With the government committed to banning the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030, the switch to electric vehicles (EVs) is very much underway. In fact, September 2020 saw the number of pure electric vehicles on the road rise to just over 164,000 - that’s a 184% increase in just 12 months!
It’s a trend that shows no sign of slowing, with pure electric or plug-in hybrids now accounting for 10% of new car registrations. Statistics like these would seem to indicate that hydrogen fuel cells are a great idea in principle, but they are unlikely to play much of a role in the vehicle industry’s drive to decarbonise road transportation. But is that really the case?
Hydrogen cars are electric vehicles
Whilst most people have a basic understanding of how battery based electric vehicles work, awareness of hydrogen fuel cell technology is markedly lower.
The first point to note is that hydrogen cars are in fact electric vehicles with a small onboard battery. Although the battery is used when first driving the car, once you get going, the pressurised hydrogen mixes with oxygen within a fuel cell stack to create a chemical reaction. This process generates the necessary electricity for the motor to turn the wheels and to recharge the battery.
Are they a feasible option right now?
Currently, there are only a handful of models to choose from. The Toyota Mirai, Hyundai Nexo and, if you are prepared to wait for its 2022 launch, the Riversimple Rasa. They are quite expensive too, with the Mirai and Nexo costing £65K and £68K respectively. At prices like these, the Government’s £3,500 ultra-low emission grant is unlikely to make much of a difference in persuading people to make the leap. In any case, there will only be 15 of the Mirai made available in the UK this year, so it’s a pretty exclusive club to join.
Fuel costs are also comparatively high, with the Hyundai Nexo costing just over £18 for enough hydrogen to drive 100 miles. Whereas an equivalent electric car comes in at under £5 to cover the same distance. Having said this, as tax revenue from petrol and diesel falls, it would come as no surprise if the electricity used to charge up the growing number of EVs becomes subject to a new form of taxation.
This all seems to indicate that there’s no point in even thinking about hydrogen cars as a serious option. Possibly, but not necessarily. With only 17 refuelling stations in the UK, extremely limited choice and a big price tag, hydrogen fuel cell cars may not be viable right now, but there’s at least one reason why they could still form part of a decarbonised Britain.
As of June 2020, there are over 38 million licensed vehicles on the road. Let’s fast forward a few years to a point where the vast majority of these are electric. It is thought that a total switchover to pure electric vehicles would increase the load on the UK grid by around 10%. This is a manageable figure, especially with time to prepare, but managing the demand at traditional peak times of between six and eight in the evening, when already high levels of electricity usage would coincide with people coming home from work and plugging in their cars, could create more of a challenge.
In this scenario, hydrogen cars, which only take between three and five minutes to refuel, could offset the load on the National Grid and would of course be completely unaffected by any localised power outages.
Another consideration is the environmental impact. Whilst both battery electric and hydrogen cars have no exhaust emissions, current estimates put the lifetime carbon impact of hydrogen cars at 120g/km compared to 124g/km for electric vehicles. It’s not a massive difference, but the technical development cycle for hydrogen is a fair way behind EVs and the use of renewable sources for hydrogen production could make a significant difference.
Put it all together and it’s clear that whilst very few of us will be driving a hydrogen fuel cell car any time soon, there could still be a future for this evolving technology as part of a balanced decarbonised infrastructure for personal and business mobility.
Toyota, BMW and Daimler clearly think so as they are currently heading up a group of 13 companies who will be investing $10 billion dollars on research and development of hydrogen technology and infrastructure over the next 10 years.
Should I switch to an EV now?
The impending ban on new petrol and diesel cars means there’s little point in waiting to see when and how hydrogen vehicles could provide an alternative to battery EVs.
There are other timing pressures too, such as the growing number of Clean Air Zones (CAZ). Whilst the recent pandemic may have delayed the roll out of these pollution-controlled areas, this is only a temporary situation, so you can still expect to see them appearing around the country over the next few years.
Leeds and Birmingham were due to launch their zones in the summer, but with resources stretching due to the COVID crisis, this was simply not possible and permission was granted to delay their introduction until January 2021 — although this is under constant review. It’s a similar story for Greater Manchester, who have announced that it will delay its plan until at least 2022.
In fact, every council who had planned to introduce a CAZ has now delayed their plans until 2021 at the earliest. However, the government is still under a legal obligation to reduce air pollution and so it’s a can that can’t be kicked down the road indefinitely. It’s also worth noting that Transport for London (TfL) is still implementing stricter emission limits for vans, coaches/buses and lorries from 1st March 2021. Combine this with increasingly punitive Benefit in Kind (BIK) taxation aimed at increasing the adoption of electric vehicles, it is clear that petrol and diesel cars are becoming less attractive with each passing year.