Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Fuel Cells vs Plug-In Hybrids

The Economist this week has a section on energy and an editorial suggesting that electricity is the only practical solution for transport. They discount hydrogen due to the high cost of providing the infrastructure.

Undaunted by this potential problem, Honda has announced the start of production of its FCX Clarity sedan, powered by Honda’s own hydrogen fuel cells. The car will initially be leased to selected customers in California. Just five cars will be delivered in July, with 200 planned over the next three years. Clearly this is still in the experimental stage, but equally clearly Honda is very committed to the technology. It has a dedicated factory in Japan and a dedicated service center in California. The car itself is a stylish 4-door sedan with a range of up to 280 miles, much more than appears likely from batteries for some time.

Of course, its overall carbon footprint depends upon how the energy to create the free hydrogen is produced -- and therefore could ultimately be zero -- but just based upon energy usage the Clarity is rated at the equivalent of 74 miles per gallon. Apart from the lack of infrastructure, production cost seems like the biggest problem. Honda expects the price to come down to under $100,000 once volume production starts, but this is still way beyond most budgets. My bet is that technology advances – for example, storing hydrogen in some kind of nano-structure instead of having to compress it -- will reduce the price further.

By contrast, others such as GM, Toyota, and Renault/Nissan are backing plug-in hybrids, but only a fool would count Honda’s fuel cell solution out.


Motion Electric said...

Hydrogen fuel-cell technology works, but is expensive and not durable. Hydrogen energy supply economics and environmental cost are a disaster.

95% of all hydrogen today is produced from the natural gas industry, at a cost of about 125% of the comparative cost of gasoline (equivalent size car basis). If you create (compressed) hydrogen fuel for fuel cells from grid electricity the costs are three times that of natural gas.

Fuel cells are a distraction from the real solution of pure battery electric and PHEVs.

Do you want to be the auto industry marketing executive responsible for selling higher priced vehicles that will cost significantly more to run?

Tony Welsh said...

Clearly there are industry experts who disagree; BMW and Honda to name two. Both battery and hydrogen power have significant hurdles to overcome, and my understanding is that GM doesn't actually know how or where it will find a suitable battery for the Volt, which makes a 2010 launch laughable. Honda by contrast are delivering test vehicles now.

I am not against electric vehicles. Indeed I am on the waiting list for a Tesla, though I dclined to convert to a firm order when I found how optimistic their range claims are.

I am not saying hydrogen will win; just that we should not rule it out.

Motion Electric said...

I understand that GM has recently approved a supplier for Li-ion batteries for the Volt. While it is still a serial hybrid, it will be a landmark vehicle, and if they do this right, it could be GM's "Prius".

Internal combustion, whether by gas, diesel or hydrogen, is still a very energy inefficient process... a handicap that won't play well in an energy scare future.

Tony, if you were skeptical about the Tesla, I recommend you test drive an e-Box from AC Propulsion. I had the opportunity a few weeks ago, and I was very impressed... range of 200 miles, and feather light and effortless acceleration performance. Indeed AC Propulsions 150KW system is being used in many new electric car offerings....

Tony Welsh said...

Thanks. I must say, I had never even heard of the eBox. I took a quick look at their site and they claim only 120-150 mile range, which is still good. But maybe tat is out of date; I also notice that they offer delivery in 2007, so I wonder how active they are. Aso $70K for a modified Scion makes $110K for a modified Elise seem almost cheap!

btw, while BMW is experimenting with hydrogen internal combustion engines, of course fuel cells generate electricity t power a motor. In that context, hydrogen is just an alternative to a battery for storing energy and in my view the jury is still out as to which will work best.

Motion Electric said...

Here's how the consumer/business jury will work.

Either I choose to invest in a hydrogen fuel cell where the energy will cost me 40¢ per mile to operate, or I choose an electric battery vehicle where it will cost 2.5¢ per mile. (This is the slippery slope for PHEVs for auto makers... it will focus future consumer demand)

My fuel cell choice will require a complete rebuild in 60,000 miles (with component parts still based on Platinum and other exotic commodities), whereas modern batteries should last 5 years or 100,000 miles of use.

As the fuel cell vehicle is essentially an electric car with a small buffer battery and an expensive (25K +) fuel cell, it will have a purchase price premium attached.

If that was your task as jury, is it a tough decision?

The only reason the auto industry went into fuel cells was as a diversion from the electric car when they had first hand experience with it in California in the 1990s. They were "15 years out" then, as now.

The finance guys figured out --quite quickly-- that electric cars would be much cheaper to produce and would have virtually no aftermarket repairs and service. The end result would be that the auto industry would be a much smaller one, financially and operationally.

A product that is much less complicated, long lasting, and energy efficient is diametrically opposed to the current business model. The only winners here would be consumers and the environment.

Tony Welsh said...

I cannot argue with your assertions about the cost of hydrogen fuel cells, except to point out that the guys at Honda are probably better informed than either of us.

As for electric cars canabalising the after market for parts, I am not sure that is a major consideration because in my experience the only a minority of failures involve the engine or transmission.