Guest opinion: Hydrogen as a fuel source is not that simple

There is a lot to like in the op-ed, Realizing Utah’s clean energy potential, written by Rep. Melissa Ballard in Utah Policy on March 3rd 2021.  It is great to see her support of the bipartisan progress being made on environmental issues, both in the Utah Legislature and in Congress.

However, I respectfully disagree with her point that hydrogen cars are the vehicles of the future.  The op-ed states, “Even though these new cars on Utah roads running on electricity undoubtedly help our air quality, most electricity, as everyone knows, is still produced in a way that will not.  If electric cars are not the future, then what is?  The answer is simple: hydrogen.” 

There is no hydrogen available to find naturally – we have to make it.  We make pure hydrogen primarily by converting it from natural gas or electricity.  The overview of the problem is this: making hydrogen from natural gas (or electricity) to use in a vehicle is less efficient and more expensive than just using the natural gas (or electricity) to power the vehicle directly.  Our current hydrogen powered vehicles create more greenhouse emissions than an electric vehicle, and they cost eight times as much to fuel. 

Let’s get into the details:

  1. If we make the hydrogen from electricity, the electricity can come from either renewable (“clean”) or non-renewable (“dirty”) sources.  At present, hydrogen made from electricity (clean or dirty) costs three to four times as much as hydrogen from natural gas.  This means that most of the hydrogen we use is produced from natural gas.
  2. Hydrogen from natural gas v. just natural gas:  When we convert natural gas to hydrogen, we lose about a third of the energy.  This means that it would be both cheaper and cleaner to just power the vehicle from natural gas.  The process of making hydrogen from natural gas and then running the car on the hydrogen produces about the same greenhouse gas emissions as running the car on natural gas, in addition to requiring more fuel for a higher cost.
  3. Hydrogen from electricity v. just electricity:  When we use electricity to make hydrogen, transport it to a fueling station, put it in a tank, and then convert the hydrogen back into electricity to power the vehicle, there are losses at every stage of the process.  It ends up requiring about three times as much electricity to run a hydrogen vehicle as it does to run an electric vehicle.  (In fact, when we power a conventional gasoline vehicle, we also lose about two thirds of the energy.)  Electricity is just a really efficient way to power vehicles.

To sum it up, hydrogen cars are not cleaner than electric vehicles, and their fuel is much more expensive.  Hydrogen vehicles have more parts to maintain.  We have no network of hydrogen fueling stations like the massive network of fast charging stations we are creating for electricity.  It is cheaper to move electricity around in wires than it is to move hydrogen around in trucks.  And we don’t currently have hydrogen pipelines to move the hydrogen.  

Hydrogen will make more sense when we are generating so much renewable electricity that we are forced to throw away what we can’t use, but that hydrogen will have other uses that are more valuable than powering cars.

Hydrogen from clean electricity will certainly play a role in a zero-emissions energy future.  It will provide valuable seasonal storage for electricity, shifting excess generation from summer to winter.  It will be a great source of high-temperature industrial heat for steel mills and cement plants.  And to cleanly power a ship, we may have no option but to use either hydrogen or hydrogen-based liquid fuels.  But to power vehicles, it just makes more business sense to use electricity.