Hydrogen abuse case

After the German automotive industry in particular had proclaimed the coming hydrogen age in mobility in the 1990s, the entire H2 topic fell into a deep slumber for over two decades. At least in the media and in politics, it played virtually no role. Now, however, the German government is presenting its comprehensive „National Hydrogen Strategy“, with which it wants to create „…a coherent framework for action for the future production, transport, use and further use of hydrogen and thus for corresponding innovations and investments“. So far so good, after all – at least in the case of „green”, i.e. regeneratively produced hydrogen – it is an excellent and environmentally friendly storage medium. And so the reactions to the ambitious government plans are correspondingly positive. For the most part, at least, because some critics, especially from the ranks of stock market managers, motoring and business journalists, complain that the programme falls short, since it focuses on industrial applications and the transport of loads and people over long distances, but excludes – at least for the time being – passenger car traffic. And this in spite of the fact that one encounters advertising banners on all channels proclaiming the end of Tesla and the entire battery-electric mobility and equating the purchase of H2 shares with that of a gold donkey. And finally, even the Minister of Economics is photographed sitting in an H2 car when presenting his programme.

Hydrogen Millionaires Megatrend 2020 Hydrogen replaces dirty batteries. Prices go through the roof


And so the usual arguments against the purchase of electric cars, such as the high purchase price, the incomplete charging infrastructure and the short range, have been joined for some time by another, supposedly much more weighty one: that of the – once again – imminent hydrogen age. „I don’t believe in electromobility“ is what the author of these lines hears everywhere, which is by no means new, just the reasoning. When asked what will move us in their place in the future, at least 80 percent of the interviewees predictably answer „hydrogen“. Obviously, some media, politicians and stockbrokers have done a great job with their H2 information or, as some malicious tongues claim, dumbing-down campaign. What remains is uncertainty. „Why should I buy a battery-electric car now, when the fuel cell will prevail in the foreseeable future anyway?“ is the opinion of many consumers.

Hydrogen as an argumentation club

Anyone who has been professionally involved with e-mobility for over 20 years, as I have, has long had to come to terms with the fact that the sense of driving with electricity was fundamentally doubted or even denied. At least until the e-bike boom broke out, the climate debate gained importance and Tesla proved how cool „driving on electricity“ can also be with cars. Now the faith debate is taking on a new, completely different tone. The tenor of the sceptical interjections and dismissive statements is now less to cast doubt on e-mobility in general, but to devalue it in the context of the proven practicality of hydrogen-powered fuel cell technology. To put it in a nutshell: H2 vehicles are being misused as an argumentation club to conceal the despondency and reticence on the subject of battery-electric mobility. In this context, some politicians also like to call for “technology openness“. Or, as we Upper Bavarians say: „look, we’ll see“. And until one day, after decades of research, the only true mobility technology will have crystallised, will we simply continue to use the tried and tested, namely the combustion engine?

To avoid any misunderstandings: in the future, no single drive technology will be the panacea for all mobility problems. Hopefully, much „cleaner“ petrol and diesel engines will continue to play a role for some time to come, battery-electric vehicles will become more and more established and the e-mobile variant with larger fuel cell vehicles will also have its justification. Each technology has its strengths in certain fields of application, while its disadvantages outweigh its strengths in others. And each one must be constantly put to the test and optimised against the background of the ecological challenges. And yes, openness to technology is also appropriate, as long as this buzzword is not used to disguise one’s own inactivity and unwillingness to finally tackle the energy and mobility transition in a consistent manner.

It is not at all unrealistic that electromobility using hydrogen and fuel cells will one day become established. However, it is highly unlikely that it will be used in passenger cars, except perhaps for large, expensive SUVs. Objectively speaking, there is nothing to be said against the use of hydrogen/fuel cell technology. Quite the contrary. And that is where it makes sense and can show its strengths, such as in industrial applications, buses, trains, ships or trucks.

Hydrogen cars suitable for everyday use

We already had the pleasure of testing the hydrogen-powered Hyundai „Nexo“ over a longer period of time. And before that, the battery-electric “Kona Elektro” with a range of over 450 kilometres from the same manufacturer. Both proved to be excellent e-cars, so also the „Nexo“.

Our conclusion: Some car manufacturers now seem to have done their development homework to a large extent after a long run-up and with all the need for optimisation that still exists. Others, such as Volkswagen, prefer to focus on „battery-powered“ vehicles and concentrate their innovation and development capacities on battery-electric vehicles.

It only seems strange that this „old hat“ hydrogen car is now being hyped up by many as a panacea and abused as an alibi to discredit or slow down battery-electric mobility. And this is especially the case with people who have either missed it or who are deliberately ignoring where the clean H2 world is currently still or generally stuck. Such as:

The (still) high price of the vehicles

For a little over 100 kilometres more range, which the Nexo offers compared to the slightly smaller battery-electric Kona, you have to pay up to 30 thousand euros more, depending on the model. The Nexo, which costs from 69,000 euros, is still comparatively cheap. The Toyota Mirai is not available for less than 76,600, and the Mercedes F-Cell can be leased for 800 euros a month. However, prices could move downwards if there is an alternative to the expensive platinum coating of the „on-board power plant“ or if economies of scale are achieved through higher unit numbers.

The comparatively high price of fuel

The fuel cost 9.50 euros per kilogramme at the filling stations we visited. The colleagues of the magazine “Vision Mobility” came up with a total consumption of 9.64 kilogrammes of hydrogen for 845 kilometres driven at a decent pace. This corresponds to a diesel equivalent of 76.95 litres and a diesel consumption of 9.1 litres/100 km. It should also be taken into account that this is not a real price for the hydrogen, but a subsidised one.

Expensive infrastructure

Currently, each newly installed H2 filling station costs at least 1 million euros. This is an obstacle that has already become apparent in the implementation of the refuelling infrastructure for natural gas vehicles, which has been dragging on for what feels like an eternity, and which often requires long and costly connections to the nearest gas pipeline, especially at motorway locations. Incidentally, the 1000 CNG filling stations that have been available so far are still not considered sufficient to finally help natural gas vehicles achieve a breakthrough. In Germany, the current target is 400 H2 filling stations, but in the medium term there should also be at least 1000 to promote H2 mobility with passenger cars. It remains to be seen whether future governments will install a new network of filling stations in parallel with the development of the charging infrastructure in view of Corona’s tight finances. It is more likely that H2 filling stations will be installed wherever fleets are maintained, e.g. in public bus transport or on the premises of haulage companies.

The shrinking reach advantage

With each new generation of batteries, the gap in range between battery electric (BEEV) and H2 vehicles has been visibly narrowed in recent years. It would be technically quite possible to achieve the ranges of approx. 1000 km originally predicted by the hydrogen industry. In practice, however, the tanks have become much more compact for reasons of weight and space, and the real H2 ranges are likely to settle between 500 and 700 kilometres. What some BEEVs already achieve today and many more will achieve in the future.

The melting refuelling time advantage

Even if some predicted charging capacities of 350 or even 500 KW and correspondingly short charging times in the single-digit minute range can be met with scepticism, the current lead of hydrogen technology will be reduced in any case. Even if the refuelling of H2 cars should function more smoothly in the future. At the moment it often happens – some even think it is the rule – that „spontaneous refuelling“ of hydrogen, i.e. without having to put up with longer waiting times, is hardly possible. This is the case when one or more H2 cars have already consumed the noble substance on the same day. Until sufficient refuelling pressure is built up again, several minutes, sometimes even hours, can pass. In any case, we were often put off and asked to try again in two hours. No problem, just drive on to one of the 87 H2 refuelling stations in Germany…

…Hydrogen mobility does just that: it is electromobility with the usual convenience – refuelling in three minutes…

Source: www.h2.live

The environmental balance of the fuel

Those who rightly point to the ecological problems in the extraction of raw materials and the production of vehicle batteries should not, however, in the same breath spread the fairy tale of the absolutely clean H2 technology. The extraction of pure hydrogen requires a very high input of energy. To put it in a nutshell: we need a lot of electricity to produce H2 so that we can then produce traction current again via fuel cells. Experts say that only a maximum of 40 percent of the energy used is utilised. To get the energy of one litre of H2 fuel, almost three of them have to be used. Hydrogen therefore only becomes an ecological fuel if it is first produced by regenerative energies such as wind or water power via electrolysis.

At present, however, over 90% of the hydrogen suitable for mobility is still produced from natural gas. This is referred to as „grey“ hydrogen. However, only the use of „green“ hydrogen, produced with the help of surplus electricity from renewable sources, is truly climate-friendly. But if its share in the energy mix does not increase significantly in the future, the vision of an environmentally friendly hydrogen economy will prove to be an illusion.

Straight into the next dependency

At night or at other times when there are no consumers for wind power, for example, or when we would have to export it cheaply, we often simply let the rotors rest. In the future, we could actually keep them turning to produce H2 with green surplus electricity. A simple idea and easily realisable. But this production volume would not be nearly enough to supply cars on a large scale. And before arguing with the local population about every single new wind turbine, the obvious thing to do is to move to countries with plenty of wind and sun. At least that’s what the German government thinks and is busy forging H2 alliances with West African countries or Morocco. And at some point, thank God, we will no longer be dependent on Mr Putin, but on many – „guaranteed“ crisis-proof – African countries. Hopefully they won’t one day get the idea that they themselves need more electricity to build up their own economies. Until that day comes, however, we will continue to push ahead with the alliance plans at great expense and resolutely reject references to the once so miserably failed „Desertec“ project…


Yes, hydrogen technology has a future and it certainly has potential. However, it remains doubtful whether governments are willing to invest in an expensive H2 refuelling infrastructure for cars in parallel with the urgently needed expansion of the public charging infrastructure and the even more necessary promotion of charging facilities in private households and at employers.

Predestined areas of application are predominantly where fleets are used that can be supplied with fuel, especially on company premises. In freight transport, public transport buses or even in trains and boats. And wherever H2 technology really makes sense, it should be powered by „green“ hydrogen. Even if the energy input is considerable, it certainly makes more sense to let wind turbines continue to rotate at the end of their operating time or at night for H2 production than to shut them down. Surplus energy, whether generated by solar or wind power, can thus certainly be used for hydrogen mobility. But it can also be „stored“ in large or many small storage facilities, such as millions of e-cars. So there is no such thing as the one and only way. But I doubt that H2 technology will become established on a large scale in passenger car transport. Not only because there would be far too little of the precious resource of sustainably produced hydrogen available.

What must drive everyone who is willing and able to think in a differentiated way about the mobility of the future up the wall are the recently so popular attempts to play off H2-powered vehicles against battery-electric ones. It has become fashionable to use a technology that is good in itself as an argumentative “deathblow” against battery-powered e-mobility. Hydrogen technology, with all the need for optimisation that still exists, really does not need or deserve this abuse. Both electric vehicle systems will soon gain in importance and become widespread. One on a large scale, the other in predestined fields of application.

Peter Grett

Picture credits:
Pictures 1 and 2 Toyota, picture 3 Hyundai

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