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Saturday, January 18, 2014

Fuel Cell Future Unlikely or Inevitable? Part 9 - So Why the Hate?

Fuel cell vehicles (FCV) are propelled by an electric motor. They are, in fact, electric vehicles that get their electricity from a fuel cell rather than a battery pack. FCVs and battery EVs (BEV) share many components and both can be powered from clean sources. FCVs even, typically, have batteries too to allow for regenerative braking and faster acceleration.

With all of these similarities, you may think (as I did prior to 2006), that EV advocates would be big supporters of FCVs too, but that is not usually the case. On EV-forums you'll find fuel cells referred to as "fool cells" and worse. And as the first of this series pointed out, Elon Musk referred to fuel cell cars as "bullshit".

So why all the hate? Is this yet another circular firing squad case within the EV community? Or is there something more this time?

Because FCV are driven by electric motors, they are often put forth by their proponents as having all the benefits of BEVs with the additional benefits of fast refueling and long range. FCV detractors will tell you that FCVs are held up as "the future" and this provides a convenient excuse for some to continue to use gas while waiting for this "perfect hydrogen car." FCVs are the distant mirage that keeps us walking in wrong direction down our fossil fuel status quo path. You can see how these views begin to put them in opposition.
Mercedes Benz Ener-G Force FCV

This is a case of the 'perfect' being used as an enemy of the 'good'. Plug-in advocates will point out the FCVs are far from perfect. Many FCV challenges (H2 production, storage, & infrastructure, and fuel cell cost) currently have no line-of-sight to a solution, even after spending billions of dollars and half a century of research.

Battery electricity, on the other hand, is a solution you can drive off the lot today. Electricity can be generated in a myriad of ways and you can "refuel" in your garage. And if range and refueling times are a significant issue for your driving patterns, then plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEV) allow you to do most of your driving on electricity without any range limit or refueling time concerns. PHEVs allow you to plug in when you want to and use gas when you have to.

For many PHEVs are the right transition technology from gas-only to BEV. Battery technology is improving by about 8% each year. This trend shows no signs of stopping as lab breakthroughs are continuing to be made, thereby providing a pipeline for production improvements. This will lead to better prices, faster charging, and longer EV range. Battery improvements are not a 'someday' promise; their advancement is being driven by the need for better batteries for the smartphone in your pocket and the tablet in your living room.

Why not live and let live? 

If FCVs find the breakthroughs they need, great. If not, why not let people cheer for their technology of choice? The answer is simple, there are limited budgets and mindshare. Whether it is government research grants for energy storage or R&D budgets at the auto companies, these technologies are competing.

Looking at it another way, FCVs can play "the spoiler" in electric vs gasoline competition. In the 2000 US presidential election, George W. Bush was running against Al Gore. True or not, third party candidate, Ralph Nader, was accused of costing Gore the election by garnering votes that otherwise would have gone to Gore. And just to show this spoiler phenomenon can happen on either side of the isle: Ross Perot is blamed by some for costing George H.W. Bush the 1992 election.

E - All of the Above
Applying this to transportation: the "all of the above" strategy of funding fuel cells and battery EVs, means that neither will receive the funding that they need to become a serious threat to the incumbent, reigning champion, gasoline.

Oregon and Washington state have installed the West Coast Electric Highway which allows EVs to travel these states border to border on Interstate 5 and more using a network of quick chargers.

In California, on the other hand, funds were split, hydrogen fueling stations were built and there are large gaps in the EV charging network (especially in northern Cali).

The cost of building a nationwide refueling network is not insignificant. Building two based on vastly different fuels at the same time is nearly impossible. If auto executives and politicians believe that FCVs are the future, then fuel cells could be the albatross around the neck of plug-in vehicles: delaying development at many companies, as well as delaying the deployment of plug-in infrastructure, thereby slowing the growth of EV sales.

Part 10 - Tin Foil Hats