What will be better than electric cars

Electric car vs. hydrogen car: a comparison

In the general e-car boom, ÖVP boss Sebastian Kurz's announcement last week that he wanted to make Austria the “number one hydrogen nation” with regard to climate protection goals came as a surprise. Because while elsewhere, such as Japan, there is a strong focus on technology, in this country the electric car seems to have already made the race against the hydrogen car. Exactly seven hydrogen cars were registered in Austria in the entire previous year - in contrast to around 4,000 e-cars in the first half of 2019 alone. So what speaks for - and what against - still scratching the curve towards hydrogen?

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It takes a fundamental decision

Indeed, a decision of principle is required on this issue. Ultimately, a corresponding comprehensive (fast) charging or tank infrastructure is required. It would not be efficient to set up both in parallel, although it should be noted that two (albeit relatively similar) technologies have already existed side by side with gasoline and diesel.

And one more small note on the side: The said infrastructure should not stop at national borders - therefore, on the question of electric cars vs. hydrogen cars, (at least) a European agreement would be indicated.


Electric car vs. hydrogen car: 4 big questions

But back to the question. Both technologies can still be significantly expanded - so no final judgment can be made. In the current development status, however, there are very clear pluses and minuses in some points. We have picked out four big questions.

1. Which technology is “greener”?

Both electric cars and hydrogen cars run on an electric motor. While the electricity is “filled up” in the electric car and stored in the battery, in the hydrogen car it is generated locally by means of a fuel cell - water vapor is produced as “exhaust gas”. Hydrogen can be obtained from various raw materials. Production from natural gas, which uses a fossil fuel, is currently still common. Generation by electrolysis, i.e. the splitting of water into hydrogen and oxygen, is potentially more environmentally friendly. This is now clearly the focus of development. This requires (a lot) of electricity, which means that the hydrogen is used to store electricity in the figurative sense.

“Well to wheel” efficiency: electric car clearly ahead of hydrogen car

The first thing that can be said for both technologies is that they are only as green as the electricity that is used. A list of the VCÖ (Verkehrsclub Österreich) clearly shows that the energy loss in the production and storage of hydrogen, as well as in converting it back to electricity, is comparatively immense. While electric cars make an average of 73 percent of the electricity originally generated after losses on the way to the road (“well to wheel” efficiency), hydrogen cars currently only have 22 percent left.

The crux of the matter: battery production and disposal

So is the electric car the clear winner in this category? Unfortunately, the matter is not that simple, because there is another sticking point: the built-in batteries. Hydrogen cars also need a battery as temporary storage, but of course an e-car requires significantly more power and thus more energy to manufacture. According to a current study commissioned by the Swedish Ministry of the Environment, the production of the (lithium-ion) battery of a Tesla Model S (the luxury model) currently generates 17.5 tonnes of CO2. Accordingly, the car only has a positive CO2 balance compared to a vehicle with a classic combustion engine after several years of use - the results of the study are, however, controversial. In addition, the chemicals used in the battery can also potentially become problematic contaminated sites when it comes to disposal later.

2. Which technology is more practical to use?

With this question, the advantage is currently still clearly on the side of the hydrogen car. Because hydrogen can simply be refueled, as one is used to with gasoline and diesel - the process is completed within a few minutes. The charging process for electric cars normally takes several hours. Even with improved technologies such as Tesla's Supercharger (which does not work with third-party models), a “typical charging stop” in the best expansion stage to date still requires 15 minutes. It is true that intensive work is being carried out on faster charging technologies and options such as replacing batteries are being improved. When and whether the electric car will be able to keep up with this is currently still unclear.

3. Which technology can be used to achieve the greater range?

This question can no longer be answered as clearly as it was a few years ago. Indeed, ranges of over 500 kilometers are standard for hydrogen cars and maximum ranges of 800 kilometers are given for individual models, while some common e-car models still come in under 300 kilometers. But there has been a massive increase lately. The following rule of thumb applies: the more expensive the electric car, the longer it can travel on one battery charge. The Tesla Model S mentioned above can travel more than 500 kilometers, depending on the version.

Petrol station network: 5 vs. 3000

A second (not technological) component is of course relevant to this question: the petrol station network. There are just five hydrogen filling stations in Austria - all operated by OMV. In contrast, there are more than 3000 charging stations - albeit with different quality and charging times. There is also the option of charging the electric car (very time-consuming) from the household socket.

4. What about the costs?

The following applies to both electric and hydrogen cars when purchasing: They cannot yet keep up with combustion engines. Hydrogen vehicles are (new) not available for less than 50,000 euros. In the case of electric cars, there are significantly cheaper models from around 20,000 euros - but with a correspondingly short range and small vehicle size. The Tesla Model S mentioned several times costs 80,000 euros or more, depending on the version.

The clear winner in terms of running costs

In terms of running costs, hydrogen cars play in a category with combustion engines. A kilogram of hydrogen costs between 9 and 9.50 euros - the current models can travel around 100 kilometers. With the e-car you can usually get away with it more cheaply. Even with models with a comparatively high consumption of around 20 kilowatt hours per 100 kilometers (with smaller common types it is 15), 30 cents per kilowatt hour comes to 6 euros per 100 kilometers. Household electricity currently costs between 15 and 21 cents - so it can be much cheaper.

Conclusion

The hydrogen car comes much closer to the standards that one is used to from cars with internal combustion engines. If there were a corresponding network of filling stations, the electric car would, at least for the moment, clearly stand out in terms of comfort. However, this comes off significantly better in the (politically) important point of power consumption and thus also with the running costs. The developments in the catching-up process in the other points dealt with are promising. And the infrastructure is already significantly better developed. This last point in particular is likely to be a decisive reason why e-cars, as discussed in the first paragraph, are statistically clearly ahead in Austria.


What is the political behind the discussion?

So why should Austria “switch” to hydrogen? Behind the advance of the ÖVP is - how could it be otherwise - a political issue. While the plan presented by Kurz was received negatively by Greenpeace, for example, the Federation of Industrialists assessed it as "very positive". There traditionally concerns that the phase-out from fossil fuels could have a negative impact on the location. The switch to hydrogen should be seen as a lesser evil here. This applies in particular to Austria's top-selling group, OMV. Just on Monday after the ÖVP announcement, he presented joint plans with the energy giant Verbund to start large-scale electrolysis-based hydrogen production. In order to maintain one of the core business areas - the filling station network - the establishment of a nationwide hydrogen filling station network by 2025 would be a possible salvation from the expected crisis.