Listen Up: Are Fuel Cells Better Than Batteries?

Toyota and Honda just announced their new fuel cell cars. Although these cars won’t be on the road for another year, their mere existence raises questions about the long-term future of battery-powered cars. Are battery vehicles just a temporary detour on our road to the Hydrogen Highway, or are fuel cells a last ditch attempt by the fossil fuel industry to greenwash their “well to gas station” infrastructure?

A fuel cell car is pretty much just like a battery-powered EV…except the fact that fuel cells are neither clean, cheap nor efficient. All practical fuel cell cars run on hydrogen. When you combine hydrogen with oxygen you get energy (heat in an engine or electricity in a fuel cell) and water. Pretty clean and elegant, so far.

But we currently get 95% of our hydrogen by “reforming” natural gas. The natural gas is combined with steam (essentially H2O), with the end products being hydrogen gas and CO2. So “reforming” is kind of like a school for bad fossil fuels. Fuel cell cars using reformed natural gas are about 50% efficient, so they release even more CO2 than would be released if we burned natural gas directly. Moreover, fuel cell cars require an entirely new hydrogen infrastructure of reforming plants, hydrogen pipelines, hydrogen filling stations and vehicles.

One good thing about fuel cell vehicles is that they can be “filled up” in a matter of minutes, not the several hours it takes for today’s generation of plug-in EVs. But at the current rate of improvement in cost and performance of batteries, I doubt that fuel cells will ever catch up. For more about the comparisons between fuel cell and battery EVs, please Listen Up to this week’s Energy Show on Renewable Energy World.



About The Energy Show

As energy costs consume more and more of our hard-earned dollars, we as consumers really start to pay attention. But we don't have to resign ourselves to $5/gallon gas prices, $200/month electric bills and $500 heating bills. There are literally hundreds of products, tricks and techniques that we can use to dramatically reduce these costs — very affordably.

The Energy Show on Renewable Energy World is a weekly 20-minute podcast that provides tips and advice to reduce your home and business energy consumption. Every week we'll cover topics that will help cut your energy bill, explain new products and technologies in plain English, and cut through the hype so that you can make smart and cost-effective energy choices. 

About Your Host

Barry Cinnamon is a long-time advocate of renewable energy and is a widely recognized solar power expert. In 2001 he founded Akeena Solar — which grew to become the largest national residential solar installer by the middle of the last decade with over 10,000 rooftop customers coast to coast. He partnered with Westinghouse to create Westinghouse Solar in 2010, and sold the company in 2012.

His pioneering work on reducing costs of rooftop solar power systems include Andalay, the first solar panel with integrated racking, grounding and wiring; the first UL listed AC solar panel; and the first fully “plug and play” AC solar panel. His current efforts are focused on reducing the soft costs for solar power systems, which cause system prices in the U.S. to be double those of Germany.

Although Barry may be known for his outspoken work in the solar industry, he has hands-on experience with a wide range of energy saving technologies.  He's been doing residential energy audits since the punch card days, developed one of the first ground-source heat pumps in the early ‘80s, and always abides by the Laws of Thermodynamics.

Lead image: Green microphone via Shutterstock


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