New Year, New Buzz

The year, as usual, started with new buzz about electric vehicles, specifically about using hydrogen for fuel. Thus the headline in the McClatchy Tribune: “The buzz in electric cars is fuel-cell technology.”

While the concept of fuel-cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) has been promoted for over a dozen years, it always comes up against the reality of cost.

The fuel-cell stack cost was estimated at between $100,000 and $150,000 ten years ago, but Nissan and others claim that the cost has been cut by 80%, though there has been no confirmation of this.

If true, the fuel cell now would cost between $20,000 and $30,000, roughly five to eight times the cost of an internal combustion engine (ICE) 1.

To this must be added the cost of the 10,000 psi storage tank for hydrogen.

These costs would still exceed the cost of Lithium-ion batteries for use in EVs by $10,000 to $20,000.

Beyond the cost of the vehicle is the cost of the refueling infrastructure. While a fast public recharging station for an EV can cost around $40,000, a hydrogen fueling station can cost $500,000 and more.

There are a small number of hydrogen fueling stations around the country, but most are in Southern California where there was an effort to build a hydrogen highway.

There aren’t any technical problems with FCEVs, and they are safe. Fueling is safe and simple. I watched it operate at the hydrogen fueling station near Washington, DC.

The problem, as in prior years, is cost.

Toyota Demonstration FCEV
Toyota Demonstration FCEV

No doubt there will be more FCEVs on the road this year, probably as leased vehicles in and around Hollywood, but they will certainly not be anything more than novelties.

The other important question is whether there is a need for FCEVs. It’s the same questions as for EVs and PHEVs.

The gasoline-powered vehicle is still the most cost-effective form of transportation, with the possible exception of CNG and LNG vehicles.

The resurgence of domestic oil production has eliminated any need for cutting oil imports by using FCEVs, EVs or PHEVs. That reason no longer exists.

The only remaining reason is they would cut CO2 emissions, yet this is fallacious unless the electricity used for charging batteries is produced by nuclear power plants … wind and solar being unable to produce anything more than tiny amounts of electricity for the grid. And hydrogen would probably be produced by reforming natural gas which would produce CO2 emissions2.

In short, there is little reason to build FCEVs or EVs and PHEVs. They are a distraction that diverts funds from the real economy.

For the most part, FCEVs are a toy for the rich, and for extreme environmentalists.


  1. These are rough estimates as manufacturers are very circumspect about the manufacturing cost of fuel cells.
  2. Using electricity to produce hydrogen is uneconomic, if not virtually impossible, due to the number of new power plants that would have to be built to provide electricity if a large number of FCEVs is involved.


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