Despite many efforts, fuel cell tech is just not catching on in cars, and for good reason.

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Posted on EVANNEX on November 24, 2020 by Charles Morris

There’s a puzzling power struggle going on in Germany. The federal government, cheered on by various industry trade groups, has grand plans to build a hydrogen fuel cell ecosystem. However, two of the country’s three major automakers have stated in no uncertain terms that hydrogen fuel cells are unsuitable for passenger vehicles, and that battery-electric vehicles are the way forward (a conclusion that Tesla’s founders reached back in 2003, and that Elon Musk has reiterated in colorful terms many times).

Above: BMW's i Hydrogen Fuel Cell X5 (FlickrMarco Verch / CC by 2.0

In March, Volkswagen explained in detail why it decided that batteries are a superior solution for passenger cars. Daimler has also ended its development of fuel cell-powered passenger cars, although it continues to develop fuel cells for applications in heavy-duty vehicles. (BMW continues to research fuel cells, as do Hyundai and Toyota. Honda and GM are in the battery-electric camp.)

As Joe Miller writes in a recent article in the Financial Times, “even as [Germany’s] top carmakers reverse away from fuel cell car development, chancellor Angela Merkel’s government is intent on turning the country into a hydrogen superpower.”

A National Hydrogen Strategy, which allocates €9 billion to advance hydrogen technology, was announced in July. Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer said the policy would give the country’s auto industry “fresh prospects for the future and help secure a great many jobs.”

The German Association of the Automotive Industry (VDA), an auto industry lobbying group, recently came out in favor of major government subsidies for hydrogen. In response to a proposal from Germany’s Federal Ministry of the Environment (BMU) to establish a market in renewable energy credits, the VDA said it wants to see a much higher usage of hydrogen than envisaged by the BMU, and that it foresees the use of hydrogen “in all transport applications.”

However, the VDA’s biggest member, Volkswagen, firmly rebutted the VDA’s stance, and called the use of hydrogen in cars and trucks “nonsensical.” “The so-called potential of these alternatives for liquid fuels is...massively overestimated,” said VW.

Above: BEV efficiency compared with hydrogen fuel cells (Source: Transport & Environment / Hat tip: Zachary Shahan at CleanTechnica)

The Financial Times reports that another lobbying group, VDMA, which represents Germany’s mechanical engineering sector, is also a big fan of hydrogen. “We are still in pole position globally here and can map the entire value chain [for hydrogen] in Germany and Europe,” said VDMA Deputy General Manager Hartmut Rauen, adding that the organization expects passenger cars to be the largest part of the market. A study commissioned by the VDMA suggested that global sales of hydrogen-powered vehicles would surpass 10 million by 2040.

Other auto industry groups have rejected the hydrogen hopes. “In passenger cars and light commercial vehicles, hydrogen cars are economic and ecological nonsense,” says Kurt Sigl, of the Federal Association for eMobility (BEM), whose members include some of Germany’s largest auto parts suppliers. “In passenger transport, battery-electric cars remain the right technology for the road to CO2-free mobility.”

Some auto execs have pointed out that funds for the conversion of auto plants to build zero-emission vehicles are not unlimited, and that it is only sensible to concentrate on the more efficient technology. “At the end we have to focus,” Markus Schäfer, Chief Operating Officer of Mercedes-Benz, said at an industry conference in July. “What is the most efficient way to get green electricity to power a drivetrain?”

“A hydrogen car requires energy from three or four times as many windmills than an electric vehicle needs for the same distance, making it three to four times as expensive to travel the same distance,” VW Group head Herbert Diess said at the same conference. “That’s why more and more manufacturers are moving away from fuel cells.” 

The main arguments in favor of fuel cell cars have always been greater range and shorter refueling times. Now that Tesla is building EVs with 400 miles of range, and DC fast charging stations are proliferating both in the US and Europe, that argument (which always relied on the assumption that battery technology would be slow to improve) rings hollow.

“In battery technologies, we see advancements that give them a longer life, which allows them to be recharged faster,” Ferdinand Dudenhöffer, Director of the Center for Automotive Research in Duisburg, told the FT. He also predicts that green hydrogen (which is produced using renewable energy, as opposed to blue or grey hydrogen, which is produced from natural gas, and is estimated to make up 96% of today’s supply) will remain too expensive to compete with ever-shrinking battery costs.

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Written by: Charles Morris