Why can’t we be friends? The case of lithium ion batteries and fuel cells

Tesla’s rise from the play-thing of millionaires, to one of the world’s most valuable automotive companies and most recognized global brands, is the shot in the arm for green mobility that the world surely needed. Indeed, few automotive companies could claim to have made significant progress in decarbonizing the mobility sector before the Model S, Model X and eventually Model 3 entered the scene. The biggest exception being the Nissan Leaf, which is the worlds most sold electric vehicle model, with more than 320,000 units shipped to date[1].

However, while there are many things that the world should thank Elon Musk for, his antipathy to Fuel Cells is not one of them. While there is little point in denying the discrepancy in electrical efficiency between a Battery Electric Vehicle (BEV) and Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle (FCEV), to call the technology “mind boggling stupid” is green-on-green fire at its finest. At a time where less than 3% of global energy in transport is considered renewable (largely composed of biofuels, whose green credentials are frequently challenged), it is more important than ever to focus on the real goal – the gradual phasing out and substitution of internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles.

The BEV advocate arguments against FCEVs are clear. The technology is too expensive, and its round-trip efficiency remains significantly below BEVs (around 45%-60% for FCEVs v.s. 80%-90% roundtrip for BEVs). For these reasons, BEV advocates are concerned that less knowledgeable policymakers and indeed consumers, will conflate FCEVs and BEVs, creating a convenient excuse to prolong the life of ICE vehicles. Further, BEV advocates sometimes articulate genuine concerns that in an environment where public sector investment is constrained, dividing limited resources between building infrastructure for BEVs and FCEVs results in underdeveloped networks that delays the public uptake of both.

Source: CCC, 2018, p.56, https://www.theccc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Hydrogen-in-a-low-carbon-economy.pdf

These concerns are well founded. But they are also wrong.

Firstly, BEV advocates often forget that the story of Hydrogen is much bigger than mobility alone. Indeed, the current global Hydrogen market is already valued at in excess of $100bn per annum (and forecast to grow at 8% pa until 2026), in contrast to the automotive battery market (including Li-Ion), which will reach USD $95bn by 2025 (at a forecast growth rate of 7.9% over the period). Further, Hydrogen is forecast by Shell, the IEA, IRENA and leading OEMs to be the key source of fuel for heavy mobility, driven by the inescapable fact that hydrogen is simply more energy dense than any battery alternative available and even at scale, it retains a lead over Li-Ion solutions.

Source: Hydrogen Council, 2018, p.14, http://hydrogencouncil.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Hydrogen-Council-Vision-Document.pdf

Beyond mobility though, many see Hydrogen as the only serious solution (alongside CCS) to large scale de-carbonisation of the World’s largest source of energy demand – heat. Indeed, demand for energy for industrial, commercial and residential heat accounts for over 50% of global energy consumption, with few clear solutions beyond Hydrogen and/or CCS available (and in some instances electrical solutions, mainly at lower temperatures). Indeed, countries like the UK are already exploring if Hydrogen could de-carbonise an entire countries gas grid by 2050, while the EU is funding a range of pilots that utilise Hydrogen as a feedstock for the steel industry.

Consequently, whether BEVs dominate the mobility sector in the short to medium term or not, Hydrogen and Fuel Cells are not going anywhere. Indeed, the technology itself is already over 150 years old, with the first fuel cells made in 1830.

The second point though is that BEV batteries and fuel cells are actually natural partners. The BEV may be considerably more efficient for short distances, but over long distances the charging issue remains a significant (and in some cases perhaps insurmountable) barrier to erasing consumer range anxiety concerns. Combining batteries for short journeys and a fuel cell for long distances is a natural hybrid, and one which automotive companies such as Mercedes have already realized. The GLC F Cell is the start of a trend that illustrates the value of such clean energy hybrids, allowing up to 450km of range and thus averting consumer range anxiety concerns. Further, such hybrids allow grid planners to focus on developing EV charging infrastructure at the sub 50kW range, leaving the more immediate refueling needs to Hydrogen refueling stations.

The importance of hybrid infrastructure is important. It is easy to forget that few countries have sufficiently modern and robust grids to support rapid charging at the scale needed for global EV roll-out. Indeed, many countries do not have fully automated SCADA systems at the distribution level and are frequently impacted by rapid voltage fluctuations. This is compounded by the fact that many grid operators have a limited understanding of the transportation sector, and few automotive manufacturers understand the impact of their operations on national grids. A good example of this informational gap can be seen in the relative lack of discussion around whether the grid reinforcement requirements for installing superchargers are reasonable for utilities (and ultimately consumers) to incur, especially where the location is remote and there may not be significant local generation resources available. This is not to say that rapid charging systems are not perfectly applicable in well developed and automated grids, with careful planning and close coordination. But to assume this is the case globally, particularly in many emerging markets, is unrealistic.

BEV advocates may, and indeed do, reject these concerns. The increasing range of batteries and changing consumer patterns are frequently cited as evidence that the barriers to BEV adaption can be surmounted. Further, the nature of certain vehicle applications that have a “return to base” function, increase confidence that significant and widespread BEV supercharging is less of a barrier for commercial vehicle fleets and municipal owned vehicles. Many also argue that BEVs provide battery storage resources to the grid, thus strengthening it rather than weakening it. This may all be true, but the world is bigger than California and Germany.

Few BEV advocates have successfully explained how widespread fast charging BEV infrastructure can be developed outside of developed countries, where grid failures are common and where the initial experiences with rapidly fluctuating levels of power demand and supply on the grid are already causing challenges. Further, while hydrogen can be stored for months and can be generated and transported across multiple areas, it is less clear how BEVs can provide comparable flexibility to ensure rapid charging for vehicles across large remote areas. Indeed, this may explain why countries like Australia are increasingly investing in both BEV and FCEV.

But even if the hatchet between BEVs and FCEVs cannot be buried for mobility, it is important to note that for the power sector these two technologies are already being paired. Indeed, the Raglan Mine micro-grid and HDF Energy’s project to replace diesel gensets in French Guiana, both show that hybrid battery and Hydrogen Fuel Cell base systems, have a powerful complementarity that should be recognized.

Ultimately emotions will probably determine the future of relations between BEV and FCEV advocates more than economics or technology arguments alone. But with the growing global pressure to accelerate the clean energy transition, and to meet the 1.5 degree target, it may be preferable for these technologies to take a moment to assess if the perceived enemy is not in fact a natural friend.


[1] CleanTechnica have also argued that even by 2021 the Nissan Leaf will remain the most sold EV vehicle globally: https://cleantechnica.com/2018/12/25/the-best-selling-electric-vehicles-when-will-tesla-model-3-be-1/