The first mass-market consumer fuel-cell vehicle will soon be available in California: the Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell SUV. It’s taken decades to get to this point, so many enthusiasts are hoping that this will be a tipping point for the technology. It’s an exciting development, and by all accounts thus far, it’s a great car with a decent range of 250 to 300 miles. However, it’s not at all clear that fuel cell vehicles make much sense from a policy perspective. This article delves into the details and compares fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) to electric vehicles (EVs) like the Nissan Leaf and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) like the Chevy Volt.

I’ve followed developments in this field for over a decade. I was the primary author of a blueprint for weaning Santa Barbara County from fossil fuels when I worked for the Community Environmental Council as its energy program director.

Here's an excerpt from that 2007 document: "Hydrogen vehicles -- fuel cell or hydrogen internal combustion engines -- hold some long-term promise. Toyota and General Motors have announced plans to offer retail vehicles in 2010 or soon thereafter, but most analysts believe it will be some time later that these vehicles are available to consumers at affordable prices."

We followed up on this short analysis a year later with our Transportation Energy Blueprint for Santa Barbara County, a more detailed look at the most promising solutions for fossil-fuel reduction in the transportation sector. Michael Chiacos, who is still with the Community Environmental Council, was the primary author of that report. We conducted another extensive public process as part of creating this document, and we ranked the various transportation solutions based on a number of quantitative criteria. FCVs didn’t make the list because even though our team thought they had promise, the likelihood of that promise panning out was low and the potential impact of FCVs by 2020 -- the analytical timeframe of our second report -- was, even under the best case scenario, very low.

I have since become even more negative when it comes to FCVs, and my worries about the ability of manufacturers to deliver on the promise of FCVs are starting to look pretty accurate. We are now in 2014 and there is only one commercially available FCV coming to market (the Tucson), with Honda also planning a mass-market offering later this year; Toyota's offering is slated for release in 2015. None of these companies expects much in the way of sales in 2014 or 2015, largely because of the lack of both a public fueling infrastructure and a home fueling option.

The lack of a fueling infrastructure really is a chicken-and-egg problem: we would need more FCVs to justify more fueling stations and vice versa. Car and Driver magazine stated in a recent article on the Tucson that “operators of the Tucson…will be confined to their respective metro areas.” The article adds that home fueling stations are not “being considered at the moment.” Though it is not explicitly stated in the article, it seems very likely that this lack of a home fueling option is due to safety issues.

The Tucson will cost $499 per month, which includes free fueling (yes, free), with an additional $2,999 due at signing. So this car will not be cheap, but is certainly a lot cheaper than, say, a Tesla, which costs at least twice that much for a lease. The Tesla lease also includes always-free fueling at Tesla’s Superstations around the country.

Hyundai plans to build up to 1,000 Tucsons each year if leases are snapped up. However, the company is projecting only about 300 sales per year at this point.

In terms of the fuel-cell charging infrastructure in California, there are only nine public stations currently, but 45 more are planned, with a major new round of funding recently announced by the California Energy Commission.

A more detailed comparison of FCVs and EVs

Despite the big head start that BEVs and PHEVs have on FCVs, are there other reasons to support FCVs as a viable or even better alternative? There are some benefits associated with FCVs, which will be detailed in the following sections. But the alternative vehicle market has already experienced a number of false starts (methanol in the 1980s and ethanol in the last decade, to name just two), and it would be smart to avoid yet another false start by over-hyping the ability of FCVs to reduce fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions in any serious manner. Let’s examine the evidence.

Vehicle range

Vehicle range for FCVs is generally advertised as 200 to 300 miles, which is comparable to the distance many internal combustion vehicles can travel on a tank of gasoline. The Tucson, for example, is supposed to have up to a 300-mile range.

EVs generally have a much shorter range, with the Nissan Leaf, for example, having a real-world range of only about 80 miles per charge. The Tesla Model S, a far more expensive vehicle, has up to 300 miles of range, but the Tesla Model S is far from being a mass-market vehicle.

PHEVs like the Chevy Volt actually have better range than most internal combustion vehicles or FCVs, with the 2014 model achieving real-world range of 350 to 400 miles with a tank of gas and a charged battery.

In this head-to-head matchup, PHEVs win, but FCVs come out ahead of EVs.

Refueling time

Refueling time is generally much shorter for FCVs than for EVs and PHEVs. It takes just a few minutes to refuel an FCV versus up to many hours for EVs and an hour or so for most PHEVs. As discussed below, Tesla is planning to offer a battery swap option, which makes refueling faster than gasoline or hydrogen refueling, but even if this does come to fruition, it probably won’t be an option for most EVs anytime in the near future.

This category gives a clear win to FCVs.

Lifecycle fuel efficiency

Perhaps the biggest downside for FCVs arises from how the hydrogen fuel is created. From an environmental perspective, hydrogen would ideally be created through electrolysis of water, using renewable electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, rather than from fossil fuels like natural gas. However, a lot of energy is lost in the FCV fuel cycle, through electrolysis of water and then conversion back to electricity in a fuel cell. In fact, according to a 2001 study (PDF), almost 80 percent of the energy is lost through these two conversion processes. I haven’t been able to find any more recent studies looking at conversion efficiency, but it is likely that the efficiency has improved somewhat.

That said, it would be far more efficient to simply use the electricity to directly fuel an electric vehicle or a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle. And this is a pretty serious demerit for FCVs in a world of very limited energy.

Some FCV supporters have suggested that similar inefficiencies arise from EVs due to the line losses in charging from the grid. This is inaccurate for two reasons: first, the net line losses for most modern grids is quite low (California is only about 8 percent, for example); second, most EVs will charge in urban areas where much of the power consumed is produced locally, reducing line losses even further. And, increasingly, homeowners are charging from their own solar panels, with almost no line losses.

FCV advocates also argue that cheap renewables will make electrolysis sensible before too long. But if renewables are cheap enough for electrolysis to make sense, it would still make far more sense to use that electricity directly in EVs, with far lower conversion losses. In sum, comparing net energy losses results in a strong win for EVs.

Fueling infrastructure and cost

As mentioned, California has only nine public hydrogen fueling stations but another 45 are currently planned. This is the situation a decade after the creation of the Hydrogen Highway Network in 2004, and this figure includes the 28 new stations recently announced by the California Energy Commission.

The key problem for adding new hydrogen infrastructure is the cost: charging stations cost about $2 million each (the CEC is awarding $46 million to construct 28 new stations, but this cost doesn’t include matching funds), versus $5,000 to $15,000 for Level 2 EV charging stations and about $60,000 or more for DC fast chargers.

Adjusting for the number of vehicles that may be charged at hydrogen fueling stations (which is likely to be far greater than for EV charging stations due to the much-longer fueling time for EVs), FCVs still have higher infrastructure costs. This conclusion is bolstered if claims of future availability of battery-swapping stations from companies like Tesla are genuine. Battery swapping will, when available, allow refueling faster than gas or hydrogen fueling. Better Place pioneered this concept, but the company's efforts did not pan out, and it has since gone bankrupt. We’ll see if Tesla’s concept does better.

More importantly, all EVs can charge from a home outlet or workplace outlet if required, even though this takes ten to twenty hours for most vehicles. For faster home or workplace charging, many companies now offer Level 2 chargers that reduce the charging time by a factor of three or four.

The number of public EV charging stations has grown exponentially in the last decade, up from just a handful in 2004 to over 1,700 public stations in California alone in 2014. Today, there are nearly 8,000 public EV charging stations in the U.S. We are also seeing an increase in the number of fast charging stations in California and elsewhere. Fast chargers are important because they allow an 80 percent charge in about 20 minutes for compatible vehicles, as opposed to a process that requires several hours with other types of chargers.

A final mark in favor of FCVs is that people without a garage or another place to charge an EV at home or at work won’t be able to buy an EV.  FCVs could make sense for these people. That said, there is a very large market of customers for EVs and PHEVs made up of people who do own their homes or otherwise have access to charging space.

EVs win in the fueling infrastructure category.

Vehicle availability

There are three FCVs planned for 2014 and 2015. In contrast, there are about two dozen EVs and PHEVs on the market in 2014. However, there are only about sixteen models widely available in states like California, and sales are dominated by just five companies: Nissan (Leaf), GM (Volt), Tesla (Model S), Toyota (Prius Plug-in), and Ford (C-MAX and Fusion Energi). Cumulative sales in the U.S. exceeded 200,000 by the end of 2013, with sales figures tripling or doubling year-over-year in the three or so years that EVs have been commercially available.

Again, this category is a clear win for EVs, particularly when we look down the road a few years at the many additional EVs and PHEVs planned for the market.

Vehicle expense

We don’t know the true production cost of EVs or FCVs, unfortunately. We can, however, conclude that costs are coming down rapidly for EVs because some manufacturers are already offering significant cost reductions. GM, for example, recently took $5,000 off the sticker price of its Volt PHEV, dropping the base model's price from $40,000 to $35,000. The cost savings were made possible mostly from reductions in battery costs.

Time will tell regarding the true cost of FCVs. The companies planning FCV leases in 2014 and 2015 haven’t provided significant information on true costs.

In terms of costs to customers (as opposed to production costs), we have more information. Again, the cost of the new Tucson is $499 per month for a three-year lease, plus $2,999 due at signing. The Nissan Leaf is available for a similar lease (without free fuel, which is included in the Tucson lease) for about $199 per month and $1,999 due at signing. The GM Volt has some equally good lease deals available. The Tesla Model S is more pricey, coming in at over $1,200 for a base model lease. There are many other BEVs and PHEVs available at various price points, so it’s hard to make any blanket conclusion regarding the customer cost of FCVs versus EVs.

One conclusion we can make: costs are coming down rapidly for EVs as battery costs fall. Battery costs are already falling rapidly with increased deployment of EVs and other uses for battery technologies. A recent report from McKinsey & Company projected “dramatically” falling prices for batteries by 2020, with prices reducing to around $200 per kilowatt-hour by that time and dropping to $160 per kilowatt-hour by 2025, down from $500 to $600 per kilowatt-hour at the time the report was written in 2012, and down from about $1,200 per kilowatt-hour in 2009. A 2013 report from Navigant Consulting generally agrees with the findings of the McKinsey team, projecting $180 per kilowatt-hour by 2020, down from $500 per kilowatt-hour in 2013.

These declining battery costs are already translating into declining customer costs, as both GM and Nissan substantially cut the cost of their vehicles in 2013.

FCV costs will also fall as the market scales up. However, with the market still facing all the challenges outlined in this analysis, we may not see much scaling before, say, 2020. Again, the win in this category goes to EVs.

Fuel costs

What about fuel costs? Hydrogen fuel cost is likely to cost about the same as gasoline. In comparison, the cost for EV fuel -- electricity – is about one-half to one-fourth the cost of gasoline and thus one-half to one-fourth the cost of hydrogen. This is because electricity is a cheaper commodity, as well as the fact that EVs and PHEVs are so efficient when compared to traditional internal combustion vehicles. Accordingly, there are no fuel costs savings in driving FCVs. There are major cost savings to be had when it comes to the cost of operating EVs, and this has always been one of the major benefits of EVs.

Another downside to FCVs is that hydrogen fuel evaporates from the vehicle tank when left idle for more than a couple of weeks. While this won’t impact most regular drivers, it does pose a downside to those who travel frequently by air and leave their cars for extended periods of time. Fuel evaporation will not only be a hassle for those consumers, it will also add costs because of the losses from evaporation. This issue may be resolved with better technology, and it is not yet clear how big an issue it is in the first generation of FCVs.

Fuel (charge) loss afflicts at least some EVs as well, but the losses appear to be fairly minimal and perhaps are only significant in cold climates or seasons.

Energy storage and grid balancing

Both FCVs and EVs can be used as significant storage and grid balancing tools. The California Public Utilities Commission is currently considering new rules for what is now called vehicle-grid integration or vehicle-to-grid. Even though the CPUC is currently looking at just EVs, much of the same policy and technology structure will apply equally to FCVs.

When their level of market penetration is higher, EVs will present a great opportunity to absorb low-cost electricity and discharge that same electricity back to the grid during higher-price periods. And so will FCVs.

However, because of the large conversion losses in creating hydrogen from electricity and then converting it back to electricity, it would make a lot more sense to use EVs for storage and grid reliability, rather than using FCVs.

The win in this category also goes to EVs.

EVs dominate in most categories

Figure 1 offers a summary comparison of EVs and FCVs, based on one to three checkmarks per category. EVs do twice as well as FCVs. This is, of course, a subjective exercise, but it is based on the fact-driven analysis presented here. It may be the most appropriate way to compare technologies and policies because it recognizes that these issues can be quantified only in an approximate manner. At the same time, it doesn’t shy from attempting at least a rough quantification for better policy analysis. Unfortunately, state and federal policymakers don’t often engage in such comparisons. Instead, policy decisions are based on experts’ or officials’ opinions, which generally are offered without such comparisons. 

Summary comparison of EVs and FCVs

In the final analysis, however, we can’t rule out FCVs as being a helpful part of the “silver buckshot” solution to wean us from fossil fuels in transportation. While EVs and PHEVs clearly out-perform FCVs in most categories, the fact that FCVs can be refueled in a manner similar to regular cars and that they enjoy a far larger range than most EVs do provide substantial benefits. It is the other issues highlighted in this article that will ultimately tip the balance in terms of consumer acceptance or rejection of FCVs -- and only time will tell how that unfolds.