The Future of Transport – Electric or Hydrogen?

04Jan09

The answer – at least as far as private transport in Europe over the next two decades is concerned – is electric.

The reasons why?

1./ Electric is less emissions intensive.

Based upon the existing UK grid mix, electric vehicles have a well to wheel emissions intensity of about 80gCO2/km. In contrast, hydrogen vehicles have a well to wheel emissions intensity of between about 80 and 160gCO2/km depending upon the production pathway that is used. For the same electricity supply, electric vehicles are half as emissions intensive as hydrogen vehicles.

2./ Electric is three times more energy efficient.

If a dedicated renewable energy supply is used to generate the electricity or the hydrogen to be used in vehicles, then the emission intensity of both electric and hydrogen vehicles would be equal. However, because of the large amounts of energy that are required to produce hydrogen, three times as much renewable energy would be needed to deliver the same quantity of hydrogen and electric energy to the end-user. That means three times the renewable capacity, three times the investment and three times the cost.

3./ Electric has fewer technology hurdles to overcome.

Both electric and hydrogen vehicles still have technology hurdles to overcome before they enter mainstream use. In the case of electric vehicles, the outstanding issue surrounds battery life, capacity, durability and charging. In the case of hydrogen vehicles the hurdles are numerous and include the challenge of on-board storage of hydrogen under pressure, the limitations of current fuel cell prototypes that are not yet able to deliver the necessary power density, lifetime and cold start properties, and the development of power trains, fuel systems, power motors and fluid management and control systems, which are all still at a very early stage of development.

4./ Electric back-bone infrastructure is already in place.

Electric vehicles benefit from the existing electricity grid that is already in place and widely distributed – notwithstanding the need that will exist for rapid charging points. In contrast, there is no backbone infrastructure for the distribution of hydrogen. To distribute hydrogen efficiently and cost effectively, will require the construction of a significant pipeline infrastructure and distribution system. This will take time and require massive capital investment.

5./ Electric, once in place, will create a significant barrier to entry for hydrogen.

In exactly the same way that conventional diesel and petrol vehicles create a barrier to entry for electric vehicles today, once electric vehicles are deployed and widely used, they will create a significant barrier to entry for new hydrogen vehicles in the future.

It’s interesting to think about what this will mean for the transport and electricity sectors.

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