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Hydrogen vs BEVs: refuelling stations shouldn’t have to choose

Tod Higinbotham argues that there is a false dichotomy in the choice of battery electric or hydrogen fuel cell setups

Automotive industry experts have spent the last decade comparing the pros and cons of battery electric (BEVs) and hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs), particularly medium- and heavy-duty trucks. Several insist that either one or the other is the transportation fuel of the future, leading to a heated debate.

But this is like pitting solar against wind in the fight to clean up power sources. When both have proven their place in a robust clean energy grid, isn’t the actual competition between zero-carbon fuels and polluting fossil fuels? Why should the industry choose between BEVs and FCEVs when it can have both?

Pros, cons, and best uses for FCEVs and BEVs

FCEVs and BEVs carry distinct features that suit different use cases. For example, FCEVs’ range is equivalent to similarly sized internal combustion engine vehicles, while BEVs’ range per charge varies according to the size of the onboard battery. FCEVs generally refuel faster than BEVs (three to five minutes vs 30 minutes to hours for BEVs). This often makes FCEVs the best choice for long-haul, heavy-duty use cases, especially for travel in areas where electric infrastructure is outdated or otherwise unable to meet increased charging demand.

Why should the industry choose between BEVs and FCEVs when it can have both?

However, faster refuelling doesn’t mean easier. Hydrogen fueling requires significant investment in production and fuelling facilities, including high-cost compressors and pressure tanks, as well as expensive transportation. This hinders the rapid expansion of infrastructure nationwide.

In contrast, BEV charging infrastructure leverages existing distributed electric grid infrastructure and has a more extensive, continually growing national infrastructure of charging stations. Many owners can charge their BEV at home or, in the case of fleet operators, install charging stations at their depot or warehouse.

Assuming the necessary infrastructure is in place (as in California), the long-range of hydrogen transport can be better suited for medium- and heavy-duty travel such as trucking. Electric vehicles’ more variable range, longer charge time, and layperson-friendly charging process make them ideal for lighter-duty travel such as personal vehicles.

Both have a place on the road

FCEVs and BEVs both use zero-emissions technologies that can play pivotal roles in the clean energy transition. Instead of pitting the two against each other, let’s find ways for them to complement each other in creating a cleaner road.

One solution is for manufacturers to develop a new kind of hybrid vehicle that can run on both energy sources: hydrogen fuel cells for longer distances, and an electric battery for shorter ones. For example, car manufacturer Renaut recently unveiled an electric-hydrogen hybrid concept car.

Another option is to utilise dual fuelling stations that provide the infrastructure to serve both hydrogen and electric trucks, such as the portable microgrid solution recently announced by Kaizen Clean Energy (KCE). Since it’s portable, widespread adoption doesn’t require excessive upfront infrastructure investment by station owners. It also eliminates the cost of hydrogen transportation by generating hydrogen on-site with commonly available methanol, which can be both used for hydrogen fuel and converted to electricity for EV charging. In this way, methanol lowers the overall cost of hydrogen and electric fuelling.

Kaizen Clean Energy and ZincFive are developing an integrated distributed energy solution for EV charging, hydrogen fuelling, and distribution and backup power for the grid and critical assets, including data centres

This microgrid solution can both connect to the grid to supplement available power, and be completely islanded for resiliency during grid outages. As an added safety measure, these stations utilise nickel-zinc batteries, which eliminate the risk of fires due to thermal runaway. The nickel-zinc chemistry also provides high power in a small footprint, allowing the system to fuel on-demand.

By pursuing both hydrogen and electric solutions aggressively and simultaneously, each in the area to which it’s best suited, we can accelerate the transportation sector’s decarbonisation. Let’s create and implement more solutions like these, which help to win the bigger battle against climate change by deploying the full portfolio of clean energy solutions and erasing the false dichotomy in fuel choice.

The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Automotive World Ltd.

Tod Higinbotham is Chief Operating Officer at ZincFive

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