Batteries or Fuel Cells?

Our detailed computer simulations have shown that society must eventually move to all-electric vehicles,  powered either by fuel cells or by batteries, or, most likely, by both. 

Both batteries and fuel cells generate electricity that is used to power the electric motor that drives the wheels.

Both FCEVs and BEVs meet the stringent California Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) standards.

But similarities end there.  The hydrogen-powered fuel cell electric vehicle has these key advantages over a battery-powered electric vehicle. The FCEV has:

  1. Longer range between refueling
  2. Less weight
  3. Smaller vehicle internal energy storage volume
  4. Less vehicle cost when mass-produced
  5. Lower life-cycle cost
  6. Shorter refueling time
  7. Fewer greenhouse gas emissions, particularly in the next few decades when most electricity comes from burning coal in the US
  8. Higher well-to-wheels energy efficiency when the source of that energy is natural gas, coal or biomass
  9. Greater market penetration potential: FCEVs can replace all types of vehicles including SUVs, buses, and even Class 8 heavy duty trucks. BEVs will be limited to smaller vehicles that account for at most 40% of all US light duty vehicles; in addition, these smaller vehicles account for less than 38% of all gasoline consumed, and less than 30% of LDV GHG emissions. In addition, BEVs will produce GHGs at the power plants used to recharge their batteries; based on the average US grid mix projected for 2015 that is still dominated by burning coal according to the US EIA, replacing all small cars, all small pickup trucks, all small vans, all small SUVs and 50% of all midsize sedans with BEVs would cut GHGs by less than 9% as shown in this report.  FCEVs have no such market penetration limits and could cut GHGs by 80% below 1990 levels as desired to curb the impacts of climate change, and FCEVs could eliminate most gasoline use in the light duty vehicle sector.

For a high-level summary of the advantages of FCEVs compared to BEVs, see this report.

The BEV has two advantages over the FCEV:

  1. Less fuel cost per mile today (but higher total life-cycle costs including vehicle costs)
  2. Higher well-to-wheel energy efficiency with renewable electricity (although a BEV has higher life-cycle cost than a FCEV including vehicle and total fuel infrastructure costs when renewable electricity is the energy source for both electricity and hydrogen)

Here are some quotes from USCAR, the research consortium of Chrysler, Ford and General Motors in July 2009 regarding fuel cell EVs and battery EVs:

“Even with complete success in meeting the USABC long-term goals for battery energy capacity, electric vehicles cannot compete with hydrogen-fueled vehicles for general usage in terms of range and ‘refill’ time. Use of hydrogen as a transportation fuel as on-board storage for useful range and refill time is already available (if not optimal),”...

And later in this same document the US auto companies jointly stated that: “Only hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle technology offers the promise of true-zero emissions, superior efficiency and uncompromised functionality.”

However, the car companies go on to say (in 2009) that “Because profitable high-volume deployment of FCV’s depends on significant progress in multiple technologies both on and off the vehicle, the USCAR OEMs have made deployment of hybrid, plug-in hybrid and various forms of electric vehicles a near term focus.”

In other words, we need all of the above. Hybrids now, plug-in hybrids soon, and battery EVs particularly for shorter range commuter cars, but with hydrogen fuel cell EVs as the primary long-term solution.

Here’s how GM portrays the electric vehicle space:

GM envisions battery EVs for short-range, light load city cars

  • PHEVs (which GM calls Extended-Range EVs or “E-Rev”) for a limited market segment including intra-urban moderate loads with stop-and-go driving
  • Fuel cell EVs covering all distance segments from city to highway driving and covering the higher loads for full-function passenger vehicles, trucks, buses, etc.

And Toyota envisions a similar hierarchy of BEV’s for short range, small vehicles, and FCEV for longer range, full-function vehicles with HEVs and PHEVs filling the space between:

Finally, Daimler has a similar chart, stating that the FCEV is the only option that can satisfy both long and short-range vehicle requirements:

 [Source: Sasha Simon (Daimler) presentation to the U. S. Senate hydrogen and fuel cell Caucus meeting, March 8, 2010.]


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