Hydrogen fuel cells are expected to be the real breakthrough for electric vehicles over the next decade. Jonathan Leaver, associate professor Unitec Institute of Technology, explains.
The virtues of hydrogen as a fuel to generate energy in vehicles have long been known. Among them, hydrogen is a zero-emission fuel and, if done correctly, its production also has little to no impact on the environment. It’s a domestically produced, renewable and secure energy source, while operators benefit from low operating cost per kilometre. Hydrogen fuel cells directly convert the chemical energy in hydrogen to electricity, with pure water and potentially useful heat as the only by-products. They are pollution-free and have more than twice the efficiency of traditional combustion technologies.
However, as it stands now, fuelling vehicles with hydrogen is expensive, the production and refuelling infrastructure accounting for the most part. Currently, installing a 500kg capacity per day (1kg hydrogen = 3 litres diesel) hydrogen refuelling station costs in the region of NZ$3 million. The cost of producing hydrogen from water, at an electricity cost of 8c per hour, is around NZ$8 per kilogram. The main cost to produce hydrogen is the cost of electricity. The upfront costs of the vehicles themselves are high too. While there are no production heavy HFCVs on the market, light HFCVs cost in the region of NZ$100,000. The number of hydrogen vehicles currently on the world’s roads (11,000) is expected to grow rapidly in the coming decade. “We’re not seeing the same penetration with heavy vehicles, but there is substantial progress coming,” said Leaver. “We’re seeing a move regarding buses. The Joint Initiative for Hydrogen Vehicles across Europe will deploy 300 HFC buses in 22 cities, at close to NZ$1 million each. In London, 20 double-deckers will be deployed in 2020 at a similar price. Tokyo aims to deploy 100 HFC buses for the 2020 Olympics.” Then of course there is the case of Nikola, which we’ve covered in detail in the past, as well as the 1000 Hyundai HFCVs the OEM has committed to provide to Switzerland in the next five years (see New Zealand Trucking November 2019).
This year, Toyota and Paccar will unveil the first 10 HFCV trucks for use in Los Angeles. The prohibitive costs are all expected to come down. “Over the next 10 years the cost of a refuelling station is predicted to fall by as much as 50%,” said Leaver. “The lower the cost of electricity, the lower the cost of hydrogen (and the lower the running costs of a HFCV), and we’re seeing bids overseas for renewable production of electricity from solar at around NZ$0.4/kWh. Additionally, the capital cost of the electrolyser, to split the water and produce the hydrogen, is fairly low with high utilisation.” That high utilisation is going to be needed, said Leaver, if we are to reach future emissions reduction targets. There’s no doubt transport will play a significant role in this reduction, accounting for 20% of total emissions. Heavy vehicles themselves account for about 20% of that total. “Burning a litre of diesel is the equivalent of emitting 2.7kg of CO2 into the atmosphere,” said Leaver. With many countries having indicated their intention to ban fossil fuel powered vehicles within the next decade, a 2017 global survey of automotive executives showed that 78% absolutely or partly agreed that HFCVs would be a real breakthrough for electric mobility. Leaver’s own modelling shows that hydrogen will not simply swoop in as the silver bullet to take over from all other forms of fuel.
“We predict a convergence of four technologies: the internal combustion engine, hybrid and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, and HFCVs.” In Leaver’s high infrastructure support scenario, each will have roughly equal penetration in the heavy-vehicle market – unless government policies dictate otherwise. The key here is high infrastructure support. “Somebody has to put up the money to get the infrastructure into place. This is problematic as a hydrogen fuel station is far more expensive than a $50,000 battery charging station,” Leaver comments. Globally, there are currently 369 refuelling stations split across Europe, Asia and North America. “Given that HFCV adoption is about eight to 10 years behind electric vehicles, there’s a predicted growth in fuel stations to close to 5000 in 10 years’ time,” Leaver said. Also important will be the establishment of hydrogen hubs. “That’s being planned at Taranaki at the moment. The hubs will maximise the use of capital equipment and where other industries can make use of the hydrogen.
” Again, initial funding is critical. Leaver reiterates that it’s not the economics of the situation that will be the main driver here, but likely the drive to meet commitments to cutting out greenhouse gases and reaching those 2050 targets. Among them are the continued improvement and efficiency of fossil fuelled engines, allied to low oil and carbon prices. “Carbon prices need to be very high to make a significant change in consumer behaviour,” said Leaver. On the electric vehicle side, there’s improved battery performance (which would be an advantage to HFCVs too) and recharging infrastructure to contend with. Finally, to completely replace its heavy-vehicle fleet with HFCVs, New Zealand would need about a 31% increase in national electrical energy generation. “That doesn’t necessarily mean a 31% increase in generating capacity because not all our capacity is currently fully utilised,” said Leaver.