There is an unfortunate perception presently with regard to the BEV (battery electric vehicle) being the superior path forward to reduce global emissions instead of the FCEV (fuel cell electric vehicle). This perception can be clearly seen in a company like Volkswagen planning to eventually build only BEVs, and it can also be seen in the paltry amount of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles on the road today.
In California a person presently only has two options for hydrogen fuel cells: the Hyundai Nexo and the Toyota Mirai, and there are no near-term plans to significantly increase the number of FCEV options. However, in order to view the issues surrounding BEVs a person need only look at a country like the United States to see all of the complications that make it clear as to why FCEVs must be the primary path forward for this world.
The drawback to BEVs has been demonstrated admirably this year with the first example beginning on the week of 02.14-02.20.2021. In that week a large portion of Texas went dark and it took well over 24 hours for the power to be completely restored. Natural gas prices spiked by 10,000% at that time, and one major fallout from the event was that Brazos Electric Power Cooperative had to file for bankruptcy after it accumulated $2.1B worth of costs from the issues surrounding that single week. Then in June of 2021 Texans were told that there may not be enough electricity to meet demand due to high temperatures. Now that Texas has officially entered summer it is anyone’s guess as to how Texas will fair where its electric needs are concerned.
Over the past several years California has had to turn off the electricity on a number of occasions in order to prevent fires or to avoid a larger blackout. California has not done enough to try and resolve its issues long-term which is why in June of 2021 it started to issue “Flex Alerts” prior to the start of the astronomical summer. Moreover, at least once already it has borrowed energy using the Western Interconnection. Additionally, California uses a lot of solar panels to provide for its electric needs, but it has been struggling with power usage increasing in the evening when the energy from the panels is waning. While the state has been busy installing batteries they are not all in place, and they are only designed to try and meet the barest of its electrical needs.
Even if California had already finished installing all the batteries and solar panels it has planned to this year, it has a secondary issue beyond the challenge of possibly powering millions of BEVs. Thanks to extreme weather and poor planning most parts of central and northern California are also in the midst of a severe drought. Not only is water essential for humans to simply live, California also uses it for hydroelectric generation. Presently the dam at Lake Oroville is running at 20% of its total electrical generation capacity since there is simply not enough water in the lake to sustain a higher generation rate. (In the western U.S. right now Lake Oroville is not unique in that fact.) Therefore, it makes little sense to try and add the needs of millions of BEVs to the electric grid when that same grid is struggling with declining electrical generation, trying to meet bare minimum electrical needs, and water challenges concurrently.
Another issue in a place like California that makes BEVs the most difficult and inefficient option to implement is water. Over the past 10 years California has been tapping into underground water reserves at an increasing rate, which has only significantly decreased the available water. (This has been in response to frequent droughts leaving its lakes parched.) There is at least one plan being considered right now where ponds are created that in the event of a flood allow water to flow into them, and then from there the water can be pumped underground for use later. However, while the plan is not without merit it would require California to produce even more electricity to power those pumps further making electrical allowances for BEVs even more cumbersome.
Two new members to the gammy electric club this year have been Oregon and Washington. Both states historically have fared far better than most parts of California in the summer due to their location in the higher latitudes. However, like Siberia, California, and many other locations Oregon and Washington are being affected by extreme weather events, and now in extreme heat electric utility customers are finding themselves being cut off from the electrical grid. For those two states their situation is worse because about 50% of the population in each state lacks air conditioning in businesses and homes. This means that those two states have to find ways to generate more electricity to solve just the challenge of more air conditioners being connected to the grid. Consequently, adding hundreds of thousands of BEVs to the problem will only make solutions more complicated and costly.
As bad as the above issues are they are certainly not the only pressing ones. In an armed conflict it is reckless to try and fight a battle on two fronts let alone three fronts, but that is the direction that BEV supporters are trying to go. It is always better to fight a battle on one front because it offers the greatest opportunity of success. History is littered with the graves of the defeated where an enemy found a way to attack from another direction, and consequently that enemy won the battle. Presently no one can reasonably believe that the end is near for fossil fuels, especially in light of the ever-increasing price of a barrel of oil this year. In fact, if anything fossil fuel firms have an advantage over BEVs and FCEVs, since they have an organization like OPEC to negotiate issues and find common ground to establish a path forward in the event of a challenge. However, BEVs and FCEVs lack such organizations. This means right now even before BEVs and FCEVs face off against each other they are already having to battle the incumbent fossil fuel firms, which are highly organized and well supported. In a BEV vs FCEV vs incumbent fight, the odds definitely only favor the incumbent.
There is also the simple matter of resources to consider with regard to BEVs vs FCEVs. There is no logic to building out national charging networks in each country while at the same time also building out hydrogen fueling networks. Not only does doing both significantly increase costs it also creates issues for consumers. In the U.S. a person can buy a Tesla but there is no federal tax credit for doing so, but a person can buy a FCEV and get a tax credit. Normally in such a situation an issue like that might push a majority of people into buying FCEVs, but FCEVs are only sold in California right now. Plus, having multiple supply networks means that it is another aspect that consumers, at least some of them, have to research to see which network might work better. This makes an already stressful buying experience even more cumbersome. Furthermore, presently charging networks are not all equal. For example, Tesla’s have their own network and everyone else can bugger off and use some other network. That may be great for Tesla owners, but it is another point of confusion for buyers of non-Tesla EVs. Perhaps lastly is the issue that charging networks have been struggling for years with profitability and dumping billions into further building out charging networks is something that is dubious at best. By also having competing technology it makes getting to profitability harder, because it reduces the number of consumers who buy into each ecosystem.
Setting aside the monumental challenges of forcing governments to build more electrical generation facilities, setting aside the second major challenge of trying to increase power production in a place like California while it is simultaneously decreasing, BEVs do have their more well known issues that are also not going to be solved overnight. There is no future in which a BEV can drive 500 miles including going up a 7,000ft incline and then only taking 5 minutes to recharge completely. There is also no near-term future wherein a BEV does not have a high chance in a significant accident of not rupturing its battery casing. (There is also the matter of BEVs spontaneously bursting into fire, but we can save that for another day.) Those kinds of well-known issues may be solved in time, but none of them are issues facing FCEVs today. Plus, the two major challenges noted above also do not apply to FCEVs since FCEVs create electricity and water at the same time.
To be sure there are those who will point to home solutions where batteries and solar panels are used to charge a vehicle when the main electrical network goes offline. However, most people are unable to afford a $40K vehicle and then spend another $25K on a backup solution. Even some who can afford it are unable to implement it because they live in a condo or a similar situation where they are unable to install a backup solution. Even if everyone could afford and implement such a backup solution it does not solve any of the other challenges that presently exist with BEVs.
This is not to say that BEVs have no place in the world and should go the way of dinosaurs. For limited use BEVs can be useful such as being used on a Saturday to drive around town and run errands, or for people who may only go out once a week and only drive for 3 miles round trip. However, outside of niche situations BEVs hold no relevance.
In a battle with fossil fuels the technology that has the best chance of success is the technology that requires the least from the end user, which is why FCEVs must be selected as the technology to put fossil fuels to rest. For about 100 years now people have been conditioned that before the gas gauge gets to empty a person must go to a gasoline station, spend five minutes there, and then be off, again. The same is true for FCEVs except they need to go to a hydrogen fueling station vs a gasoline station. Like BEVs, FCEVs do not need oil changes or smog checks, but while that will be seen as a pleasant change for consumers most of them will barely even notice that change. Even for supermajors like Chevron and Shell hydrogen flows very similar to gasoline, except with hydrogen supermajors can refrain from killing their employees and polluting the ocean in Deepwater Horizon-like events. Moreover, there are already gasoline stations in nearly every city and town globally. This means that no new space needs to be allocated to hydrogen fueling stations. Indeed, the hydrogen fueling stations in Coalinga, California and Truckee, California are built on the same sites as Shell gasoline stations. However, many charging stations, especially those for Tesla, have to be built on new ground which makes building charging networks even less practical since they force consumers to have to learn new locations. Another major benefit of hydrogen fueling networks is that they can be serviced by trucks who get their hydrogen from old oil wells. One of the major issues that the petroleum industry likes to ignore is the fact that often oil wells are not properly capped so they continue to spew thousands of tons of methane into the atmosphere. However, with the hydrogen extraction method that a company like Proton Energy uses not only could abandoned oil wells be re-purposed to produce hydrogen but the methane emissions can be eliminated.
This world has some horrific challenges facing it already whether it be cleaning up the mess irresponsible plastic usage has caused, rampant and escalating cybercrime, the pretense that fossil fuel emissions cannot affect the world negatively, and the exploitation of young people whether for labor harvesting coca or child sexual abuse. Therefore, this world cannot afford to pursue BEVs and FCEVs at the same time; and with the numerous considerable challenges that BEVs have, bringing them to mass adoption would be reckless in the extreme. Those who want a sustainable future must ensure that laws outlawing the use of fossil fuels everywhere are passed imminently, hydrogen networks are built quickly globally, and that along the way consumers opinion of FCEVs only becomes positive. If FCEVs fail to replace fossil fuel vehicles or if the time frame in which it happens extends into centuries instead of 30 years, then it will be a catastrophic failure. The time to put the BEV vs FCEV argument to rest is now, and the time to start undoing as much damage as possible is now.
Jesse Lyon, Contributor
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