Hydrogen fuel cells vs electric batteries (Is the fight already over?)

  • Published on February 12th, 2020

Most people in the renewable energy ecosphere know that battery electric mobility is ahead of hydrogen fuel cell mobility. Many people are also aware that progress in battery technology is going faster than in hydrogen fuel cell technology.

hydrogen fuel cell fueling station


In sports it is an axiom that you can’t overtake someone who is ahead of you and going faster. Only an accident or stupidity can cause that. The story of the turtle and the hare is famous for that.

In the case of hydrogen fuel cell (HFC) technology in transport versus the electrification of transport using lithium-ion batteries, it is a group of hydrogen-fueled turtles trying to catch up with a peloton of battery electric hares, all competing for the leadership position.

It is a bit endearing that those turtles still think they can catch up to the hares. It is normal that some companies are still looking to find a market for the HFC technology they developed over recent decades. It is not okay, however, for government agencies to keep providing community-financed funding for HFC technology.

We know that with a new field like renewable transport, it is good to let a hundred flowers bloom. To start with an “all of the above” approach makes sense in that case — don’t have the government pick winners and losers.

When the market and technology are clear which alternatives are viable and which are not, the government should cut the losers loose. No more subsidies for hydrogen in transportation are warranted.

On a recent seminar about charging, it was mentioned that in meetings with the utility and grid planners, they only laughed when the topic of charging 100% of the vehicle fleet was brought up. The idea was that when all the vehicles are trying to charge at the same time (which won’t happen), there is no way the current production, infrastructure, and legal framework can survive. If that fleet is hydrogen powered, the electricity requirement is three fold.

A recent electrive article was about a new hydrogen initiative to make the route from Rotterdam to Genoa carbon-free by powering all vehicles with hydrogen fuel cells. That route is known as the Rhine-Alps Corridor. The part from the Rhine through the Alps to Genoa is by CO2-free electric trains and soon-to-be-CO2-free electric semi trucks.

If the initiative was just for the Rhine part, it would have been less detached from reality. For the shipping on the Rhine, there was a good case to be made for HFC-powered cargo ships a few years ago — before some enterprising shipbuilders and ship owners started experimenting with battery electric. Contrary to popular wisdom, it worked.

Now the ambition of the new consortium is to build a number of filling stations and hydrogen factories along the Rhine and have about 10–15 ships in operation by 2024. The number of ships should grow to 50–100 by 2030.

The Rhine is a very big transport road. It is the main cargo artery for Western Europe. There are thousands of ships traveling that river up and down. To have about 1% using HFC by 2030 does not really make a difference. It indicates clearly a lack of ambition to have an impact. This is probably because they know the current limitations of HFC technology.

What is going to make a difference is more of the battery-powered ships of the type that are actually carrying cargo at the moment. In 2018, there were more battery powered ships in operation than the HFC consortium hopes to have in 2024. More are being built. That brings us back to the beginning of this story. Batteries have a 6 year lead on Rhine shipping over hydrogen fuel cells. The battery technology is ready now, not in half a decade.

Hydrogen lost this race before it even began.

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(Originally appeared at our sister-site, Cleantechnica.)

About the Author

Grumpy old man. The best thing I did with my life was raising two kids. Only finished primary education, but when you don’t go to school, you have lots of time to read. I switched from accounting to software development and ended my career as system integrator and architect. My 2007 boss got two electric Lotus Elise cars to show policymakers the future direction of energy and transportation. And I have been looking to replace my diesel cars with electric vehicles ever since.