As fuel prices continue their steady rise, the conversation around alternative fuels these days seems less dominated by environmental concerns, but rather economic and pragmatic ones. There’s not the greatest urgency right now, but we’re approaching the point where average motorists (not early-adopters or tree-huggers) might want to seriously consider something that isn’t powered by petrol or diesel for their next car to help keep their cost of living low.
However, one thing hasn’t changed: the lack of clarity over which alt-fuel will ultimately become the dominant player.
And with fuel prices resuming their steady march upward, those considering moving to an alternative powertrain for their next car would no doubt appreciate knowing which format is the one to shoot for. It’s Betamax versus VHS all over again.
The current state of play is fairly obvious. Though the rivalry between battery-electrics and hydrogen fuel cells still hasn’t thrown up a clear winner, both globally and locally it’s electric vehicles that have stolen a march on hydrogen.
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Tesla has done much to thrust the virtues of purely-electric motoring into mainstream consciousness, and Nissan has quietly been selling stacks of Leaf EVs across the world. Renault, Chevrolet, BMW and a handful of others have all brought their own electric cars to market, while only two carmakers have had a production hydrogen vehicle on sale for a meaningful length of time: Toyota with the Mirai, and Honda with the Clarity.
Hyundai is about to join them with its Nexo hydrogen fuel-cell SUV, but so far it appears that hydrogen is well behind the eight-ball when it comes to global adoption. Even Kia Australia has put distance between itself and corporate cousin Hyundai on the subject.
While Hyundai’s local office is committed to bringing the Nexo to market eventually, Kia Australia has openly said that it isn’t interested in selling hydrogen-powered vehicles in this country. In the latter’s view, electric tech is rapidly approaching the point where hydrogen will have few advantages over it. Are they right?
Virtues and vices
So what exactly are the pros and cons of each tech, which one has a greater number of positives versus negatives, and which is the best fit for Australia?
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Let’s start with electric vehicles. The advantages of battery-electric cars are quite well-known by now, and the rapidly-increasing introduction of new EV models is no accident. There are several reasons why many of the world’s carmakers are starting to wheel out entire line-ups of battery-electric cars, here are just a few.
- EV technology is fast approaching maturity, with cost parity with combustion-engined cars possible within the next five to 10 years.
- Present-day EVs provide an acceptable range for the average motorist, given the average workday commute distance of 65-70km. Most EVs right now will take you well beyond 350km before battery capacity becomes a concern.
- Energy distribution infrastructure is everywhere in metro areas. Every electric car on sale today can be charged from an ordinary household outlet if needs be.
- Power is cheap relative to petrol and diesel, especially if charging off-peak. Just how cheap? Have a read of this.
- Owners of solar panels can technically drive for free
- Vehicle-to-grid technology can help keep power grids stable – and earn owners some income in the process.
There’s a lot of good stuff there, and that’s by no means the full list of EV virtues. However, that’s not to say they’re without drawbacks. Here’s a summary:
- Smart grids are required to unlock a vehicle-to-grid capability and reduce ‘charging shock’ on power distribution – the overloading of the power grid as people return from work and plug in their EVs en masse.
- Present reliance on lithium tech for maximum energy density creates a resources problem, that also carries its own set of environmental and social issues
- Weight – having to lug around heavy battery packs soaks up power, but until lighter battery chemistry is developed EVs need to store more energy to travel a given distance than a lighter combustion-engined equivalent would.
- EVs aren’t the right fit for people who don’t live in city centres and need to drive long distances on a regular basis. Range anxiety is certainly a valid concern for those in regional areas.
- Charging time is slow on household power. Not an issue for the bulk of users who charge overnight, but the convenience of simply topping up a tank of fuel in a few minutes may be missed by many.
- Don’t have a powerpoint near your car spot or need to street park? Charging is probably going to be a challenge.
- Cost is still a barrier, but retail prices for EVs are expected to creep down over the next five to 10 years as adoption rises and the price associated with making batteries (the component that adds the most cost to an electric car) falls.
There are two sides to the EV coin, as you can see. Note that we haven’t listed anything regarding emissions from the power grid, which is predominantly coal-sourced in this country – that’s independent of the vehicles themselves, and will change as renewable energy continues to steadily ramp up its share of the national energy market.
But even without that, there are plenty of drawbacks to battery-electrics that mean they’re not the zero-emissions silver bullet some people were hoping they’d be – at least not yet. So, what do hydrogen cars do better?
- Filling up is a familiar process – pull into a refuelling station, plug in a hose and wait a few minutes. It’s virtually instant compared to charging a battery – even when using a fast-charger.
- As far as energy density is concerned, it outperforms both chemical batteries and hydrocarbon fuels. One kilogram of hydrogen contains approximately 3.4 times the energy of one kilo of petrol.
- The only emissions are water. If the hydrogen is generated entirely with green power, it can be just as eco-friendly as an electric car that’s charged from renewable sources.
- Though hydrogen cars are effectively electric cars when it comes to what delivers drive to the wheels, they don’t need a massive, heavy battery to store power. That means most of the energy stored in the tank isn’t soaked up by having to move mass.
- People who live in apartments or only have street parking won’t need to worry about charging infrastructure being provided for them – they’ll just visit a hydrogen station whenever the fuel gauge gets low.
In many ways, hydrogen would allow drivers the most seamless transition from petrol, diesel and LPG. The level of convenience would theoretically be the same, as filling stations would be distributed around cities in much the same way as existing fuel stations, and the refuelling time is just a couple of minutes versus the several hours needed for current electric vehicles.
Unfortunately, there are more than a few factors standing in the way of that utopian vision of a hydrogen economy.
- Infrastructure is virtually non-existent. This is hydrogen’s Achilles heel, for meaningful adoption of hydrogen cars won’t happen until there’s a sizable network of refuelling stations in place for the public to use. The amount of investment required to establish and maintain that network will be staggering for the following reason:
- It requires special storage, either needing to be contained at massive pressure or extremely low temperatures. That makes transportation difficult, although CSIRO research into chemically transforming it into liquid ammonia indicates the problem of distribution might be able to be overcome in the near future.
- Right now, commercial-scale hydrogen generation is done by reforming methane or natural gas with steam. Even cracking water into its base hydrogen and oxygen components is hardly a green process if it’s done with regular power grid energy – not to mention the power required to compress the gas to a pressure where it contains enough energy to drive a car a meaningful distance. For those that think hydrogen is a more eco-friendly option than a mains-charged electric car, they may want to take a closer look at hydrogen’s supply chain first.
- Assuming a renewable energy source is used to sustain it, a hydrogen economy is simply a less efficient means of making a car move. While an electric car can be charged up directly from a solar panel or wind generator and then discharge that energy later via its motors, the hydrogen method would use that same electrical energy to convert water into hydrogen, expend more energy to compress the gas, then use more energy to distribute and pump it into a car where a fuel cell then converts the hydrogen back into electricity. More energy is used for the same result.
- The nature of hydrogen molecules means that when compressed they can permeate even the solid walls of a storage tank if given enough time. If your car spends long periods parked, some of the gas will still disappear without the car ever being started.
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So what’s right for Australia?
For the bulk of Australian motorists, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that purely electric vehicles will be more than sufficient. Single-charge ranges are already at the point where the average commuter would only need to pop their car on the charger once every three or four days, and with the vast majority of Aussies living in urban or suburban areas range anxiety should rarely rear its ugly head.
But more so than that, charging infrastructure is virtually everywhere: every electric vehicle on sale today can be charged from an ordinary household power outlet. It’s fast charging infrastructure that’s yet to become widespread. However if drivers charge their cars as frequently as their phones, the need to use a fast charger becomes greatly diminished.
The problem is not everyone lives in dense cities, and some of those who do still have the need – or want – to journey into the countryside where charging infrastructure isn’t quite so accessible (and fast chargers even less so). For them, the fast-refuelling capability and energy density of hydrogen makes more sense. Or at least it would if hydrogen fuelling stations were as plentiful as diesel and petrol bowsers, which they aren’t likely to be for many years yet. The other technological limitations of hydrogen add their own complications too.
With hydrogen distribution still non-existent, it seems more likely that regional motorists and road-trippers will be better served by combustion-engined cars, and plug-in hybrids with a petrol or diesel engine seem like a natural compromise for that crowd. Even in Japan, a country that’s one of the most progressive when it comes to adopting new technology, hydrogen infrastructure is still quite sparse – especially if you’re trying to travel from city to city.
And if hydrogen is a slow burn in that market, the odds of a hydrogen economy ever taking off in our country is even lower.