Powering zero-emission mobility requires green hydrogen and other types of clean fuel
Batteries, hydrogen and renewables complement rather than compete
Zero-emission mobility is a monumental and unprecedented endeavor that is still in its infancy. Even as electric car sales have taken off in many countries over the past few years, more than 98% of passenger vehicles and virtually all commercial vehicles in the world today still burn fossil fuel.
Each new battery-powered electric vehicle (BEV) and fuel-cell electric vehicle (FCEV) on the road is a step in the right direction. Instead of being framed as competitors, perhaps these two technologies should be viewed as different solutions contributing to the same objective: reducing the carbon footprint of the transportation sector, which is responsible for approximately 30% of humanity’s CO2 emission alone.
The key role of hydrogen, from energy production to emission-free mobility
There is no doubt that hydrogen has a key role to play in the future of carbon-free decarbonized energy production and use. The world needs to replace the two-thirds of its energy supply currently sourced from fossil fuels. And H2 offers many advantages to do so, particularly in terms of security of supply (hydrogen is storable and can be transported over long distances) and sustainability, as low-carbon hydrogen generates very low lifecycle carbon emissions.
What’s more, the affordability of hydrogen will only grow as massive public and private investments are in the works to make it an increasingly abundant and competitive technology. In fact, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency, green hydrogen could become cost competitive compared to its carbon-intensive equivalents by 2030. With all this in mind, it is clear that low-carbon hydrogen will complement renewables to help reach energy policy objectives in the long term.
These considerations apply to emission-free mobility as well: the transition towards decarbonized transport is just kicking off, and we need hydrogen to accelerate it. As a matter of fact, when it comes to heavy-duty road transport, the case for hydrogen is already compelling, thanks to its high energy storage density and logistical advantages (such as limited payload loss and rapid refueling). Fuel cell-powered vehicles such as trucks, boats and trains are undoubtedly the future – and airplanes one day as well.
As for lighter vehicles, the optimal energy choice is not black and white, and a mix of BEVs and FCEVs is to be expected. It all depends on context and local conditions in each market, for example the availability of renewable electricity. If electric vehicles are often the better solution for passenger vehicles for reasons of cost and energy efficiency, hydrogen vehicles are more suitable in certain scenarios.
A different approach to hydrogen efficiency: sun-to-wheel
In fact, contrary to common misconceptions, under the right conditions, the efficiency of hydrogen fuel cells is comparable, and sometimes even superior, to that of electric batteries. On one hand, it’s true that a fuel cell has lower energy efficiency due to the fact that a portion of the hydrogen’s usable energy is lost through various conversion processes. That’s the well-to-wheel approach.
However, another way to look at this equation is the sun-to-wheel approach, which shows that the overall energy efficiency of hydrogen is greater if it is harvested in sunny regions. While the electricity for a BEV needs to be produced relatively close to the charging location, hydrogen can be shipped over long distances. This means it can be produced at ideal locations, places where solar panels can have twice the output per panel, as is the case when you compare the Middle East and Germany, for example.
For all these reasons, the sun-to-wheel approach is important to get the full picture when discussing the challenge of hydrogen efficiency, and it results in a comparable total output at the wheel for FCEVs and BEVs.
The case for combining green hydrogen with other technologies
Another argument for not discarding one solution in favor of another is that a combination of technologies would allow society to achieve emission-free mobility faster than with just one, given the limitations of each technology in certain contexts. It would also benefit the environment, both in terms of emissions and material mining, the need for cumbersome upgrades of the electricity grid would be reduced, and it would be less expensive, from an individual and societal perspective.
Why? Because building a hydrogen refueling network alongside battery charging infrastructure is actually cheaper than building a charging infrastructure powerful enough to cover all use cases. And this is true even if only 10% of zero-emissions vehicles are powered by fuel cells, thanks to reduced necessary upgrades of the electricity grid in hard-to-serve and high-demand areas such as remote highways or fast chargers in cities with high grid loads. And the savings effect is even more pronounced when including commercial vehicles.
One more thing: if renewable energy production needs to be curtailed for any reason, the energy is typically lost. But if instead it is used to produce green hydrogen and therefore saved for future production of electricity, the overall system’s energy output is higher than it would be with a single type of energy.
Also, in a combined world, peaks in demand for mined materials such as nickel, cobalt, lithium and copper can be flattened: both technologies require precious metals, but not exactly the same ones. This is important to keep in mind when considering that strengthening the electricity grids to power massive fleets of EVs will require vast amounts of copper, and that supply shortages of cobalt and nickel (necessary for batteries) are forecasted as early as 2030.
Green hydrogen is already on the rise
All in all, even though hydrogen vehicles are still frequently seen as a fledgling technology, there is already bigger momentum on FCEVs than is visible on the road. Also, similar developments are taking place for green hydrogen throughout the value chain: a 350 TWh/year decarbonized hydrogen production capacity is expected to go live by 2030. And when it comes to mobility, distribution networks and refueling stations are being built at high speed in all major industrialized regions, while manufacturers are busy developing new FCEV models, mostly in the commercial vehicle segment.
Playing an instrumental role in the chemical reactions, material solutions and processes required to power green hydrogen production, Solvay aims to be at the core of green hydrogen and play a critical role in the future of clean energy as well as clean mobility. Hence the creation of our dedicated Hydrogen Platform, designed to help our customers (and society) get closer to net zero emissions, faster. The Group is also a steering member of the Hydrogen Council, whose objective is to bring together leading companies with a united vision.