Hydrogen fuel cells have seen remarkable growth in the past few years. The global fuel cell market was worth $10.48 billion in 2019, and the technology continues to become more affordable and efficient. Many companies have touted hydrogen power as the energy source of the future, but others remain unconvinced.
Fuel cells have become something of an area of debate in the renewable energy community. Some claim they’re a superior alternative to batteries and solar power, while some say they’re not as sustainable as they seem. Here’s a closer look at the environmental pros and cons of fuel cell technology.
Fuel Cell Pros
The most substantial environmental benefit of fuel cells is their emissions, or rather, their lack thereof. Fuel cells emit only water vapor and heat, as they rely on the natural reaction between hydrogen and oxygen. Battery power, in contrast, often relies on electricity from fossil fuels.
Hydrogen and oxygen are abundant, too, so extensive fuel cell use won’t deplete natural resources. Hydrogen power is also more reliable and longer-lasting than other alternatives, as well. Fuel cells will run as long as there is fuel, and this longevity makes them more scalable and affordable, helping businesses go green sooner.
Fuel cells also have an overall efficiency of roughly 64%, compared to just 20% in a standard gas engine. With such high efficiency, they outperform not only fossil fuels but many other renewables.
Climate change is a real and impending problem, and it’s already causing changes to the environment, like a proliferation of health-impacting insects such as ticks and mosquitoes. New technologies can help slow ongoing changes in the atmosphere and to Earth’s biodiversity.
Fuel Cell Cons
As promising as hydrogen power seems, it’s not without its downsides. While fuel cells themselves do not emit any greenhouse gases, they often rely on processes that do. Right now, 95% of hydrogen in the U.S. comes from natural gas plants.
Hydrogen doesn’t appear on its own in nature, so people must take it from chemical bonds, which requires energy. As long as this process relies on fossil fuels, hydrogen power isn’t entirely emissions-free.
Hydrogen power also comes with high upfront costs, which may limit its growth. Businesses may stray away from it because of these expenses, continuing to rely on fossil fuels.
Are Fuel Cells a Truly Sustainable Power Source?
These downsides are concerning, but they don’t necessarily render fuel cells unsustainable. The key to sustainable hydrogen power lies in the combination of fuel cells with other renewables. If hydrogen processing plants used solar or wind power, they could produce hydrogen without any emissions.
Like other renewables have in the past, fuel cells will become more affordable over time. Since these energy sources are technologies, not fuels, they will only ever become cheaper and more efficient. As this happens, fuel cells will become more attainable, making them a more viable replacement for fossil fuels.
Sustainability Is a Complex Issue
Whether something is 100% green or not is rarely a black-and-white issue. A fuel source might not produce any emissions, but the processes that create the technology to harness it might. Sustainable technologies are complex and multifaceted, and people should consider all of these factors before making a decision about them.
As they stand today, fuel cells represent a considerable improvement over fossil fuels but aren’t entirely green. That can change, but it will require time and other investments. With enough effort, these technologies can provide a clean, reliable source of energy.
Jane Marsh is the Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co. Jane covers topics related to climate policy, sustainability, green technology, renewable energy and more.