Musk says the Hydrogen Fuel Cell is a “silly idea” but is it really?

Musk says the Hydrogen Fuel Cell is a “silly idea” but is it really?

In mobility, Elon Musk’s opinion carries clout. When he trashes hydrogen, he jeopardises the future of that industry.

I agree that hydrogen is a silly idea for EV users, who commute to work and back with charge points either side. This might explain Musk’s comment, given that Tesla’s main market is Californians who users their Teslas this way. But what are the opportunities for hydrogen elsewhere? Europe for example is a very different story.

The European Opportunity

Diesel never got traction anywhere in the world other than Europe because in 1997 the local motor industry lobbied the EU to back diesel, in return promising to reduce carbon emissions to mitigate climate change. The extra torque and subsidised fuel prices got urbanites buying massive diesel SUVs, which makes me doubt if there were any carbon savings at all. What it did do however was give European automakers a home advantage over Japan and America, who don’t do diesel. But, it massively increased nitrous oxide pollution levels, sending health costs up and life expectancy down.

Nitrogen dioxide has many sources, but the increased diesel fleet is largely to blame. As one Audi engineer moaned to me, “After ‘dieselgate’ we are unable to defend any of our diesel motors as clean – even those that meet the Euro 5 emission standards”. In its annual survey of senior executives in the automotive industry, KPMG found that the majority believed diesel is dead. Not surprising when you see the list of cities banning the fuel.

In short order we will need to change 75% of the vehicles in our cities; and after meeting Sture Portvik, project leader for EVs in the city of Oslo, I don’t think the switch will be back to petrol. I asked him why Norway is so far ahead of the rest of the world in EV sales. His answer: recently the city banned diesel vehicles for a 24-hour period to reduce dangerous peak pollution levels. Motorists, fearful that they would be denied access to the city, started buying EVs, building the critical mass needed for any movement.

Understanding diesel is dead, how can the Hydrogen industry take advantage?

1. Not campaign against Battery Electric Vehicles (BEV’s)

●     It confuses the public, many of whom don’t understand that a fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV) is in fact an electric vehicle with a different power storage system.

●     It puts them up against green evangelists, the very people they want on their side.

●     It alienates them from the early adopters, who are the most vocal group in any society. They went with BEVs because it was the best on offer at the time and are very happy with their purchase (look at Nissan Leaf consumer reports).

2. Collaborate to produce hybrid Fuel Cell/Battery EVs

I attended a conference on battery and fuel cell technology in Geneva last week and for the first time learnt that the two storage technologies are complimentary for high-use vehicles like taxis and buses. Batteries like to operate around 35 degrees; at a higher temperature they have reduced autonomy and lifespan. In a hybrid system, when the batteries get too hot, the vehicle switches between the battery and fuel cell taking advantage of the different power sources to increase range and battery life.

Hydrogen also offers the massive advantage of quick recharging. Professional drivers can’t afford to sit around waiting while their battery recharges. Hybrid vehicles can be quickly topped up with hydrogen during busy working days and charged at night on a grid with excess capacity.

I recently listened to a presentation by Richard Gordon, the commercial director of the London Taxi Company. Knowing that London’s mayor will ban diesel, they have embarked on an ambitious campaign to get the 21 000 famous London Black Cabs compliant. They decided to go electric but were faced with the challenge of long charge times and limited charge station availability. Drivers wanted to be able to work 10-hour shifts, carrying up to 6 people and luggage, without stopping to charge. There was no way a single battery pack could give them that level of autonomy so they stuck a 3 cylinder petrol generator under the hood to charge the battery when needed.

This is one example of a lost opportunity, but there are many more opportunities to come. London has 85 000 diesel buses and Paris has 45 000 that they want to convert from diesel to electric. Hydrogen needs to make sure that they get in on the act.

3. Create a mega project that captures the imagination of press and public

The launch of the Gigafactory put batteries on the front page for the first time in history, and now no one doubts the future of BEVs. Hydrogen on the other hand does not have a flagship project that the public can get excited about. There is an opportunity for a massive solar project in sunny Middle East that converts sunshine to hydrogen by electrolysis. This could then shipped to cloudy northern Europe where it powers vehicles emitting only H2O. This would present a coup for the industry; and the fact that the energy is derived from cheap renewables would offset concerns about conversion process losses.

Hydrogen is part of the mix needed to decarbonise our transport system and this is one of the intentions of the recently formed Hydrogen Council. The fact that the extra step needed to make hydrogen is less efficient than putting it straight into a battery is not a problem when you look how fast the cost of renewable energy is falling. The challenge we face is how to store and ship sun and wind energy generated in remote places to dense cities that have massive energy demands. And for this reason hydrogen is not a silly idea.

Ross Douglas

CEO of Autonomy

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