Tod Higinbotham argues there is a false dichotomy in choosing electric battery or hydrogen fuel cell configurations
Automotive industry experts have spent the last decade comparing the pros and cons of battery electric vehicles (BEVs) and hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs), particularly medium and heavy trucks. Many insist that one or the other is the transportation fuel of the future, leading to heated debate.
But that’s like pitting solar against the wind in the fight to clean up energy sources. When both have proven their place in a robust clean energy grid, isn’t that the real competition between carbon-free fuels and polluting fossil fuels? Why should the industry choose between BEVs and FCEVs when they can have both?
Advantages, disadvantages and best uses of FCEVs and BEVs
FCEVs and BEVs have distinct features that suit different use cases. For example, the range of FCEVs is equivalent to that of similarly sized internal combustion engine vehicles, while the range of BEVs per charge varies depending on the size of the on-board battery. FCEVs typically refuel faster than BEVs (three to five minutes versus 30 minutes to hours for BEVs). This often makes FCEVs the best choice for long trips and heavy use cases, especially for trips to areas where the electrical infrastructure is outdated or otherwise unable to meet increased charging demand.
Why should the industry choose between BEVs and FCEVs when they can have both?
However, faster refueling does not mean easier. Hydrogen refueling requires significant investment in production and refueling facilities, including expensive compressors and pressure vessels, as well as expensive transportation. This hampers the rapid expansion of infrastructure nationwide.
In contrast, BEV charging infrastructure leverages the existing distributed power grid infrastructure and has a larger and ever-growing nationwide charging station infrastructure. Many owners can charge their BEV at home or, in the case of fleet operators, install charging stations at their depot or warehouse.
Assuming the necessary infrastructure is in place (as in California), long-distance transport of hydrogen may be better suited to medium and heavy travel such as trucking. EVs’ more variable range, longer charging times, and user-friendly charging process make them ideal for light-duty travel such as personal vehicles.
Both have a place on the road
Both FCEVs and BEVs use zero-emission technologies that can play a pivotal role in the transition to clean energy. Instead of pitting the two against each other, let’s find ways for them to complement each other by creating a cleaner road.
One solution is for manufacturers to develop a new type of hybrid vehicle that can run on both energy sources: hydrogen fuel cells for longer distances and an electric battery for shorter ones. For example, car manufacturer Renaut recently unveiled an electric-hydrogen hybrid concept car.
Another option is to use dual fueling stations that provide the infrastructure to service both hydrogen and electric trucks, such as Kaizen Clean Energy’s (KCE) recently announced portable microgrid solution. Since it is portable, its widespread adoption does not require excessive initial investment in infrastructure by station owners. It also eliminates the cost of transporting hydrogen by generating hydrogen onsite with commonly available methanol, which can be both used as hydrogen fuel and converted into electricity for electric vehicle charging. In this way, methanol reduces the overall cost of hydrogen and electric fueling.
This microgrid solution can both connect to the grid to supplement available power and be completely isolated for resilience during grid outages. As an added safety measure, these stations use nickel-zinc batteries, which eliminate the risk of fire due to thermal runaway. The nickel-zinc chemistry also provides high power in a small footprint, allowing the system to power on demand.
By aggressively pursuing hydrogen and electric solutions simultaneously, each in the area that suits it best, we can accelerate the decarbonization of the transport sector. Let’s create and implement more solutions like these that help win the biggest battle against climate change by deploying the full portfolio of clean energy solutions and erasing the false dichotomy in fuel choice.
The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Automotive World Ltd.
Tod Higinbotham is COO of ZincFive
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