Hydrogen fuel cell and battery electric vehicles have one very important thing in common: they’re both emissions-free sort of.
While it’s true that hydrogen fuel cell and battery electric vehicles do not generate any emissions in themselves, their upstream emissions cannot be ignored. Really, it all depends on where the power grid gets its electricity from. After all, if an electric vehicle, such as the Nissan Leaf, is rated at 29 kWh/100 mi (kilowatt-hours per 100 miles), then that 29 kWh needs to come from somewhere. Drive a Nissan Leaf in Washington DC, for example, which is 98% coal-powered, and you’d be better off driving a Scion iQ if you want to decrease carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. On the other hand, drive the same Nissan Leaf in Vermont, which is 94% renewable powered, and CO2 emissions barely register.
Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, such as the upcoming Toyota FCV, suffer from the same problem. I still have to crunch the numbers, but it stands to reason that both current sources of hydrogen fuel are emissions-generators. Generate hydrogen fuel via electrolysis, and you run into exactly the same upstream CO2 emissions as battery electric vehicles. Generate hydrogen fuel via natural gas reformation, then there’s another whole emissions-nightmare, from reformation to fracking. Clearly, for a clean hydrogen fuel cell future, we need something better.
Solar powered electrolysis might be cleanest, but it’s also ridiculously inefficient. Might the synthetic leaf prove to be an efficient and emissions-free alternative for hydrogen fuel production? Researchers are working to make this a viable future fuel source, and the Department of Energy (DOE) has just approved a $20 million round of funding to make it happen. The DOE goal, ultimately, is to produce hydrogen fuel with minimal CO2 emissions, and at a price around $4 gallon of gasoline equivalent. With the coming of the hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, the coming infrastructure needs to be both abundant and low-emissions. Otherwise, what’s the point?
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