Fuel Cells vs Plug-ins: Both are Winners

, senior engineer, Clean Vehicles | December 16, 2014, 3:45 pm EDT
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Often when I’m talking to people about plug-in and fuel cell electric vehicles, I’m asked, “which one is going to win?” Trying to divine which type of vehicle will be more prevalent in the future is impossible, but thankfully it’s not really important to know the answer. That’s because both types of electric vehicles, fuel cells AND plug-ins, will be important solutions to reducing emissions and oil use. To help explain why we need all types of electric vehicles, UCS has recently produced a fact sheet: “The Importance of Both Battery Electric and Hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles.

Neither plug-in (left) nor hydrogen (right) EV technologies use oil and both reduce global warming emissions compared with their gasoline and diesel counterparts.  Credit: Wikimedia Commons (left) Flickr/uonottingham (right)

Neither plug-in (left) nor hydrogen (right) EV technologies use oil and both reduce global warming emissions compared with their gasoline and diesel counterparts. Credit: Wikimedia Commons (left) Flickr/uonottingham (right)

Fuel cell and plug-in electric vehicles are complementary technologies

Both fuel cells and plug-ins have advantages depending on the driver and use for the vehicle, and there isn’t one “best” electric vehicle that will fit every driver in the U.S – though EVs can work for millions of American drivers.

Plug-ins (like the Nissan Leaf) are, in general, the most efficient type of personal vehicle as the electric motor is much more efficient than the conventional combustion engine and batteries are also highly efficient in storing and discharging electricity.  Because of their higher efficiency, plug-ins are often the vehicle choice that produces the least global warming emissions. They also can use existing electric infrastructure, like outlets in garages, to recharge their batteries so some households can use an electric vehicle with no additional infrastructure required. Research and development of plug-in vehicles has expanded over the last decade and has resulted in a quickly growing number of vehicle models available and public recharging infrastructure is also expanding.

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles have the advantage of being able to store large amounts of energy and quickly refuel at a filling station, very similar to a gasoline car. This makes them good for longer distance driving and for drivers that don’t have the ability to recharge a plug-in vehicle. The higher energy storage capability also makes hydrogen vehicles potentially best for electrifying less aerodynamic vehicles like a truck or minivan. Like plug-in vehicles, their global warming emissions depend on the source of energy used (i.e. fossil fuels or renewable energy) for refueling but they can often result in significant reductions in emissions compared to conventional vehicles.

Since EVs can drive using an electric motor, all EVs share the ability to replace the use of gasoline with electricity or hydrogen. EVs are therefore an important solution that can contribute to our plan to cut U.S. oil use in half by 2035.

Why choose?

Right now, electric vehicles are either plug-in or fuel cell vehicles. However, it’s possible to combine these technologies in a plug-in/fuel cell hybrid. For example, Audi unveiled a prototype of an Audi A7 h-tron quattro 5-door with a battery that can be plugged in and deliver 40 miles of travel while also having a hydrogen tank plus fuel cell to allow extended range and rapid refueling. It will probably be a while before we see a plug-in fuel cell car in a showroom, but it could potentially meet everyone’s driving needs while greatly reducing emissions.

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  • Terry

    Why go to all the trouble of fool cells. It would be far easier to formulate an ICE to run on alcohol like the Indy cars. Not e85 but straight alcohol. Similar to the model T that ran on alcohol before gasoline was developed by Rockefeller. This should not be hard Brazil is already using alcohol.

  • chrisatcafcp

    Thanks for the article, Dave. The California Fuel Cell Partnership certainly shares the position that BEVs and FCEVs are both necessary–along with more public transportation, better land use planning and reducing VMTs.

    Chris White

  • Richard Cronin

    I hope I don’t draw any vicious ad hominems, but there could be an alternate explanation for the 100 – 200 ppm increase in CO2. Yes, the work of Dr. J. Marvin Herndon has been completely dismissed by mainstream science since he first published in 1992 (competing scientists refuse to peer review him), but it makes so much sense for planetary formation , terrestrial heating / cooling. All the lighter elements and simple molecules — H2O, CO2, N2O, methane and the higher alkanes are cooked up within the Earth from the GeoReactor, the naturally occurring fission reactor at the core of every planet and the thermonuclear trigger for stellar ignition. Are we so vain as to think only insipid humans can conjure up fission ?

  • Hydrogen is currently $12.59 per kg dispensed at the pump. The automakers are picking up the tab until the metering/billing systems are certified. The cost per mile for the current crop of H2 cars is on the order of $0.24 per mile.

    Electricity is ~$0.12 per kWh. The cost per mile for most EV is on the order of $0.04 per mile.

    It’s hard to imagine H2 being the market winner at roughly 5x the ongoing fuel expense. Even if the price comes down, it’s unlikely to come down a lot any time soon. Producing and compressing hydrogen will be more much expensive than producing electricity for the foreseeable future.

    • You are correct that currently hydrogen isn’t being sold by the kilogram, but rather included in the lease price. It’s too early to tell what the retail price of hydrogen for vehicles will be. However, I would expect that as hydrogen production for vehicles increases, the cost of refueling will decrease.

      The U.S. Dept. of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory has produced cost estimates that range from $5 – 9 /kg for large scale hydrogen production from wind (http://www.nrel.gov/hydrogen/production_cost_analysis.html) , and there are other studies that show lower hydrogen production cost. In this range, fuel cell vehicles would cost more than an EV, but not 5x the cost.

      As I write in the post, there isn’t one “best” EV for every driving situation, and fuel cell EVs have advantages in quick refueling and higher energy storage. They also make driving a zero-emission vehicle possible for those without a place to plug-in. Plug-ins will have an advantage in higher efficiency, cheaper fuel and recharging in many single family homes. The key is that it isn’t important to have a single winner between fuel cells and plug-ins. What is important is that cleaner EVs (both fuel cell and plug-ins) replace less efficient and polluting petroleum-fueled vehicles.