availability of expensive refuelling stations. Every technology at the beginning faces the barrier due to the non-availability of complementary facilities-the externality effect. But for hydrogen, there appears to be good news. For long-haul trucks and buses, the electric battery is not an option; hydrogen is the only option. As single refuelling can power a truck or bus to drive over 1200 km, we do not need a large number of refuelling stations to populate the highways. The recent decision of Anheuser-Busch to pre-order Nikola worth $9 billion hydrogen trucks could be a game changer for hydrogen vehicle in the US.

Eight hundred vehicles are expected to be in service, starting in 2020, with each one being capable of travelling 1,200 miles before refuelling. The trucks could catalyse a new, America-wide hydrogen-refuelling network, with 700 stations anticipated, which would hopefully encourage the production of more hydrogen-powered consumer vehicles. Similar complementary development is taking place in Europe.  In the UK, Alstom will convert a fleet of Class 321 electric trains by fitting hydrogen tanks and fuel cells to power them. It's being reported, "On cost, hydrogen trains can help avoid the necessity for line electrification, which represents a significant investment for customers." Conversion of train fleets in Europe and other parts of the world to be fuelled with hydrogen will partly address the infrastructure issue for hydrogen production, storage, transportation, and refuelling.

Moreover, hydrogen is showing up as a blessing to deal with a major limitation of renewable energy sources. Intermittence of renewable energy sources, as the sun does not shine or wind does not blow all the time at a constant rate, is a major barrier for solar and/or wind to take off as a complete substitute to conventional sources to power the world. While the wind blows at the pick or sun shines intensely, extra energy could be used to produce hydrogen. This hydrogen will be transported to fuel cars, truck, buses, and trains. It appears that hydrogen economy could be a strong complement to deal with the intermittency of renewable energy sources. As a result, countries that have embraced renewable energy, like Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, can already produce hydrogen that's as cheap as gasoline. Basically, the energy cost of production of hydrogen will come down to almost zero, as renewable energy producers often offer energy free while wind starts blowing at the peak.

It's understood that major automakers led by Tesla are behind battery-powered electric vehicles. But Japanese automakers like Toyota and Honda are still beating on hydrogen. There is no denying that the electric vehicle is now more attractive than hydrogen-based fuel cell vehicles for city-based short distance trips. But once basic infrastructure is set up to fuel long-haul trucks, buses, and railway fleets, hydrogen could be the preferred option to fuel tanks in minutes to drive for hours over a long distance. Moreover, the cost of hydrogen will also come down due to economies of scale and utilisation of low-cost energy supplied from renewable energy sources while they will be running at the peak. Despite uncertainties and initial high preference for battery-powered electric vehicles, it appears that wheels in future will likely be powered by hydrogen - thereby making hydrogen as the preferred fuel to power the green economy.

M. Rokonuzzaman, Ph.D, is academic, researcher and activist on technology, innovation and policy. zaman.rokon.bd@gmail.com

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