Clay Maynard: Fuel cell vehicles could be the better bet
Our government has been telling us for the past few years that the future for automobiles is electric — and in part, that is probably true. The real question is: Where will electric vehicles (EVs) get their electricity?
Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, appointed by President Barack Obama, is betting that plug-in battery-powered EVs will get their electricity from charging stations at home, work and on the road. The problem is that some EVs are not selling as well as predicted partly because of high prices (albeit subsidized), limited range, long charging times, and too few charging stations.
Long before Chu's electric car push, the United States was headed toward energy sustainability and independence based on hydrogen fuel-cell research. President George W. Bush in his 2003 State of the Union Address said, "With a new national commitment, our scientists and engineers will overcome obstacles … so that the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen, and pollution-free."
On Earth Day, April 22, 2006, during a visit to the California Fuel Cell Partnership in West Sacramento, Bush announced, "I strongly believe hydrogen is the fuel of the future. That's what we're talking about. … It has the potential — a vast potential to dramatically cut our dependence on foreign oil. Hydrogen is clean, hydrogen is domestically produced, and hydrogen is the way of the future."
A fuel cell is like a battery that doesn't need to be charged, but instead uses hydrogen to create clean energy. One molecule of water has two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, making hydrogen the most abundant fuel (energy carrier) on earth.
On May 11, 2009, Obama cut funding for fuel cell development in favor of EVs. This was a blow to American fuel cell competition and potential US patents. See www.nytimes.com /2009/05/08/science/earth/08 energy.html?_r=0.
According to a 2010 Consumers Electronics Association survey, 71 percent of the EV respondents had "range anxiety," or the fear of running out of charge on the road. Now, some American EVs are not selling as well as hoped, and their US governmen-subsidized ($249 million) lithium-ion EV battery supplier, A123 Systems, has filed for bankruptcy.
In the meantime, foreign companies have continued fuel cell research with amazing results.
A few of the world's biggest car companies such as Nissan, Honda, Toyota, Hyundai and Mercedes-Benz — no US automakers — have announced their 2015 launch of fuel cell vehicles (FCVs). See www.usatoday .com/story/driveon/2012/10/02/hy drogen-fuel-cells-2015/1605229.
California was the first state to designate hydrogen as a transportation fuel, and West Sacramento became home for the California Fuel Cell Partnership. The partnership brings together automakers, energy suppliers, technology people, and government for the purpose of demonstrating and commercializing fuel cell transportation in California.
Their plan is explained in the document "A California Road Map." It describes a timeline for the commercialization of hydrogen FCVs and the initial deployment of 68 hydrogen stations in California to support 20,000 FCVs by 2016. See http:// cafcp.org/roadmap.
The partnership believes that FCVs will be as practical and convenient as gasoline cars are today, and will be the future of transportation throughout the world tomorrow. When asked if FCVs would replace EVs, they said there are uses for both. FCVs could be used for local and long-distance trips, while EVs would make convenient second-cars for local transportation. Actually, Del Webb's Lincoln Hills senior community already uses EVs as secondary vehicles for local trips. They are called golf carts.
The price of FCVs and hydrogen is expected to come down with increased production, while the cost to own an EV could increase depending on the future availability and cost of electricity from the grid and lithium to make batteries.
A kilogram of hydrogen currently costs about twice as much as a gallon of gasoline, but would go about 60 to 70 miles. Therefore, the cost per mile for hydrogen would be about the same as for a gasoline-powered mid-sized car.
The best part of this story was the demonstration drive. It is difficult to describe other than to say it was better than driving a gasoline-powered car. The first thing you notice is that there is no starter when you turn the key, and the car is very quiet, very responsive and very likeable. It would seem that FCVs could be the ideal replacement for gasoline vehicles, and some large foreign automakers are betting on it. Perhaps Energy Secretary Chu should reconsider his bet.
Just a reminder: If you hear the engine start when you turn the key, you're in the wrong car.
Clay Maynard of Yuba City is a technology consultant and chairman of the San Francisco Bay Area Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Vehicular Technology. Email him at ConsumerTechTalk@comcast.net.