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Hydrogen Fuel Is Back in the Energy Picture

As the price of energy drops, and fuel storage technologies mature, hydrogen fuel is drawing fresh attention

Hydrogen-powered cars and trucks are becoming more common in Europe and Asia. With falling prices for renewable energy and electrolysis, conversion to hydrogen-powered transportation is growing more feasible. (Photo: WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities / CC BY-NC / Flickr)

This post originally appeared at Ensia.

Jorgo Chatzimarkakis was refueling his hydrogen fuel-cell car at one of the 50-plus refueling stations scattered around Germany when a Tesla driver, who was recharging his own car, approached.

The man was excited to see a hydrogen-powered car in action, and was brimming with questions. Chatzimarkakis, who is secretary general of Hydrogen Europe, was happy to answer them, and the two talked for several minutes.

But by then, the hydrogen car was fully refueled, while the Tesla driver still faced a long wait while his battery recharged.

“This is reality,” says Chatzimarkakis. “Nowadays the fueling stations are ready, the car is ready, I can plan my trip from Switzerland to Denmark and into Norway without any problems.”

The vision of a hydrogen-fueled world has had more near misses than Wile E. Coyote. In 1923, British geneticist J.B.S. Haldane imagined a network of hydrogen-generating windmills powering Britain, but nothing came of it. In 1970, South African-born electrochemist John Bockris first used the term “hydrogen economy” in a speech, and later published a book describing what a solar-hydrogen-powered world might look like. But again, nothing changed. In 2002, American economic and social theorist Jeremy Rifkin argued that hydrogen could take over from oil and that the future of energy lay in hydrogen-powered fuel cells.

But the industry was not ready, says Chatzimarkakis. “It was really very valid, what Jeremy Rifkin said, but politicians and journalists, they always want to see the proof,” he says. “And at that time it was really far away from being realized because the research was not advanced enough.”

Hydrogen comes of age

Perhaps, finally, hydrogen’s moment has arrived.

Japan is planning to use the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games to showcase its vision for a hydrogen society and has invested US$348 million in establishing hydrogen refueling stations and other infrastructure. Germany has launched the world’s first hydrogen-powered trains to complement a growing number of hydrogen refueling stations across the country. Switzerland is purchasing 1,000 hydrogen-powered trucks, Norway has had hydrogen refueling stations since 2006, and South Korea is investing US$2.33 billion over the next five years to create hydrogen refueling stations, fuel-cell vehicle plants, fuel-cell buses and hydrogen storage systems. And Australia has seen both its national science agency CSIRO and chief scientist Alan Finkel separately report their visions for a hydrogen-powered nation and export industry.

hydrogen fuel train
The Coradia iLint began providing hydrogen-fueled mass transit in Germany in 2018. (Photo: Alstom / R Frampe)

At the heart of the hydrogen economy is the use of electricity from renewable sources such as solar, wind, and hydropower to split water into oxygen and hydrogen — a process called electrolysis. That “green hydrogen” can then be used in fuel cells to generate electricity, and the fuel cells can be used individually to drive vehicles or in stacks to support or even power a grid. Best of all, the exhaust generated by hydrogen fuel cells is water, which one day might be recaptured and recycled for electrolysis again.

Economics and climate

So what has changed to finally bring hydrogen to the forefront of global energy plans? Jenny Hayward, senior research scientist at CSIRO and co-author of its 2018 National Hydrogen Roadmap, says more favorable economics have played a significant part.

“You’ve got production coming down in cost, but also you’ve got utilization coming down in cost,” Hayward says. Not only has the price of electricity from photovoltaic arrays and wind dramatically decreased, but electrolyzer technologies have also become much cheaper, larger-scale, and more efficient. At the same time, hydrogen fuel cells are also improving both in efficiency and cost, she says.

Another major driver is the increasing urgency for substantial greenhouse gas emissions reductions, says John Andrews, a sustainable energy expert and professor at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia.

“It’s so important to keep its introduction tied to being part of the solution of tackling climate change,” Andrews says. “It isn’t just a question of getting an alternative fuel; it’s a question of getting a zero-emissions fuel and energy system.”

Advancing the adaptation of hydrogen as a fuel hasn’t been easy. Despite the century-old quest for a hydrogen economy, there have been some significant technological challenges to overcome to get to this point — and it’s still early days.

Solving the storage problem

A key issue in using hydrogen for transportation has been storage. It’s only recently become possible to compress hydrogen into a container small enough and lightweight enough to fit in the back of a passenger vehicle, while still containing enough energy to fuel that car to at least 300 miles.

“It was always thought it would be very difficult to get a hydrogen storage that could beat the U.S. Department of Energy targets for use with hydrogen fuel-cell cars,” Andrews says. Then came the development of a high-pressure hydrogen tank made of advanced composites, which were able to meet and even exceed requirements.

“I think that made people sit up and say yes, it is possible to have a form of storage that could be used to carry hydrogen on board a vehicle and give a range comparable with conventional cars and have a refill time — this is a critical advantage of hydrogen — of only a few minutes,” he says.

Hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles now match or even exceed the range of conventional gasoline or diesel vehicles; Toyota claims its Mirai gets around 312 miles from a tank of hydrogen. This makes them a far more attractive prospect for long distance travel than an electric battery-powered vehicle.

It also makes them a viable option for more hard-working vehicles, says Lisa Ruf, coordinator of Hydrogen Mobility Europe and principal consultant at Element Energy in the UK.

“In operations for trucks, for taxis, for emergency response services, you have to have the range and the refueling time that is similar to conventional vehicles,” she says, citing the case of the London Metropolitan Police, which this year acquired 11 hydrogen fuel-cell cars. 

Feeding the grid

Hydrogen is also being explored as a way to help maintain the stability of a renewable-fed energy grid, according to Morry Markowitz, president of the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association in the U.S.

“Because the sun doesn’t shine all the time and the wind doesn’t blow, renewables have an intermittency problem, so you need to be able to find a way to effectively store the electrons being created,” he says. Excess electricity can be used to power electrolysis and generate hydrogen that can be used in fuel cell vehicles or stationary fuel cells, or stored for transportation.

This scenario is particularly appealing for remote areas, such as outback towns in Australia that otherwise depend on diesel-powered generators. Powering towns using a combination of renewables and hydrogen storage could soon become cost-effective, especially as the price of diesel rises, says Hayward.

Gas companies are also eyeing hydrogen as a potential alternative to natural gas, which could make use of the existing infrastructure.“That would be fantastic; then they’re not relying on trucks coming in with diesel, they just need their renewables,” she says. “They could have a system where they’ve got a fuel cell and they recover the water, so it’s a self-contained system.”

“Particularly if we’re going to go to high emissions reductions targets, they’re going to have all this gas infrastructure sitting there not being used,” Hayward says. “What’s interesting is in the gas distribution networks, if they’re made from PVC pipes you can have 100 percent hydrogen, although appliances and meters would have to be changed.”

The Hindenburg effect

It’s impossible to talk about hydrogen without addressing the blimp in the room, what Markowitz calls the “Hindenburg effect.” The spectacular hydrogen-fueled inferno that was the Hindenburg airship disaster in New Jersey in 1937 still haunts the hydrogen industry, and the issue of hydrogen’s flammability and safety concerns are inevitably raised in discussions about the hydrogen economy.

But Markowitz says that hydrogen technology today is far advanced from the hydrogen technology of that era.

“Advanced materials such as carbon-fiber tanks, sensors, computers and other things have improved so dramatically … safety for hydrogen should not even be an issue,” he says. “In the transportation sector and other areas, hydrogen vehicles meet or exceed anything that’s on the road today.”

There are also concerns that increased uptake of hydrogen could impact the ozone layer. A 2003 study suggested that if all fossil-fuel energy generation were replaced with hydrogen, leakage of the gas into the atmosphere could react with oxygen to form water vapor that could disrupt the ozone layer by a significant amount.

Another criticism often made of hydrogen is that a significant amount is still produced using fossil fuels. In the United States, most hydrogen is produced via a process called natural gas reforming, in which natural gas is reacted with high-temperature steam to produce hydrogen, carbon monoxide, and a small amount of carbon dioxide. It can also be made by gasifying brown coal, which also results in CO2 production.

“If you follow either of those routes to get hydrogen, there are some carbon dioxide emissions that come from those routes, so the only way you can make that zero emission is to couple that with carbon capture and storage,” says Andrews. “And that’s still a big question as to whether that can be viable, whether it’s going to be safe and we can keep that carbon dioxide for thousands of years under the ground and whether it can ever be economic.”

A measured approach

There is a sense of urgency to discussions about hydrogen, reflecting the widespread acknowledgment that there is a need to decarbonize transport, Ruf says. She argues that while there is a range of solutions on the table, hydrogen is able to address issues that other technologies can’t do quite so easily or cost effectively.

But while there is much excitement about the potential of hydrogen, Ruf also counsels for a measured approach.

“The problem we have I guess as a sector for supporting hydrogen fuel-cell technology is that we have to be wary of the hype and we have to be able to manage expectations,” she says. “It’s something that takes time and investment. It will not happen overnight, but in the long-term it’s a very good solution.”  View Ensia homepage


Bianca Nogrady is a freelance science journalist. The author has done contract writing for CSIRO in the past, though not related to hydrogen fuel.


  1. Alan B | | #1

    From solar/wind to end use Hydrogen is about 30% efficient and EVs are close to 75% efficient. Plus the cost of hydrogen fuel cells. Its a dead duck.
    My numbers are not exact but you get the idea, the economics just don't work. Its only advantage is the faster fueling which replicated gas. Grabbing a coffee while your EV charges and usually never waiting at all since your EV has charged at home or a destination charger while you grocery shop or go to the mall or wherever is not a huge deal unless your traveling over 500 miles a day. Even then its doable but if your going to go over 750 miles a day then you might want an ICE or hydrogen vehicle. But you can't fuel your hydrogen vehicle easily. I am reminded of this article from CleanTechnica.

    The legacy players want hydrogen because its a similar setup to what they know, sell fuel they control the supply and production of. You could waste resources installing hydrogen stations all over or you can save loads of money installing EV chargers that run on the electricity network we already have. Peak EV charging load can stretch the grid but as Tesla proved in the UK they installed some batteries to handle peak grid costs at one of their stations and it added the benefit of still being able to charge EVs in a power outage.

    All that said i can see niche applications for hydrogen, grid scale it can do for long term energy storage, or there might be some kind of breakthrough we can't yet envision so some research is in order but its a safe bet EVs will win the next generation fuel wars

    1. John Clark | | #4

      The only way EV's will gain significant market penetration is if every parking space contains a functioning induction charger. There are millions of potential EV owners who do not have an EV vehicle because charging is either unavailable or inconvenient.

      In any case hydrogen is and always will be a non-starter. It's just too expensive.

      1. User avater
        Dana Dorsett | | #5

        >" There are millions of potential EV owners who do not have an EV vehicle because charging is either unavailable or inconvenient."

        Really? They live in houses that are off the grid or something (like Martin) ? :-)

        Nothing beats the convenience of charging up at home. Try refueling an H2 car at home! It doesn't take an ultra-large EV battery for most people to manage their daily commute. I know a guy in PA who commutes twice a week to his office in NJ more than 100 miles away. He only puts a full charge on the Tesla when he's making the trip, and has a couple of fast-charger options mapped out on his route for those times when there is a lot of local driving involved at the office destination requiring some topping up to make it back home. As EV batteries get both lighter & cheaper higher range cars won't be quite as expensive as they are this year, (or a couple of years ago when the guy in PA bough the Tesla.)

        Yes, there needs to be more EV charging infrastructure and reasonable means of paying for that infrastructure, but this is NOT a hard problem. The grid already exists everywhere most people are going. Smart EV chargers are already stabilizing the grid in some places, even paying people to plug in their EV to be a convenient, controllable power dump for the local grid operator. In some other places it's even 2-way power flows, with EV owners remunerated at high rate for power drawn from the car battery.

        >"In any case hydrogen is and always will be a non-starter. It's just too expensive."

        Yup! The only advantage of H2 is long term (even seasonal) storage, but it's not clear that the cost of storage is low enough to offset the poor round trip efficiency. PV power is already cheap and getting cheaper- overbuilding and just throwing away the curtailed power may be cheaper than building the hydrogen storage & distribution infrastructure. I'm in touch with a pre-funding startup looking at PV -> NH3 energy storage as part of their system which is more efficient and cheaper than H2, but it only pencils out when there's an actual need for NH3 for non-energy applications. If it's just for energy storage it's cheaper to overbuild/curtail the PV and use shorter term storage such as batteries (which are also getting cheaper at a double-digit learning curve.)

        There are a fuew Australian companies under the delusion that they'll make a killing with PV -> NH3 -> H2 using the NH3 as a safe & effective way to ship Aussie sunshine for H2 transportation fuel to Japan (since the NH3 handling infrastructure already exists), but the math on their cocktail napkins is a bit too blurry for me to read- maybe it takes the right rose-colored prescription glasses to make it out clearly. :-) There are other people looking at PV -> CH4 suitable for direct injection in to gas mains, but that barely works even at liquified natural gas prices, not at all at recent US pipelined natural gas prices.

        1. John Clark | | #11

          Think apartment/condo dwellers and two-car families with one-car garages/carports.

          Does anyone seriously think a 200 space parking garage with 5-10 EV chargers is going to cut it?

          1. Alan B | | #18

            I used to think this way then i read a CT article where Tesla was talking about their Destination chargers, go get groceries, eat a restaurant, go to the mall or many other places and plug your car in, an hour later its charged and your good for a week or two. Most people do buy groceries or go to places with parking lots on a fairly regular basis.
            Not ideal but very viable.

      2. User avater
        skierpage2 | | #17

        I think you meant to say "total market penetration", since "roughly 46% of Americans have a garage on their property", "63% of all occupied housing units have a garage or carport." Sales of plug-ins will continue to increase at maybe 25-30% annually for years to come while the infrastructure for renters and condo owners without access to a plug at work develops.

        And induction charging isn't necessary, wireless charging is a great way to waste hundreds of watts. Plugging in a cable isn't hard.

  2. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #2

    I agree with you. The laws of physics do not allow for the conversion of electricity to hydrogen to be more efficient than direct use of electricity stored in a vehicle-mounted battery. The only possible argument in favor of the inefficiency associated with electrolysis is possible increased vehicle range, assuming you can find a way to put a very large hydrogen tank on a vehicle.

    1. Alan B | | #19

      Indeed. I suspect the big advantage would be if you want to travel over 750 miles a day, anything less then that you can do fine with a 200-250 mile EV, a few meals and maybe a coffee break or two would easily handle the charging without too much interruption.

    2. Dennis Heidner | | #24

      But if you read the 2018 National Hydrogen Road map, or the European equivalent, or the Japanese plans, they are not expecting to electrolyze or steam reform for the bulk of the hydrogen in the future. Significant effort has been spent in developing and working to scale up new catalysts that crack the water molecule using newer catalysts and the direct sunlight, or newer catalysts combined with PV modules onsite.

      Nearly every post I see about H2 being a dead end because of the efficiency is based on the past experiences and word of mouth on the internet. Not the research and road maps to the future.

      If the decision to develop batteries for EV had been based on the same reasoning... we would not be seeing EV's today... they would have been discounted as impractical for EVERYONE based on the preference of a few.

      I've traveled the northern US states, through the southwest, across the midwest, and even done the cross country into upstate NY. I can not imagine the mess that an EV only solution would make during the winter time traffic when its cold, icy and snowy and people are trying to stop at the toll road oasis to top off their EV (for an hour or two of plug time) while on the way to grandmothers house.

      I have pictures taken in 2012 in Stuttgart Germany at a Storage and Fuel Cell conference (storage in this case means Li-ion storage) which had a clear cut away of the car so you could see the placement of the Mercedes H2 tank in their small sedan, I saw cut sections of the tanks, I saw videos of the FULL tanks being shot at with a rifle... no explosion just load whistling. I've see the components of the Hyundai, Toyota components, I've seen them refuel.

      The article you posted included a picture of a GM fuel cell, I have pictures of Fords Fuel Cell technology building.

      EV are an urban solution. They are not a solution that works for the whole of the US. Try driving from Glacier National Park (and around it), down to Yellowstone National Park, through Zion National Park and around the Grand Canyon National Park. With EV's even at 300 mile range... any thing but a large (level 3 or 4) high current DC charge would result in a trip spent mostly charging and not sight seeing and relaxing.

      And for what its worth... the charging infrastructure to make that trip today is not completely in place either!

      Then consider where the wheat and hops grow... across the plain states... the distance between farms, the type of vehicles are not conductive to EV for farm use or implements. The EV solution in the urban environment will result in the rural areas switching over to diesel for their personal cars and all trucks. H2 can work in those areas without the need for a switch. And you could even use H2 for farm implements.

      Look beyond your (and ours) small area that we travel and ask what happens for the more distant and remote individuals. The ones that produce a significant amount of the food grown in the US.

      1. User avater GBA Editor
        Martin Holladay | | #25

        You wrote, "Consider where the ... hops grow -- across the plain states."

        Nope. "The Pacific Northwest states of Oregon, Washington and Idaho's panhandle grow 97.8 percent of the hops in the United States."

        Source: "Twenty Things You Didn't Know About Hops."

        1. User avater
          Dana Dorsett | | #26

          Hailing originally from the PNW, I knew that about hops. (There are still many antique 'hop kiln' barns in the valley where my brother lived for 25+ years.) Being downwind of a hops field in bloom can be quite heady.

          Regarding Dennis' other commentary...

          I've read quite a bit recently about the progress in H2 production & storage methods (in part as a technology assessment for a start up venture.) Yes, it can be done more efficiently than current commercial production is being done, but the thermodynamics still don't add up for the CSIRO vision, especially when looking at the rate of development and cost competing tranport energy technologies. Even when the energy is free H2 storage & transport isn't likely to be competitive with battery EVs for almost any application.

          The notion that EVs are an urban-only solution is ill-informed, even if EV battery technology fossilized in 2018 with no further progress on energy density & recharging capability/speed. With more EVs on the road more EV charging infrastructure will appear. Buying into the poor thermodynamics and high expense of hydrogen to be able to take that fantasy National Parks road trip tour seems a bit odd, since hydrogen refueling stations on that loop don't exist. Zoom in on the WY-UT part of the map:

          I'm seeing exactly zero hydrogen stations within 300 miles of either Yellowstone or Zion. The closest hydrogen stations are in the Los Angles area, roughly 400 miles from Zion, that's it.

          That's some fantasy road trip!

          The capital expense of creating those stations would be a huge investment. But the power grid already goes pretty much everywhere paved roads exist, and placing fast charging stations is comparatively easier/cheaper to implement, easier to scale.

          And they already exist.

          Go to this map, search for stations in Ogden UT, then zoom out to cover the span from Yellowstone to Zion. Even inside of Yellowstone Nat'l Park there are multiple locations with level 2 charging stations, and on the road from Yellowstone to Zion there are more than a dozen DC fast-charging stations (and countless level-2 charging stations) along the I-15 corridor between Idaho Falls and St. George UT, as well as in Jackson WY, and Yellowstone ID, just outside the Yellowstone & Teton Nat'l parks.

          There will be more, twenty minutes before the market demands it. By the time EVs become a low double-digit percentage of the vehicles on the road EV batteries will be cheaper, lighter, higher capacity, & faster charging, and the fast DC charging infrastructure will be comparatively easy to install everywhere it needs to be.

          The H2-fuel cell race for the transportation fuel paradigm has already been lost, primarily to the battery EV. What slim advantages that technology has just isn't compelling enough to overcome it's shortcomings, and no amount of subsidy or technology breakthrough is going to change that.

          1. Dennis Heidner | | #28

            Dana, over the last couple of years... my wife and I would keep track of the EV's and charging stations we'd see as we travel across Washington State (here for the last forty years), into MT, ID, NV, WY, NE, KS, CO, AZ, ND, etc. the EV adoption is mostly as an urban vehicle.

            FWIW, I have PV on the roof top and my neighbor next to me has a Tesla... but their other car is a gas powered SUV.

            If you want to check on the adoption nation wide, pick ten coastal cities and ten cities in the rural areas with high regional airline traffic... like Bozeman MT, Jackson Hole, Denver, and contact a few car rental agencies to see if you can rent an EV... any kind. Its hard to find even a hybrid! Most of the rental agencies still consider an EV to be an exotic car. And - I've seen that as recently as this last August when I flew into San Jose and wanted to rent a car that could get me down to Pacific Grove.

            The point about the charging stations is the quantity has not been built out (especially the higher current/fast charging stations) to meet the near term demand.

            This last October I stopped at an exit and gas station outside of Missoula Montana, at a point that intersects with the road that goes up to Flathead Montana and Glacier National Park. I counted FORTY PUMPS! And then there were the TWO large truck stops on both sides of the road with more gas pumps and diesel pumps for the trucks.

            My parents lived for many years near Bozeman MT, I was there frequently during the summer time when the tourist season is high. The hotels often sell out for the tour groups coming in. The RV rentals -- is thriving -- with a lot of international travelers coming into the US and doing EXACTLY as I suggested. It is based on talking and seeing exactly what I suggested... month long vacations by tourist... heavy traffic by US citizens that want to see the parks.

            Bianca's story isn't about how H2 is there today, but is that it is getting attention again.

            When I look at the electrical infrastructure that will need to be improved to meet the high coincidental demand during peak winter heating loads (all electric) and peak summer time cooling loads (all electric) with all electric EV that need fast charging... that problem becomes quite challenging.

            My degree is electrical engineering.... my background for the last ten years as been building efficiency, understanding the grid, energy efficiency and renewables, etc.

            Currently there are problems that have not been fully addressed with EV and the grid. Smart charging alone will not solve the problem. Last summer I attended a session with one of the utility folks from Burlington VT talking about their cities "green" efforts and how they were going to adopt electric buses (great idea!) but I also posed the question of what would happen to their utility if all the gas stations were replaced with EV charging stations... and the start of school, Christmas breaks, end of school (college town) resulted in lots of activity to charge up before heading out of town. The answer was it would be a problem.

            I posed the same question about the toll roads -- and the answer from one of the individuals (happens to work at a national lab where battery work is ongoing) and the answer was essentially H2 storage and PEM modules to provide energy storage such that car owners could fast charge their cars. H2 works in this case because they can fill the storage tanks ahead of time, around the clock and meet the heavy seasonal and daily peaks. Otherwise they could easily need 5MW to 10MW of energy storage with perhaps a 40-50MWh capacity.... at the oasis.

            Across Washington state - highway 2 (Stevens Pass) eastward towards Grand Coulee Dam... there is a lot of hydro... lots of opportunity for charging - that's great. But in Grant County (if I remember correctly) I also observed that they'd moved the distribution system underground. Great for reliability - but if the trucks, combines, tractors and cars, houses, etc all have gone electric that buried capacity could be reached... unless lots of local storage is also added. So what is more likely to happen is that diesel would be continued to sold and used in much of the farming regions... with more people switching from gasoline to diesel... (Germans had done much the same in the 70's).

        2. Dennis Heidner | | #27

          I live in the Seattle Washington area. I travel past those hop fields on the way towards Boise... and the wheat fields in Montana and as well as the Washington and Idaho.

          When I cross the Cascade Mountains into the "agriculture regions" of Washington state... the number of EV drops to nearly zero as do the hybrid cars.

      2. User avater
        skierpage2 | | #29

        Every scenario that uses sunlight to split water to get hydrogen generates much less energy than putting up solar panels over the same area (just as plant photosynthesis is far less energy dense). Then you suffer losses in transportation and storage (cooling and compressing). Then, the theoretical max efficiency of a fuel cell is 83% and in the real world it barely hits 60%. It's better than a combustion engine but worse than batteries. If hydrogen works for seasonal energy storage, great; if hydrogen can be scaled up to trains, boats, and ships, great; but these potential uses don't make it any more appealing for passenger vehicles.

        Ford has no plans whatsoever to introduce any fuel cell vehicle. GM is down to a paltry $85M joint investment with Honda to make something of the $2.5 bn it's blown on fuel cells, and has reduced its vehicle plans to a single hydrogen fuel cell Colorado ZH2 truck prototype for the army to test. Mercedes has scaled back its GLC F-Cell car to lease-only, in Germany only, to fleets only, for only $917 a month.

        I don't understand how EV uptake in urban environments will affect the use of diesel in rural areas. Electrifying agriculture is a big challenge, but probably a smaller one than switching to H2, unless you mean inefficiently burning hydrogen in existing engines.

  3. User avater
    Stephen Sheehy | | #3

    Most natural gas lines are not plastic and can't be used at the high pressures required to transport hydrogen. Replacing natural gas pipelines with ones suitable for transporting hydrogen would cost $ trillions.

  4. Will Campbell | | #6

    One of the "problems" of PV panels is that there is often excess energy that can't be used directly, especially in panel groupings that are setup for adequate power in Winter. In the absence of net metering or some form of storage, this excess is curtailed or otherwise wasted. In that case, the energy is "free", and using it to make hydrogen makes more sense.

    If during these times of excess production, hydrogen could be stored for the off-season, it would make some use of that energy. Such stored energy could be used for heating, or used to run through a cell to make more electricity for use in the Winter, or used for fueling a car. The efficiency of the solar->hydrogen production->Fuel cell->electricity round trip is very low of course, but if it begins with excess energy that was going to be curtailed anyway, it's still mostly "free" power. And if panel costs continue to drop, the marginal cost of creating power for hydrogen conversion becomes ever lower.

    1. User avater
      Dana Dorsett | | #7

      The cost of storage isn't free, even when the electricity resource is.

      The cost of PV overbuild + short-term storage usually pencils out cheaper than most methods conversion & seasonal storage in the form of compressed H2 or liquid or compressed CH4 or liquid NH3. Short term storage (batteries) is getting cheaper every day too.

      The only viable economic case for H2 from "free" excess PV output so far has been for direct-injection/mixing of the H2 into existing natural gas lines in parts of Europe with high natural gas costs, not seasonal storage. At US energy prices it's a complete non-starter.

      Wind and PV is already cheaper in parts of the US than just the fuel & operational costs of fully-depreciated coal fired electricity generation, and there is no reason to believe it isn't going to continue to get cheaper. Batteries are on a similar learning curve trajectory. Long term storage has to become REALLY cheap to compete in the future even if it means curtailing a double-digit percentage of the renewables output.

      I guess I'm just not buying the Australian CSIRO's fuzzy logic math on this- maybe you have to drink the kool-aid to see the vision?

      The US is already at the inflection point where the levelized cost of new renewables + storage-firming is cheaper than operating existing coal, and in technology-neutral bidding PV + batteries are beating simple cycle gas peakers. Methinks the CSIRO folks may have fallen into the hydrogen punch bowl.

      1. User avater
        Stephen Sheehy | | #10

        As an additional issue, isn't ammonia pretty nasty stuff?

        1. User avater
          Dana Dorsett | | #13

          Anhydrous ammonia is the single largest volume chemical traded in the world, the most common use is for direct injection into the soil as fertilizer. NH3 can be stored at relatively modest pressures in steel cylinders comparable to the ubiquitous propane fuel tanks, and is often used in combination with diesel as internal combustion engine fuel. Because it's liquid at relatively modest pressures a typical outdoor temperatures it's much cheaper and easier to ship & handle than liquid CH4, which is also widely shipped around the world, but requires more expensive handling infrastructure. Almost every mid to large scale commercial farm in north America has NH3 storage & handing equipment.

          You probably don't want to burn it directly as heating fuel inside your house, but your nose would be an EXCELLENT leak detector- far more obvious even at low levels than a natural gas or propane leak. A tiny NH3 leak indoors is more hazardous to your health than a propane or natural gas leak though, and like those other gaseous fuels could become an exposion hazard given the right mixture.

          So CSIRO is right to think of NH3 as a cheaper and easier to handle storage & shipping medium for H2 from Aussie sunshine than the CH4 or compressed H2 alternatives, but that still doesn't make it economically viable for energy-only applications. Most NH3 processed commercially in the world is currently done via steam reformation of hydrocarbons- often at natural gas processing facilities or oil refineries.

          The CSIRO vision foresees using other well established processes for using electricity to make NH3 from air & water, but there's a real efficiency hit. The best-case round trip efficiency of electricity => NH3 => electricity is less than 20%, and that's without the H2 gas intermediary step they're talking about for using at ~50% efficiency H2>torque at the axle using automotive fuel cell technology. So let's say they keep at it and figure out a way to get to 15 % efficiency from PV => NH3 => H2 => rubber on pavement. That is just SO much worse than the 60%+ efficiency of PV=> grid => battery => zoom-zoom you get out of lithium ion battery cars that even if you curtail half the PV output your still twice as efficient. At 50% curtailment even Japanese PV (at lower insolation relative to Australia) is also cheaper than the Rube Goldberg conversions needed to put Aussie sunshine into driving energy in an Japanese H2 car.

          Maybe somebody spiked the punch with NH3? :-)

      2. Alan B | | #20

        I never thought about the cost of H2 storage. Very interesting.

  5. Derek Roff | | #8

    I think it would be fine to have a hydrogen fuel cell automobile alternative, but I wish the supposedly data-driven promoters, such as the author of this article, didn't rely so much on baloney (which, I admit, does seem to be a renewable resource). We read, for example, "Hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles now match or even exceed the range of conventional gasoline or diesel vehicles; Toyota claims its Mirai gets around 312 miles from a tank of hydrogen." I've never owned a gas-powered car that didn't exceed 300 miles per tank. Most of mine have been good for a bit over 400 miles per tank, and the Volkswagen diesel that I owned could get 600 miles per tank, if I drove carefully.

    This article, like many, spins scenarios of edge case situations, such as driving from Switzerland to Norway, and makes the illogical leap that this matters to the normal case, in which the driving habits of a significant majority of drivers would not be hampered by the range of current electric cars. Drivers who need something else should get something else, but it takes a lot of hand waving to make hydrogen the best choice for 'convenient' long-distance travel.

    Jorgo Chatzimarkakis and/or the author claim that "50-plus refueling stations scattered around Germany" are sufficient, which is about the number of electric chargers within 70 miles of Albuquerque, in sparsely populated New Mexico. Many of them are free. Like Bugs Bunny, I suspect that the hydrogen fuel cell advocates may have taken a wrong turn in that quirkily-named city. I conjecture that the 50 hydrogen stations are outside the normal driving patterns for 70% of Germany's population. What would it do to the calculated fuel efficiency of hydrogen, if most of the owners of fuel cell cars had to drive an extra 15 miles out of their way each time they want to refuel?

    Neither hydrogen, gas, nor diesel offer the option of convenient ‘refueling’ at home, and all three cost more per mile than the electricity to charge today’s electric cars. It will be interesting to see how the charging times improve in the next few years. During a recent drive to Boulder, we added 25% to our charge level in 13 minutes, on one of the best charging stops. On the other hand, we also saw less than 1% per minute gain at another charging stop. When the higher figure becomes the low end of charging experiences, the concern about long distance driving in electric cars will be even less important.

    1. John Clark | | #12

      Europe already has a history of using NatGas to power cars so I'm not surprised that hydrogen is getting another look since the EU requirement for GPF (Gas Particulate Filters) came into effect. Burning NatGas or Hydrogen is exponentially cleaner than gas/diesel due and because of the clean burn, lubricate (i.e. motor oil) usage goes way down because the change interval can be pushed out really far. Think 20k mile oil changes.

      One problem with Hyrdogen like NatGas is the low energy density compared to gas/diesel.

      1. User avater
        Dana Dorsett | | #14

        Hydrogen gas is lower energy density, but a best in class fuel cell car is about twice as efficient as internal combustion engines, so it doesn't take as much energy per kilometer.

        That still doesn't make it economic relative to battery EVs.

        1. John Clark | | #15

          I bet it's one slooooooow kilometer at that. ;)

          1. User avater
            Dana Dorsett | | #16

            I dunno 'bout that. They're about a zippy as a battery EV:



            H2 advocates seem to be stuck on the third-party owned refueling stop paradigm. Instead of stopping somewhere and spending 5 minutes out of your day standing around while filling the tank, you could just plug in the battery EV in about 15 - 30 seconds and head indoors to read your spam mail, eat dinner, have a cuppa joe, stretch out to watch Hindi chick-flix, whatever other "useful" things you may prefer to spend your time doing. Here's what an H2 stop fill up looks like circa 2018:


          2. User avater
            skierpage2 | | #21

            No, BEVs are quicker. 0-60 times: Tesla Model 3 LR 4.8 seconds, Chevy Bolt 6.3, Leaf 7.5; all quicker than Honda Clarity FCV 8.1 and Toyota Mirai 8.6. A hydrogen fuel cell produces a steady stream of power but not a lot of it, and the car is as heavy as a BEV. All FCVs have a battery for bursts of acceleration and to recapture braking energy, but in all models so far it's not big enough to warrant plugging in or to make the car really quick.

  6. User avater
    Dana Dorsett | | #9

    >"Jorgo Chatzimarkakis and/or the author claim that "50-plus refueling stations scattered around Germany" are sufficient, which is about the number of electric chargers within 70 miles of Albuquerque, in sparsely populated New Mexico."

    There are already 12 public charging locations within a half-mile of my work, some with 5 or 6 connections, and a similar number within a mile radius of my house, in the event my spouse kicked me out and wouldn't let me plug in at home. :-)

    Go to , enter "Germany", then zoom out, see if you can even count the number of public charging connections im Deutchland. Even if they installed 500 H2 stations in Germany it would still be a tiny number compared to how many places you could reasonably charge an EV, even if only 10% of the EV charging was at a fast rate.

    High range batteries are getting lighter and cheaper every year. The "hydrogen economy" has already lost the game (not that it ever made real sense.) The laws of thermodynamics are self-enforcing- there is no way to make H2 as efficient as even a low turnaround efficiency battery.

  7. User avater
    Dana Dorsett | | #22

    >"No, BEVs are quicker. 0-60 times: Tesla Model 3 LR 4.8 seconds, Chevy Bolt 6.3, Leaf 7.5; all quicker than Honda Clarity FCV 8.1 and Toyota Mirai 8.6. "

    I'd still call a 0-60 time of 8.1 or 8.6 seconds "...about as zippy..." as 6.3 or 7.5 seconds. Not faster than, but comparable to BEVs, and definitely not "...slooooooow....".

    The Teslas are in a different class, intentionally designed for fast acceleration as part of the marketing strategy.

    1. Derek Roff | | #23

      I agree that the quoted times for fuel cell cars are 'about as zippy' as many of the BEVs. I don't think they need to offer faster acceleration, although car enthusiasts love it. For persepctive, the sedate Chevy Bolt would keep up with or pass many of the Corvette models in 0-60 mph acceleration, during the decades when the Corvette 'defined' the American sportscar. The Tesla Model 3 can still compete with many more sports cars. The acceleration of the Model S is indeed 'ludicrous', and I'm glad that Tesla has introduced the 'Chill mode' setting in a recent software upgrade, that lets drivers decrease the maximum acceleration rate to more reasonable levels, just a bit quicker than the fuel cell vehicle times quoted.

  8. User avater
    Dana Dorsett | | #30

    Regarding Dennis' comments in #28:

    >"When I look at the electrical infrastructure that will need to be improved to meet the high coincidental demand during peak winter heating loads (all electric) and peak summer time cooling loads (all electric) with all electric EV that need fast charging... that problem becomes quite challenging."

    That's a common misconception, and only true if using your grandparent's grid management tools. (The grid is changing much faster than most people realize- even many in the utility industry are more than a decade behind the curve.) Wider adoption of EVs and car chargers makes it LESS challenging to manage the grid, especially as variable output generation goes well into double digits as a percentage of the total grid sources. The smarts to control EV chargers are neither difficult nor expensive to implement, and is being rolled out in countries already endowed with large fractions of variable renewables and EVs, such as Denmark & Norway. In Denmark EV owners are being incentivised by rate structures and fees to be plugged-in and allow the grid operator & utilities to use the car as a controllable power dump. In Denmark there are even incentives for 2-way power flows between EV battery & grid, compensated at a higher rate than for power-dump-only EV participants.

    FERC Orders 745 & 845 are making it easier to implement similar sorts of programs in the US, but state & local policy support can ease the current mis-match between supply & demand for EV charging infrastructure as well.

    H2 cars don't really help solve the grid peak problems- at least not to the same degree or in the same way. Part of the "vision" is to use free or negative cost electricity when variable output renewables are delivering more than the grid's current load, so yes, H2 could be a power dump to avoid curtailment, but that's about the extent of it. Grid to H2 to grid round trip efficiency even in a best case scenario is less efficient and far more expensive than just over-building the PV and curtailing half of it. Recently contracted pricing of PV in Texas is but a fraction the best-case future scenario costs projections for just the storage costs of any long-term energy storage schemes involving H2. Short term storage + reneables curtailment is already cheaper than the projected future costs of H2 storage schemes.

    Yes, EV adoption in the US is still at the thin edge of the wedge, and the charging infrastructure isn't currently sufficiently developed to make it super-easy everywhere, with a higher concentration around urban centers than the hinterland. But it's orders of magnitude ahead of hydrogen refueling infrastructure, and is comparatively easy to expand with market.

    The rental market can easily shift along with the rest, including the local vacation rental. For more than five years now it's been possible for vacationers to rent an Nissan Leaf in Orlando FL, with free charging available at select locations around town (but without restriction on driving/charging it elsewhere.) There's no reason that can't happen in Jackson or Bozeman, and will be even easier to manage with today's longer range batteries, and tomorrow's even longer ranges.

    So WHAT if it's easy to find 40 gas pumps at a crossroad in Missoula? That only reflects the current proportion of vehicles on the road by fuel. Like H2, the major rollout of EVs is still in the future, but EVs are way ahead in that technology race. Right now even with the minimal EV charging infrastructure that exist it's at least possible to drive from Seattle to Missoula or Bozeman, and between Yellowstone & Zion in an EV, and it will only be easier & more convenient 10 years from now. I'm skeptical that it will be even possible to do that in an H2 car in 2030.

    I know a guy who lives in rural PA who drives his Tesla to the office in NJ a few times per week. Yes, it takes a bit of planning on his part now, but it's easier now than it was even 3-4 years ago when he moved to his current location, and probably won't take much planning at all to do that in 2030.

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