Once upon a time, some serious people used to believe that hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (HFCVs) might have a snowball’s chance in hell of being a practical and affordable climate strategy in our lifetime.  Those very sincere people were used by the car companies and Bush Administration as part of a strategy to oppose or delay the introduction of more viable alternative fuel strategies, in particular electric cars — see, for instance, the movie “Who killed the electric car?

That isn’t to say pure EVs were slam dunks as successful mass-market consumer vehicles, particularly with the technology of the 1980s and even 1990s.  HFCVs, however, required multiple technological (and other) miracles to succeed and every plausible competitor, including EVs, to fail first (see “Hydrogen fuel cell cars are a dead end from a technological, practical, and climate perspective“ and “The car of the perpetual future” — The Economist agrees with Climate Progress on hydrogen“).  That is but one reason the absurdly expensive infrastructure will never be built — nor has any independent group ever proposed a plausible scenario under which the infrastructure would be built.  And that’s the fundamental hydrogen cars will not be practical or a cost-effective climate strategy in your lifetime.

Under the leadership of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, California briefly flirted with a serious investment in hydrogen cars and infrastructure — the Hydrogen Highway.  A driving force for that alliterative but ill-fated effort was Terry Tamminen, who “headed California’s Environmental Protection Agency and was Cabinet Secretary and Chief Policy Advisor” to Schwarzenegger, who is now “the Cullman Senior Fellow for Climate Change and Director of the Climate Policy Program at the New America Foundation” and author of a recent but outdated attack, “The Myth of Battery Cars” debunked below.

The California legislature in particular sped away from the Hydrogen Highway effort once it became clear that both the fueling station and the cars were insanely expensive and not terribly practical (see “California Hydrogen Highway R.I.P.“)

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Today, with rapidly advancing battery and related technology, we know that pure EVs and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles are a core climate solution since electric drives are more efficient, easily powered by carbon-free energy and indeed far cheaper to operate per mile than gasoline (or hydrogen), even when running on renewable power. And they are the key alt-fuel strategy needed to deal with the energy/economic security threat of rising dependence on imported oil and the inevitably grim impacts of peak oil (see “Why electricity is the only alternative fuel that can lead to energy independence“).  That is why pretty much every car company in the world will be introducing one or more models of PHEVs or EVs in the next 2 to 4 years, but we still don’t have a single commercial HFCV anywhere near production (see L.A. Times: “Hydrogen fuel-cell technology won’t work in cars.” Duh.).

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In particular, a renewable-energy-based hydrogen fueling system capable of handling even half the cars and light trucks on the road would cost many hundreds of billions of dollars.  And it would have a cost of avoided carbon dioxide of more than $600 a metric ton, which is more than a factor of ten higher than most other strategies being considered today.  Also, the total well-to-wheels efficiency with which a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle might utilize renewable electricity is roughly 20% (although that number could rise to 25% or a little higher with the kind of multiple technology breakthroughs required to enable a hydrogen economy).  The well-to-wheels efficiency of charging an onboard battery and then discharging it to run an electric motor in a PHEV or EV, however, is 80% (and could be higher in the future)—four times more efficient than current hydrogen fuel cell vehicle pathways.

If you care about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, vehicle efficiency is certainly the top strategy (along with technologies to minimize or avoid car-based transportation), but EVs and PHEVs are going to be the cornerstone alternative fuel vehicle technology.  That’s why is it so surprising that Tamminen — Director of the Climate Policy Program at the New America Foundation — would attack them.  The rest of this post is a guest debunking by my friend Felix Kramer, founder of Calcars.org and author of previous guest posts such as Everything you could want to know about the plug-in hybrid and electric vehicle announcements at the 2009 Detroit auto show.”

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Rebutting Mr. Tamminen’s Battery Electric Car ‘Myths’
By Felix Kramer

We at The California Cars Initiative (and our colleagues at Plug In America and elsewhere), were surprised to see the strong critique of plug-in vehicles at the website of the influential and usually eminently reasonable New America Foundation. In his posting, “The Myth of Battery Cars” NAF Senior Fellow Terry Tamminen, who serves as its Director of its Climate Policy Program, starts off saying “it’s time to dump the battery
-powered car in the same policy landfill as corn-based ethanol, and he concludes with “battery cars are no more viable at this time for solving our oil addiction on a large-scale basis than corn-based ethanol.”

In between he cites multiple objections and analyses many of which are uniformed or misinformed. His approach is both surprising and not unexpected.

On the surprising side, he knows better. In his years at Environment Now! and then as head of the California Environmental Protection Agency, he saw how the objections to electric vehicles (EVs) gradually fell away, and how plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) emerged as a new solution that provides a practical near-term transition for the automotive fleet. We welcomed him at the launching meeting of Plug In Bay Area in August 2006 http://www.calcars.org/calcars-news/501.html where he endorsed PHEVs as “our immediate future” (in contrast to other longer-term solutions). And in his popular 2006 book, “Lives Per Gallon,” he mentions EVs two dozen times. Recounting the story of the gutting of California’s Zero Emissions (ZEV) Mandate, he cited their “value and practicality.”

On the expected side, while publicly embracing “silver buckshot” — ecumenically pursue all solutions — Tamminen has always seen the future as hydrogen-powered. In California, he succeeded Alan Lloyd as the chief cheerleader for a “Hydrogen Highway” infrastructure, and for a massive skew in government regulations and support for fuel-cell vehicles over plug-ins. Since leaving state government, he’s made the case in Canada and many other countries. Now the vehemence of his article is reflective of his remaining consistent to his vision, even as one-time allies at federal and California elected officials and energy/transportation agencies, and advocates such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Rocky Mountain Institute, have acknowledged that this solution remains a decade away and that we can get there quicker with plug-ins.

To take his points in order:

1. Batteries will always be too heavy; materials are scarce and toxic. This sounds like a comment from before 2006. Batteries are improving steadily in “energy density” and cost — by 7-15% a year, with occasional faster leaps as technologies shift. Automaker and battery makers have concluded that the supposed “lithium shortage” doesn’t exist. Nickel-metal hydride and lithium batteries are approved for landfill (not toxic) and can be recycled. The battery and motor of an EV is not always heavier than the larger engine and gas tank while you benefit from up to four times greater efficiency of an electric motor over and internal combustion engine.

2. We’ll need a giant new infrastructure; charging takes too long; we’ll get overloads and blackouts unless we spend billions of dollars to upgrade the power grid. Plug-in hybrids need no new infrastructure. According to a study from the Pacific National Lab, today’s grid has capacity to recharge 84% of today’s cars if they all plugged at night. This applies to all-electric vehicles charging at night as well, which will be true for most vehicles used as families’ second cars. Price signals will disincentivize daytime charging on late summer afternoons when the grid is at capacity. And the Tesla Roadster’s high-power charger takes under four, not eight hours to recharge http://www.teslamotors.com/learn_more/faqs.php .

3. Range matters: yes, most average commutes are 30-40 miles/day, but cars need to be able to drive 300 miles between refills. And people who live in apartments don’t have access to a charger. PHEVS l have that range by definition: when the battery is depleted the engine powers the car for hundreds of miles. The forthcoming Chevy Volt 40-mile electric range matches the drive cycle of 78% of vehicles. Tamminen has forgotten his approving quotation (page 152 of Lives Per Gallon) of Ed Begley, Jr. saying “The detractors of electric vehicles are right. Given their limited range, they can only meet the needs of 90 percent of the population.” The first buyers of plug-in cars may be drivers with garages, but the charging infrastructure is starting to arrive: The New York Times Real Estate Section reports that building management company executives say they want to be ready for the coming wave of customer demand to charge in their high-rise apartments: http://www.nytimes.com/ 2009/ 08/ 30/ realestate/ 30posting.html .

4. Only small, light cars can be battery powered. While it is true that until recently, most EVs were small and underpowered, the coming wave of luxury sports cars has proven that EVs can outperform gasoline cars. The vehicles continue to be designed to be as aerodynamic as possible because that makes sense for any vehicle however it’s powered. And Tamminen gets the size issue exactly wrong. The larger vehicles have plenty of room for batteries and, and they’re the gas-gulpers. IF you switch around the usual way of looking at miles per gallon into gallons per mile, this becomes obvious. Our 50 MPG Priuses converted to 100 MPG PHEVS use 1 gallon per hundred miles instead of 2–saving 1 gallon. A 15 MPG truck that becomes a 45 MPG PHEV saves over 5 gallons per hundred miles. That’s why CalCars is now focusing largely on pickups, SUVs and trucks, including conversions of already-built vehicles.

5. Plug-in cars are only as clean as the electricity they run on. This is true, but on today’s national grid (50% coal), an electric mile produces only half the CO2 of a gasoline mile. Tamminen acknowledges this is true for hydrogen as well…not entirely, since some hydrogen (an energy carrier, not a source) comes from reforming natural gas, which is still high in CO2. For hydrogen made electrically from water, multiple studies have shown the original electricity used to make the fuel carries a vehicle three to four times further if it’s put directly into a battery rather than cycled through hydrolysis, fuel transportation, compression, and fuel cells before they get to the electric motor that powers the car. If we ever get hydrogen created directly from the sun and algae, we’ll still be decades away from having a full infrastructure for its use.

6. Plug-in advocates aren’t looking at the cost of the entire infrastructure, just at the end use. Tamminen forgets about the ability of PHEVs and many EVs to come to the market with no new infrastructure. In contrast to this, all the hydrogen vehicles he so strongly supports need a new infrastructure, and it’s largely because of that fact that Energy Secretary Steve Chu and may others have concluded that even if multiple technical and cost issues involving hydrogen and fuel cells are solved, other solutions that are much closer are more deserving of support and incentives. Some day we might have hydrogen providing the range extension fuel for PHEVs, but even cellulosic ethanol is generally seen as arriving far sooner than hydrogen.

The biggest refutation of Tamminen comes from the growing stampede among national governments and automakers to bring plug-in cars to market. They are starting with substantial tax incentives until costs decline with economies of scale — but the gap needed to bridge is in the $5-$10,000 range, one-tenth or less the amount needed to subsidize Tamminen’s preferred hydrogen cars.

Good resources for this subject include: the CalCars FAQ, the page
in Internal Combustion Engine Conversions http://www.calcars.org/ice-conversions.html and the Plug In America FAQ

For more debunking, see Terry Tamminen is “mythtaken.”