Energy use for hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles: higher than electrics, even hybrids (analysis) Page 3

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2015 Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell, 2016 Toyota Mirai at hydrogen fueling station, Fountain Valley, CA

2015 Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell, 2016 Toyota Mirai at hydrogen fueling station, Fountain Valley, CA

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Unrealistic way to reduce oil use

Considering all the obstacles and requirements for new infrastructure (estimated to cost as much as $400 billion), fuel-cell vehicles seem likely to be a niche technology at best, with little impact on U.S. oil consumption.

Battery-based vehicles have a far more realistic potential to reduce oil consumption. The average daily driving distance of 30 miles is well within the range of new electric vehicles.

New plug-in-hybrids with battery ranges of 30 miles or more can eliminate most gasoline use on commuting trips, and operate as efficiently as hybrids on longer trips.

With the per-mile costs to fuel electric cars far lower than any other vehicle type, they have the potential to spread independent of government subsidies, as conventional hybrids mostly did.

In oil-rich Norway, a concerted long-term program of incentives and penalties has brought plug-in cars to 30 percent of all new vehicles sold today.

In the U.S., plug-in vehicles currently represent 1 percent of all new cars sold—but they already save more gasoline than do conventional hybrids, which have 2 percent of the market.

2016 Chevrolet Volt Vs. 2016 Toyota Prius

2016 Chevrolet Volt Vs. 2016 Toyota Prius

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Tailpipe emissions and the zero-emission mandate

Advances in emission-control technology have reduced the tailpipe emissions of modern cars by more than an order of magnitude in 20 years. 

So-called Super-Ultra-Low-Emission Vehicles, for example, are guaranteed to emit less than 0.02g NOx per mile, 20 times less than the average in 1994.

But 20 years ago, the regulators of the California Air Resources Board concluded that improving exhaust-gas treatment technology would not sufficiently reduce smog-forming and toxic emissions.

So they introduced a complex regulatory system that required carmakers to sell increasing percentages of zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs).

The original 1990 California ZEV mandate kick-started the development and commercialization of many new automotive technologies, including electric-vehicle batteries.

One unintended consequence of the mandate was the emergence of hybrid-electric vehicles, which have saved about 10 billion gallons of gasoline globally and reduced CO2 emissions by some 100 million tons.

Light-duty vehicle type scenario, now-2050 (California Air Resources Board)

Light-duty vehicle type scenario, now-2050 (California Air Resources Board)

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The mandate was originally written to encourage all zero-emission powertrain technologies: not only battery-electric but also hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles.


Today, however, in my view, CARB's continued focus on developing fuel-cell technology has become counterproductive.

Carmakers produce them and subsidize their sales mainly to receive valuable ZEV credits for every one they deliver—credits that are higher than those they receive for other vehicles with lower wells-to-wheels carbon emissions.

As a senior Honda executive recently suggested, “California air quality targets could be met with new plug-in hybrids, if the regulators set air quality standards instead of mandating percentages of ZEVs … and let automakers figure out how to meet them.”

With available new technologies offering more energy-efficient, cleaner, and more economical alternatives than fuel-cell vehicles could possibly provide, even in a far-distant future, development efforts and heroic investments into hydrogen infrastructure no longer make any sense.

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