Is Toyota's hydrogen fuel-cell fervor foolish, or foresighted? (with charts) Page 2


2016 Toyota Mirai - Quick Drive - Portland, July 2015 [photo: Doug Berger]

2016 Toyota Mirai - Quick Drive - Portland, July 2015 [photo: Doug Berger]

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The steeply falling costs of lithium-ion batteries in recent years—with more to come, as the market is currently oversupplied—changed Daimler's calculus.

While fuel-cell costs have fallen by a greater percentage yet, they remain high owing to the industry's currently tiny size.

Embryonic scale

The fuel-cell industry's embryonic scale is best captured by an analogy to Tesla's Gigafactory.

Where Tesla promised its Gigafactory would produce as many gigawatt-hours of lithium ion batteries in 2020 as were sold around the world in 2014, Toyota's 2,000 or so Mirai sales in 2016 represented more than three times the megawattage of PEMFCs produced worldwide in 2014.

Impact of Toyota Mirai production on global PEM fuel-cell production [chart: Matthew Klippenstein]

Impact of Toyota Mirai production on global PEM fuel-cell production [chart: Matthew Klippenstein]

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[EDITOR'S NOTE: As readers pointed out in our Comments, the original version of the graphic above was one of three that needed some work. We have now replaced it, and we apologize for the errors.]

At such minuscule production levels—running at full capacity, Toyota will produce about twelve fuel cell systems per workday this year—part costs are high and manufacturing is labor-intensive. (At low production levels, it's not worth investing in automation.)

As such, Toyota's reported $50,000 fuel cell powerplant is far more expensive than it would be at larger scale. The company's stated plan is to produce 3,000 fuel cell electric vehicles per year through 2019, then jump to 30,000 in 2020.

It would presumably take another full model cycle (taking the company into the late 2020s) for production to surpass 100,000 units per year.

Given these timeframes, it's understandable why Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche would say fuel cells would not play a "central role" at the company. Even in Toyota's fully-committed scenario, product volumes will be low for years to come.

As for the prices fuel-cell systems could reach at higher production volumes, the United States Department of Energy (DOE) Fuel Cell Technology Office provides fuel cell system and hydrogen tank cost targets, assuming commercial volumes (typically 500,000 units per year).

Fuel-cell system cost modeled at 500,000 units a year [chart: Matthew Klippenstein]

Fuel-cell system cost modeled at 500,000 units a year [chart: Matthew Klippenstein]

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Its Vehicle Technology Office, meanwhile, provides its own battery pack cost targets.

This gives us two data sets from a relatively unbiased source.

U.S. Department of Energy cost targets for fuel cells, hydrogen tanks [chart: Matthew Klippenstein]

U.S. Department of Energy cost targets for fuel cells, hydrogen tanks [chart: Matthew Klippenstein]

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Battery cost projections

The DOE Vehicle Technology Office supports research and development activities with the goal of achieving battery pack costs of $125 per kilowatt-hour by 2020.

For context, GM product chief Mark Reuss confirmed to Green Car Reports that the Chevy Bolt EV's cell costs are $145 per kilowatt-hour, with third-party estimates of pack costs of around $215 per kwh.

Elon Musk has reportedly stated he will be disappointed if Tesla's cell costs aren't below $100 per kwh by 2020, which might suggest pack costs in the $150 per kwh range.

As of last year, the Office's most aggressive price projection was $75 per kwh at the pack level for a lithium-air chemistry … in a best-case, long-term, everything-goes-well scenario.

The Chevy Bolt's 60-kwh battery gives it a roughly 240-mile EPA range, so we'll assume that 50 kwh will be sufficient to give an electric vehicle a 200-mile range. This is no doubt over-optimistic for trucks and SUVs, but your contributor, mindful of his fuel cell background, would prefer to err in batteries' favor, than against them.

At $125 per kwh, a 50-kwh battery pack would cost $6,250; at $75 per kwh, it would cost $3,750.

Tour of Tesla battery gigafactory for invited owners, Reno, Nevada, July 2016

Tour of Tesla battery gigafactory for invited owners, Reno, Nevada, July 2016

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Fuel-cell cost projections

The DOE Fuel Cell Technology Office similarly supports activities to reduce fuel cell system costs to $40/kw-net by 2020, with an ultimate goal of reaching $30/kw-net. They model an 80 kw-net (107 hp) fuel cell system, so at high volumes the fuel cell system costs work out to $3200 and $2400, respectively.

Hydrogen tank costs are calculated separately, as they are dependent on the amount of hydrogen stored. The 2020 goal is for a tank cost of $10 per kwh. Hydrogen has an energy density of 33.3 kwh/kg, so the DOE tank cost target works out to $333 per kg.

The Hyundai Tucson fuel cell SUV runs about 250 miles on 5 kg of hydrogen, so a fuel efficiency of 50 miles per kg is about right.

Most vehicles sold in the United States have real-world ranges of 400-plus miles, meaning fuel cell vehicles would need 8 kg of hydrogen to match their combustion counterparts. This makes for a hydrogen tank price of $2670.

Range in miles of passenger vehicles sold in the U.S. [chart: Matthew Klippenstein]

Range in miles of passenger vehicles sold in the U.S. [chart: Matthew Klippenstein]

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Batteries vs. fuel cells: Round 1

Comparing the battery and fuel cell options, the fuel cell surprisingly comes out slightly cheaper with the 2020 scenarios—assuming it's produced in large volumes, that is. (In the battle of utopias, the battery pack proves more than $1,000 cheaper.)

The battery option would have a much lower total cost of ownership, however, as electricity is far cheaper than hydrogen.

The Fuel Cell Technology Office's goal is for hydrogen to reach a price of $4 per kilogram. Given that fuel cells have more than twice the efficiency of combustion engines, this translates into a fuel cost equivalent to sub-$2 per gallon of gasoline.

Furthermore, many or most fuel cell stacks will be sized to deliver more than 80 kw of power.

Cost projections for 200-mile battery pack vs 400-mile fuel cell car [chart: Matthew Klippenstein]

Cost projections for 200-mile battery pack vs 400-mile fuel cell car [chart: Matthew Klippenstein]

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[EDITOR'S NOTE: As readers pointed out in our Comments, the original version of the graphic above was one of three that needed some work. We have now replaced it, and we apologize for the errors.]

It would be premature for Tesla CEO and noted fuel cell critic Elon Musk to issue a celebratory tweetstorm, however, as the above chart assumes average car buyers would willingly switch to battery-electric vehicles with half the range they're accustomed to (and even less in cold weather). That's a big assumption.


 
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