For electric car lovers, victory is complete. The fat lady has long since stopped singing and has moved on to another gig.
The dominance of battery-powered electric vehicles over the now seemingly universally despised fossil-fuel options appears complete, as politicians in Europe declare that no new petrol or diesel vehicles will be sold after 2035, and the US moves close to a similar plan.
The sales forecasts for 2030 and 2035 contain expectations for hydrogen fuel cells as a pure rounding item. The idea of hydrogen having a role to play in powering cars and SUVs is dismissed with contempt by environmental groups, which see fuel cells powering some trucks, trains and planes, but not personal cars and SUVs.
According to Schmidt Automotive Research, battery electric (BEV) sales in Western Europe will reach just under 1.5 million this year and just over 1.5 million in 2023, with a market share of around 14.4%, before expanding to 20% by 2025. and will accelerate to 65% by 2030, which would mean sales of 9.2 million in a total market of 14.2 million. The sale of fuel cells hardly plays a role.
The victory seems complete, so why are the few remaining proponents of hydrogen – Toyota, Hyundai and BMW – wasting their time and shareholders’ money on such futile projects?
For all their bravery and virtue, electric cars have some serious drawbacks. Battery prices are rising now, not falling. Electric cars were supposed to become favorites when battery prices fell below 100kWh, but now the opposite is happening thanks to supply chain problems caused by the coronavirus pandemic and inflation following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Suppose demand for electric cars reaches more than 60% of the market by 2030? It won’t be surprising if the price of exotic components like cobalt, manganese-copper and lithium goes through the roof along the way, destroying the economic case. The supply of some minerals, such as cobalt, has some troubling aspects, such as the alleged use of child labor. Add to that the eternal fear of range, the need for an enormously expensive charging infrastructure and some experts claim that electric cars don’t do much to save carbon dioxide (CO2) anyway. Electric cars are hopeless compared to diesels for long-distance endurance driving.
So it’s really no surprise that some are saying that the fuel cell will one day be an important part of personal transportation budgets. The all-electric Volkswagen has also announced a hydrogen project. Ward’s Auto reported that VW is developing a new hydrogen fuel cell for a vehicle that could achieve a range of 1,240 miles. BMW CEO Oliver Zipse said the next trend for car and SUV powertrains will be hydrogen, with US sales starting within 5 years. Zipse also reiterated Stellantis CEO Carlos Tavares’ point that banning ICE technology by politicians rather than engineers who design the best systems is dangerous.
The European Parliament approved a plan to support green hydrogen in the transport system in October, mainly targeting trucks. The plan would impose a maximum distance of around 60 miles between each hydrogen refueling station on Europe’s main motorways. This would also be available for cars and SUVs. Brussels-based lobby group Transport & Environment disliked this proposal when it was aired a few months ago, saying it risked making the energy grid dirtier in the short term and was “dangerous” to clean energy policies.
In a report, “Hydrogen Highway 2022: Rocky Road to Decarbonization,” Bernstein Research said that achieving net-zero CO2 would be impossible without hydrogen.
“While green hydrogen will be the long-term solution, we still expect blue hydrogen to play an important role until renewable capacity is sufficient for both green electricity and hydrogen. Fuel cell vehicles (FCEVs) are also on the rise. China’s FCEV sales increased by almost 200% in the first half of 2022. China aims to have 1 million FCEVs on the road by 2030,” the report said.
At the Paris Motor Show in October, NamX unveiled its hydrogen-powered SUV, a HUV.
NamX, or New Automotive and Mobility eXploration, says it has solved the lack of infrastructure problem that is frustrating fuel cell startups. NamX has two hydrogen tanks. One is common to other FCEVs like the Toyota Mirai. The second tank uses detachable hydrogen capsules that do not need to be refilled at the regular station. Instead, the capsules can be bought in stores. There are 6 capsules in NamX and together with the other tank the vehicle can be refueled for 500 miles. The exchange takes about 30 seconds. NamX plans to start selling HUVs in 2025.
Alexandre Audoin, Head of Global Automotive at the consulting firm Capgemini, sees great potential in fuel cells, not only for large cars but also for small ones.
According to Audoin, Capgemini and its partners have developed a hydrogen-powered prototype for urban and suburban use that will coexist with other technologies.
“There is no single answer that solves today’s mobility challenges. So it’s not about which technology is better, but how different technologies and solutions can coexist to support the sustainable transformation for automakers and be adapted to the diversity of customer usage. Depending on the vehicle type and solution needs, there will be a variety of hydrogen-powered vehicle options that will enter the market, including encapsulated, dual-tank, multi-tank systems and others,” said Audoin.
“Fuel Cell Hybrid Electric Vehicles (FCEVs) could be a viable alternative in the short term as long as the infrastructure is developed. One of the main advantages is the low loading time of the tank, comparable to fuel. The origin (hydrogen, green and non-green) must be checked in the same way as with the power supply. Finally it is a solution, despite the H2 chain efficiency lower than other solutions, that can give us a longer range with fast refills. There’s also a battery, but it’s small, so less rare materials are used – fuel cells these days, for example, use an optimized amount of platinum, allowing for a recovery rate of more than 99% – the rest of the components can also be recycled at low CO2 costs Compared to batteries,” Audoin said in an email exchange.
Conventional wisdom would have us believe that it’s over for everything but the battery electric vehicle, although there are some concessions regarding the use of fuel cells for long-haul cars and SUVs. But if the NamX experiment is successful, it suggests that fuel cells will also be viable for small, short-range vehicles. That means a big challenge for battery electric cars and good news for consumers as manufacturers are forced to compete for new customers.
As Gary Silberg, KPMG’s Global Automotive Sector Leader, told me earlier this year, battery electric vehicles (BEVs) may have the inside track for now, but it’s too early to know for sure.
“A BEV future is clearly the current conventional wisdom, but I believe the coming years will be far more complicated and unpredictable than (this) suggests,” said Silberg.
“Given the infrastructure challenges, I believe the future of the industry will be fragmented and there will not be a single, monolithic model for success – the industry will look more like a mosaic. Over the next 10 to 20 years, multiple fuel/powertrain combinations – including gasoline/ICE – will coexist and private sector innovation will be driven by consumer demand,” said Silberg.
A winning hand for hydrogen insists on its generation from renewable zero-carbon energy, so green is the only viable option. That’s bad news for blue, gray, brown, pink/purple, teal, and yellow hydrogen strains.