Fuel Cells vs Plug-ins: Both are Winners

December 16, 2014
David Reichmuth
Senior Engineer, Clean Transportation Program

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.