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The real mainstream: Hydrogen or electric vehicles?

Chandra Bhushan
Hydrogen vehicle, electric vehicle, Delhi NCR, Niti Aayog, infrastructure 

Exasperated with the status of air pollution in the region, the Supreme Court recently directed the Union government to explore the feasibsility of using hydrogen technologies as a permanent solution to the air pollution in Delhi-NCR and other parts of North India. In the past also, the Supreme Court has shown interest in getting hydrogen-fueled buses on NCR roads. The question is: Are hydrogen vehicles the best solution to clean the air of Delhi-NCR?

Worldwide, there is a race between hydrogen and electric vehicles (EVs) to capture the market of the zero-emission vehicles. While China and the US have put their money behind electric cars, Japan and Korea are betting big on hydrogen. Currently, EVs have taken the lead, with millions of electric cars and two-wheelers already on the roads. This year alone, companies across the world are going to unveil at least one hundred models of electric cars and two-wheelers. But, the Japanese companies are investing heavily in hydrogen technology, and lobbying across the world (including with Niti Aayog) to push for hydrogen mobility. Should India be promoting hydrogen vehicles?

Fundamentally, a hydrogen vehicle (HV) is also an EV; it runs on a motor powered by electricity. What makes it different from an EV is the source of electricity. While EVs have a big battery bank to store electricity, HVs have a small battery continuously charged from an onboard fuel cell. This fuel cell produces power from the hydrogen gas stored in the vehicle tank.

Both EVs and HVs have zero-emissions from the tail-pipe, and hence, both will significantly improve local air quality. HVs have the significant advantage of faster refuelling. Like a petrol vehicle, it takes a few minutes to refill the hydrogen tank. EVs, on the other hand, require hours to charge their batteries. Even the most expensive Tesla car needs at least an hour to charge. But, this is where the advantage of HVs ends.

HVs have a significant disadvantage of cost, efficiency, and emissions as compared to EVs. Let us understand this in a little more detail.
Vehicle technologies are evaluated on the basis of their energy consumption, efficiency, and emissions performance in two separate areas: Well-To-Tank (WTT), and Tank-To-Wheel (TTW) phases. WTT refers to the efficiency in delivering the fuel from the oil/gas well to the vehicle tank. TTW evaluates the efficiency of the vehicles themselves. The Well-to-Wheel (WTW) efficiency combines these two components, and is the universally accepted measure for comparing different technologies.

Currently, both electricity and hydrogen are produced from fossil fuels. Most hydrogen is produced by natural gas, while power is produced by burning coal and natural gas. Studies done in India indicate that with the current fuel mix, HVs have a slightly lower efficiency than EVs.

The efficiency during the WTT phase of EVs is low compared to that of HVs because the efficiency of coal power plants is about 30%, and the transmission and distribution losses are above 20%. But, EVs outperform HVs on vehicle performance. EVs lose about 10-15% of their energy in battery and motors while HVs lose 45-50% because of high losses in the conversion of hydrogen to electricity. Overall, the WTW efficiency of a typical electric car in India is about 21% compared to 19% of a similar hydrogen car. As the percentage of electricity produced from coal plants reduces and more and more power is produced from renewable sources, the WTW efficiency of EVs will keep outpacing the HVs.

In a climate constrained world, both hydrogen and electricity will have to be produced from renewables and other zero-carbon energy technologies like hydropower, nuclear, and biomass. Hydrogen will be produced by water electrolysis (a process in which electricity is used to break the water molecule into hydrogen and oxygen). In a zero-carbon electricity world, it will make no sense to have HVs. HVs would first use electricity to make hydrogen, and then, hydrogen in a fuel cell to produce electricity. EVs, on the other hand, can use the energy from the grid straight away. That is why in the future, EVs will be at least two to three times more efficient than HVs.

But, perhaps the biggest problem is the creation of separate infrastructure for hydrogen. An EV can be charged at home, or at a commercial charging station, with minor changes in the existing electricity infrastructure. For HVs, we will have to create a brand new, expensive infrastructure to produce, transport, compress, store, and then dispense hydrogen from a hydrogen pumping station. The cost of infrastructure required for EVs is minuscule compared to that of setting-up the hydrogen infrastructure. The question we need to ask is why do we need a new infrastructure to run our cars when an existing one is already available for use?

While I respect the sentiments of the honourable court, I can vouch that HVs will not make any dent in the air pollution levels of Delhi-NCR in the near future. The reason is simple: it will take time, and massive amounts of money to set up the hydrogen infrastructure required for a large-scale deployment of HVs. But, we can get EVs on the road faster, cheaper, and in large numbers. It, therefore, makes senses to push for a consistent policy that leads to quick large-scale deployment of EVs.

Author is CEO, iFOREST
Twitter: @Bh_Chandra. Views are personal