Why Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles Need to Clean Up Their Act

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The release date for the Toyota Mirai, America’s first mass-produced hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, is arriving soon. In fact, the timing may be too fast for scientists who say fuel cells are not yet environmentally friendly for transportation. According to a recent study by European researchers, only renewable sources of hydrogen fuel make these vehicles better than gasoline cars, and the current mix would make them worse than luxury sports cars in most zip codes.

Empa, the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology, conducted a study on the life cycles of fuel cell vehicles versus gasoline cars and electric vehicles. The results, published in Energy & Environmental Science, come to a conclusion we expected on some levels; i.e. that the formula only works when the hydrogen comes from renewable sources. However, their findings are scarier than expected.

According to the researchers, using electricity to generate hydrogen is a total waste of power. Separating it from natural gas (its most common method of production) remains a poor option for powering a fuel cell vehicle as well. Since cars running on gasoline require much less energy to create, the life-cycle emissions are much lower than the fuel cell equivalent, especially in Europe. In fact, Empa researchers found the fuel cell car would have the same energy consumption as a luxury sports car if running on today’s EU power grid. (Insert expletive here.)

Fortunately for early adopters in the United States, Toyota’s hydrogen vehicles will only be sold in California where mandates on renewable energy ensure a cleaner mix. However, only 33% of hydrogen headed to filling stations in the state must come from renewable sources as of today. (The number will go up in the coming years.) As a result, the earliest drivers of the Toyota Mirai may find themselves with a less-than-green vehicle.

Source: Toyota

Source: Toyota

Toyota is not likely to be blindsided by this news. Even with an EPA rating of 67 miles per gallon equivalent, the automaker was prepared to call bullshit on its critics with a video series titled “Fueled by Everything.” In the opening “Fueled by Bullshit,” the eponymous cow dung was converted to fuel and used to operate a Mirai in California. While that might quiet some anxieties in the Golden State for now, the burden of proof remains on this new vehicle type.

With its high fuel economy rating and over 300 miles of range, there will be many green car consumers that find fuel cell vehicles like the Mirai a happy alternative to hybrids and battery electric vehicles, most of which cannot run over 100 miles without a charge. Life cycle assessments by Empa also put EVs ahead of cars running on hydrogen in their study, even those charged on the European grid.

Electric car drivers in California have a much higher mix of renewable energy in the grid when powering EVs, making them the superior choice as far as emissions are concerned, at least when the Mirai makes its debut in 2015. While we knew fuel cell vehicles had a long way to go to become truly green — even in California — this study calls into question their standing even compared to gasoline cars for the foreseeable future.

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