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Monday, November 24, 2014

Fuel Cell Advocate Strikes Back

Fuel Cell cars are on full parade at the LA Auto Show this week and they are getting significant media attention.

In preparation for the show, Green Car Reports collected fuel cell vehicle (FCV) questions from their readers to pose to the automakers that are promoting the tech (Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai). As you might imagine the 10 questions were critical of fuel cells as most of GCR readers are plug-in vehicle fans.

One of the readers, Jason Lancaster, however, is a fuel cell fan and he didn't like questions that cast his favored future fuel in a poor light. In response Lancaster called "a lot of this FCV criticisms coming from BEV advocates are completely and totally irrelevant." Lancaster then wrote 10 questions of his own for plug-in car advocates like myself to answer.

As you'll see, his questions are occasionally leading and obviously biased. For example, his first question is "Why do BEV advocates cling to a highly irrelevant electricity efficiency argument?" As you can see, the question assumes that efficiency is irrelevant. With each question Lancaster has a brief commentary explaining the flaw in BEV advocates thinking, what he thinks the real questions should be, and how he thinks FCV are an important part of our transportation future.

As requested, as a plug-in vehicle advocate (although I only speak for myself), here are my replies to Jason Lancaster's 10 questions:
1. Why do BEV advocates cling to a highly irrelevant electricity efficiency argument? The argument goes like this:
  • Separating hydrogen from water is a great way to drive without contributing CO2 to the atmosphere, but it “wastes” electricity 
  • Therefore, making hydrogen isn’t a “good use” of electricity…that energy should be stored in a battery pack instead.
The trouble with this argument is that it doesn’t acknowledge a fundamental economic reality: battery packs are expensive, but electricity is cheap. The relative efficiency of using hydrogen as a transportation fuel vs. electricity as a transportation fuel can’t be discussed in a vacuum. If wind energy costs less than 4 cents per kW, it’s likely cheaper to “waste” that electricity separating hydrogen than it is to buy expensive battery packs.
In other words, “waste” has nothing to do with it. Economics is the only concern.
You make the point that it really should be about economics. Efficiency is the first order measure of a mature technology’s economics. Today, both fuel cells and batteries are expensive. As these technologies mature, their prices will drop. Then the total cost of ownership economics will be driven primarily by fuel cost. As you stated, electricity is cheap. Your own H2 FAQ says a kilo of H2 will cost $5-$6 ($0.07 - $0.09 per mile). I charge my car up at off-peak rates, here this rate is $0.047 per kWh (1.3 cents per mile). I would rather pay 1 cent per mile than 7. 

Your comments around this question also seems to indicate that you think most H2 will be generated from electrolysis; however, it is well understood that 95% of H2 is currently is (and will continue to be) derived from natural gas. The energy and electrode costs for electrolysis cannot compete with Methane Reforming. So this makes FCEVs yet another fossil fuel powered car. 

My BEV can be powered by the solar panels on my roof. A FCV would never be able to do that. And if it could, it would require an array at least twice as big to generate and compress the H2. 

2. Why do BEV advocates insist on contrasting the Nissan Leaf, Tesla Model S, etc. with FCVs? Don’t they know that 97% of the vehicles on the road today are powered by gasoline or diesel? Doesn’t it make more sense to compare both FCVs and BEVs to the market leader than to one another?
If someone were sitting at home and thinking “I’m tired of buying gas. For my next car I want to get something else”, then the alternatives offered from major auto companies are a plug-in car or a FC car. Like it or not, plug-in cars and fuel cell cars are in competition for market share, infrastructure funding, and mindshare as the next personal transportation platform. So there has been and will continue to be criticism from both sides as they try to advance their solution of choice. 

I agree that the real goal is to give more people a viable alternative to gas cars, I just don't think that promoting FCVs achieves this goal. In fact, I think it detracts from it. More on this in answer #10 below.

3. Why assume that refueling time is the only advantage FCVs have over BEVs? We created a nice little FAQ here that explained fuel cell stack costs are expected to be cost-comparable to gas-powered hybrids in just a few years (2018). FCVs aren’t just going to be fast and easy to refuel. They’re going to have lower up-front costs than BEVs too.
Both FCVs and BEVs are driven by electric motors, so they will have similar (great) performance. Refueling IS the biggest difference. You go on to say that cost will be the biggest difference. When this is true (if ever) then you’ll have something else to talk about other than a prediction. I read the FAQ you linked to, predictions about fuel cell prices are easy to make and hard to deliver. Batteries prices are dropping and performance is improving every year driven primarily by the consumer electronics industry’s demand for longer battery life. 

If you want to talk about refueling, the real winner technology is plug-in hybrids. They can plug-in overnight cheaply and they can fuel up in just minutes at more than 100,000 gas stations in the US. 


4. Why do FCV critics ignore all the investment in (and excitement for) fuel cell technology outside of transportation? Fuel cells aren’t just for cars – they’re being used to create grid-sized power stations, industrial power generation, fork lifts, buses, etc., and the technology is being pursued by industrial heavyweights like GE, Microsoft, and (ahem) Toyota.
In the post on GreenCarReports.com, you wrote:
A small but strong and vocal lobby of owners, supporters, and advocates has advocated for electric cars for 20 years now. Where is the similar groundswell of fuel-cell advocates?
Shouldn’t you walk that back a bit? Or perhaps acknowledge that a “groundswell” of support is irrelevant when evaluating the efficacy of a particular technology?
Because we are talking about transportation solutions. Excitement does not get me to work. If you want to look at technologies outside of transportation, then mobile consumer electronics are driving battery tech with far more research dollars than forklift research is advancing fuel cells. 

4a. … acknowledge that a “groundswell” of support is irrelevant when evaluating the efficacy of a particular technology? 
When looking at efficacy, sure. When trying to sell a product, it is very relevant. You might make the Henry Ford faster horse argument here and say that people just don’t know what they want yet. But FCVs would have to deliver something great that PHVs or BEVs cannot. Currently they don’t.

5. Why don’t BEV advocates understand that fuel cells are the only workable technology for trucks and large SUVs? The energy density of battery packs makes their use in large vehicles unlikely – this is why fuel cell powered buses a better option than battery electric buses (according to the US DOE). Even unabashed BEV advocates acknowledge that fuel cells are best for larger vehicles.
Can’t we have FCVs in the mix, if for no other reason than to use them in big vehicles?
Because Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai keep showing FC passenger cars at the major auto-shows and claiming battery cars are pointless and that FCVs are the future. This answer also applies to question #2 also. There very well may be a place for large FCVs. There are electric buses that get 30-second over-head quick charges at every stop, FC buses will need to compete with this. For long haul applications, the real question is which is cheaper to install, a coast-to-coast quick-charge infrastructure or H2 infrastructure. At $10,000 per station, quick charging is way cheaper than the $1M per station for H2 pumps.

6. Why don’t BEV advocates acknowledge that battery chemistry has stagnated? The CEO LG Chem – one of the largest battery manufacturers in the world – says that “we’ll have lithium ion for at least the next 10 to 15 years“, suggesting that today’s lithium ion battery technology is in no danger of taking a giant leap forward anytime soon. Yet BEV advocates assume that Tesla, Nissan, etc. will somehow significantly increase BEV range and decrease cost over the next 3-5 years.
How are BEV manufacturers going to accomplish significant improvements with the same old battery chemistry? And why is the CEO of LG Chem soft-pedaling the possibility of future advances?
Because the tech hasn’t stagnated. Lithium-ion batteries have been getting 7-8% better per year for two decades and it shows no sign of slowing down. It is not doubling every year, it does not have to be big leaps and bounds. Slow and steady improvements yield vast improvements over time. Nearly every week there is some lab breakthrough announced. Many of these will eventually work their way into improving final production batteries. Looking forward, there are solid state batteries, Lithium-air batteries, ultracapacitors, and things yet to be discovered that will continue to advance battery tech.

P.S. You have taken the LG Chem quote out of context. He said the Lithium-ion will be the battery chemistry of choice for the next 10-15 years, not that it will not improve. In fact later he goes on to talk about how much it has improved since 2010 and how much more it will improve by 2016.

7. Why are BEV advocates so willing to overlook battery range problems? Most BEVs that have been sold in the last few years struggle to live up to their published range – one need only read GreenCarReports.com to see that. Why don’t BEV advocates acknowledge that BEVs might not ever be feasible for climates with wide temperature variations (aka most of the planet), and/or that they may have long-term degradation problems?
No one is overlooking this. BEVs (with the range limits they have today) have some of the best owner satisfaction scores of any vehicle type. A person should buy a car that fits their needs. If you need to drive hundreds of miles per day, a BEV is probably not the right choice. Most people don’t drive that much. If you need something for around town commuting and errands, BEVs are great. If your region has fast charge infrastructure like the West Coast Electric Highway in Oregon and Washington, then a BEV can do even more. If you want a plug-in car with long range then a PHEV or a Tesla Model S might work.


Range: It is not a matter of ignoring it. It is a matter of understanding it. 


8. Why do BEV advocates talk so much about the lack of hydrogen infrastructure? We’re in the earliest stages of FCV use. Saying that FCVs are “doomed” because of a lack of fueling points is like saying that the very first gasoline powered cars should never have succeeded. Infrastructure isn’t an insurmountable obstacle. No one had ever heard of a gas station in 1900.
The gas cars of 1900 had limited refueling infrastructure, but they were only competing with horses. FCVs today have to compete with gas, PHEV, and BEV options. A car is only as valuable as the utility it can provide. Today, there are more than 100,000 places to fill up a gas car and any outlet can be used for an EV. I can drive coast to coast with the Tesla supercharger network for free (with the purchase of an 85kWh Model S). I can drive a Nissan Leaf all over western Oregon because the area is blanketed in CHAdeMO charging stations.

If you search, you’ll find hundreds of articles from 2011 and 2012 that said that EVs would flop because of the chicken and egg problem of charging infrastructure. The difference is that BEVs can be plugged into any outlet (albeit slow) and for less than $1000 you can get a get a charging station in your garage. With FCVs, 'where to fill up?' really is a concern. No one is willing to go back to 1900.


No one is willing to suffer 1900 level of infrastructure. 


You have to have the freedom to drive wherever you want to go. FCVs can never be more than a niche product without a vast refueling infrastructure. BEVs have the advantage here because we already have a vast electricity network.

9. Why does Elon Musk criticize FCVs so regularly? If Musk is right and FCVs are “fool cells,” than he wouldn’t give them a second thought, right? Musk doth protest too much, don’t you think?
I'll speculate: Elon Musk has done his own research and reasoning and determined that if you look at the whole picture of energy needs, infrastructure, batteries, fuel cells… that for passenger vehicles, BEVs are the most likely long-term winner. Tesla Motors’ entire business plan is based on the success and growth of battery electric cars. If it turns out that FCVs are the technology winner, then Tesla will cease to exist as we know it.

10. Why can’t Tesla and Nissan Leaf fans just relax? What’s with all the hate? Even *if* battery packs become the best option for most cars, it’s likely that fuel cells will power pickup trucks, large SUVs, and probably even some cars too.
Can’t we all just get along?
FCVs are held up as the next great thing. The promise is that they have all the performance of an EV with none of the range concerns or recharge time hassles. But that is not the whole story. Rather FCVs are used as a “spoiler” to EVs. FCVs are the promise of tomorrow, that never delivers. Even the FCVs that are coming out now, there will only have a handful of deliveries, enough to make some press hype and not much more. The message is “just keep driving gas cars until FCVs are ready”. We don’t have time to wait any longer. PHEV/BEV solutions are here today. Five years from now, FC advocates will still be making promises about growing the infrastructure and the coming price drops just like they have been since 1960. If Lucy keeps moving the football, eventually Charlie Brown will just go play soccer instead. The public money that will soon be spent building-out H2 infrastructure could build 10X the amount of fast charge EV infrastructure. An “all of the above” policy means that neither EVs nor FCVs will receive the funding that they need to become a serious threat to the incumbent, reigning champion, gasoline. If you want a real solution to driving with lower emissions today, then plug-in vehicles are the way to go and any empty promise that delays that needs to be swept aside.