CE Delft study: ‘no real future for the hydrogen car in 2030’
A study by Dutch environmental research and advise bureau, CE Delft, based on the comparison of a classic gasoline Golf, the e-Golf, and the fuel cell Toyota Mirai concludes that there is no real future for the hydrogen car. The EV will be by far the most sustainable and cheapest of all, the fuel cell car the most expensive and ‘probably less sustainable’.
But one can question some of the assumptions the researchers base their results on. One of them is that the hydrogen produced today mostly by steam methane reforming (SMR), will come in 2030 from electrolysis. But still without a zero-emission electricity mix and with a significant loss of energy in the electrolysis process.
What if in ten years the production of ‘green’ hydrogen could look completely different, for instance? Like the promising technique, Belgian researchers at the KU Leuven developed to draw the hydrogen directly out of the air with a special ‘hydrogen panel’ using free solar energy? That technology is no science fiction, but ready for upscaling, the Belgian team claims.
The same goes for a likely evolution of the lithium-ion batteries used today in electric cars of which the use of rare metals and the production methods weigh heavily on the overall environmental lifecycle score of the EV. CE assumes technology will remain the same, but with the battery capacity doubling to an average of 71,6 kWh in ten years at a lower price.
The authors of the report warn themselves for two factors that could generate discussions on the results of their calculations: not taking into account the end-of-life cycle of the cars and the impact of the infrastructure needed for them (gasoline or hydrogen fuel stations and chargers for EVs).
C-segment family cars
The CE Delft study was commissioned by Enpuls, a young, independent Dutch organization describing its members as ‘visionaries, business thinkers, and concept developers’ focusing on accelerating the energy transition.
It asked CE to compare a regular C-segment gasoline car of today with its electric and hydrogen equivalents and make a projection for the new cars within ten years, taking into account their entire lifecycle and their impact on the environment.
Lifecycle of 185 000 km
CE took two nearly identical examples from this segment in the €20 000 to € 35 000 price range, the VW Golf Comfortline 1.0 TSi, and the e-Golf (with 35,8 kWh battery). There is no comparable fuel cell car in that price range, but the Toyota Mirai is a good match as a mid-sized family car, the researchers say.
For the lifecycle analysis (LCA), the researches looked at the production of the cars and usage of natural resources, plus the use in the Netherlands during its lifetime of 185 000 km. The ‘end of life’ is not calculated in, because the impact of the recycling process of the EV and fuel cars is too difficult to envision today.
The 185 000 km lifecycle is based on Dutch figures of an average of 10 300 km for private use and scrapping the car after 17,9 years. For cost analysis, CE uses an average for private use and business use (18 200 km per year) over five years.
Average electricity mix
For the projections for the next ten years, CE bases its calculations on the average Dutch electricity mix of today – in which renewable is still fractional – and the assumed mix in ten years if the Netherlands sticks to its climate plans. CO2 emissions in the production of electricity are expressed in a figure evolving from 0,37 kg CO2-eq./kWh today to 0,14 kg CO2-eq./kWh in 2030.
For hydrogen production, the researchers assume it will come no longer from natural gas, but 100% from electrolysis out of clean water in the ‘best-case scenario’. They use the figure of the estimated 2030 average electricity mix for the calculations, in which ‘green’ electricity from renewable sources has tripled, but ‘grey’ electricity from fossil fuels is still a significant factor.
So what are the main conclusions?
• The EV is today, in 2020, the most sustainable of the three, even if the production of the battery has a major impact. That impact is at its lowest when more than 70 000 km are driven. The hydrogen car’s environmental impact is lower than the gasoline car’s, even using ‘grey’ or ‘blue’ hydrogen (with carbon-capturing) using steam reforming of natural gas.
By 2030 the hydrogen car will profit from the ‘greener’ electricity mix when electrolysis is used to produce it. But according to the report, it will score ‘significantly worse than the EV and the gasoline car’ when it comes to ‘exhausting natural resources’. That means being ‘probably less sustainable overall than the EV’ in 2030.
• When taking into account the total cost of ownership (TOC), the EV equals that of a gasoline car even today in the Netherlands, mainly due to the exemption of taxes and lower maintenance and energy costs. The hydrogen car can’t compete while being twice as expensive in initial purchasing cost and being unable to compensate for this in running costs.
By 2030 the EV will be significantly cheaper, both in list price as TOC, than its gasoline peer. The more kilometers are driven, the electric car will increase its lead. But the fuel cell car, the researchers assume, will still be the most expensive of all, without means to compensate during its lifecycle. So according to them, there is no real future for hydrogen to be used in private cars.