Charged with Controversy: BEV Versus Fuel Cell

The road to clean emission vehicles has some bumps and turns in it with divergent opinions on what is the best course to take.

Some of the main roadblocks to adoption are the costs of infrastructure and how it will be financed. TU-Automotive spoke to some of the top researchers in the field of electric vehicle and fuel cell infrastructure to learn the comparative costs. Electric vehicles for home use don’t require infrastructure and their prices are coming down.

“We already have the electrical infrastructure in place which makes it more convenient for electric vehicle charging in residential areas,” said Scott Moura Ph.D, director of eCAL at University of California, Berkeley. “However, with hydrogen, we don’t have the infrastructure in place.”

Urban challenge

However, Moura’s comments do not address urban dwelling where there currently exists very little charging infrastructure even in the biggest and most cosmopolitan cities around the world outside of China.

He notes that the cost to manufacture EV batteries started early on at about $1,000 kW and now it’s down to about $200 kW. Previously researchers found that, if batteries were down to $200 to $150 per kilowatt, EVs could be economical and on par with gasoline-powered vehicles.

Where hydrogen fuel cell makes sense is for buses and trucks because such companies don’t want their vehicle spending much of the day charging. For instance, the Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District (AC Transit) the longest continuous running fuel buses, owns a hydrogen fuel cell station and it makes sense, says Moura. He says that the use of hydrogen can be very important in the future plans of electricity for the State of California because as the state relies more on natural power hydrogen is one way to store the power of the sun.

“Elon Musk understands that a car is not just a box on wheels. It’s enabling the infrastructure. He understands that Tesla is not just an automotive company but an energy company,” said Moura.

China’s BEV motivation

He notes that in China BYD is deploying charging stations in cities. China is interested in moving fast and is putting money into building infrastructure claiming it’s a bid to alleviate poor city air quality and that it is planning to stop the sale of gas-powered vehicles completely.

A more salient reason may also be that China is home to around 97% of our planet’s rare earth, a vital component in the creation of lithium ion batteries, while at the same time it has to import most of its present oil demands from countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia and Russia.

Right now, in most other countries the infrastructure for BEVS has the edge fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) but, in the future, BEVs can create large loads on the grid and the biggest challenge is how to deal with the spike in home charging. In fact, in 2012 there was a graph called the duck curve issue because it looks like a duck and shows when people come home from work there is a large surge of power usage in the early evening hours. This situation can also be exacerbated when people come home and try to charge their BEVs. In fact, actual net electricity demand reported by the California Independent System Operator (CAISO) on October 22 shows the same duck curve says Moura. One solution is V1G which is smart charging of vehicles so that they charge at times when there is not a big pull on the grid and when rates are lower.

The costs of installing a home electrical charger are minimal. However, setting up a charging station in a company parking lot can range in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“There are probably no conduits in the ground for power lines and then the power has to be connected to the building’s electricity panel period for DC fast charging. Then the business has to pay for a higher rate for spikes in electricity,” said Timothy Lipman, PhD, co-director, Transportation Sustainability Research Center and Research Affiliate, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, who says California utilities are reducing costs in pilot projects by directly connecting to the power lines and, therefore, making charging stations less expensive to install.

He says that fuel cell technology is about ten years behind battery technology but the cost of hydrogen is not as cheap as gasoline. However, as hydrogen reaches an economy of scale, prices could be reduced greatly. Lipman is a driver of a fuel cell vehicle and he likes the distance that he can drive before having to be refueled. He predicts that eventually there will be hybrid fuel cell and with chargeable battery powered vehicles on the market.

One of the challenges of hydrogen infrastructure is that the hydrogen has to be highly compressed (10,000 PSI) which can be costly. For instance, Lipman says that currently the state of California subsidizes fuel cell stations and it is easier for the fuel cell station owing to the permit process to be installed in a typical gas station costing $2M while the gas station owner is only going to pay 20% of that, says Lipman.

Cheaper EV charging

To lower the costs for business of BEV charging, two companies offer alternative models, Volta charging and FreeWire. “Our model is to operate and maintain through incentives of sponsors charging stations with no cost to business and EV drivers,” said Abdellah Cherkaoui, senior vice-president of government, automotive and utilities at Volta. “We put infrastructure where it is maximized. The chargers pay for themselves and make money.” There are hundreds of ad-sponsored Volta free-to-use chargers across the United States in major metropolitan areas.

Electric vehicles especially fast charging can consume a great deal of power. “Two Teslas in a parking lot on charge can pull as much power as a Walmart store,” said Arcady Sosinov, CEO of FreeWire.

Sosinov says that installing new systems for a site host can be very expensive costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. It can also take as long as 18 months to install and can be a headache with charging getting permits and also connecting into the grid. FreeWire offers an EV charger on wheels with lithium-ion batteries that can fast charge cars at 50 kilowatts while only requiring low-voltage power from existing outlets. The FreeWire charging carts are then moved around to various vehicles.  FreeWire charging stations can cost as little as $50,000 each and are deployed in the LinkedIn corporate headquarters in Silicon Valley.

Infrastructure problems

“There could be thousands of EVs and they don’t need a public network to make it affordable,” said Scott Sheppard, an analyst at Navigant Research. “Fuel cells, on the other hand, have to be financed or funded by the government or automakers.”

So far, there have been no problems on electric grids owing to electric vehicles but that’s hardly surprising considering the low take-up of the technology on most countries other than China. However, there is a potential to be more problems which is why there are pricing programs for smart charging from utilities. In the future, there may occur power drains on the grid.

“To prevent a spike there is great potential for the batteries in the electric vehicles themselves to store power for the grid,” said Shepard who notes there are pilot phase vehicle-to-grid programs in Europe the United Kingdom, Denmark and Germany that are highly sophisticated and technical.

Yet the push for BEVs and FCVs is for better air quality which may be achieved other ways. “It’s not the engines in cars that are the problem,” said Andre Boehman director, W.E. Lay Automotive Laboratory at the University of Michigan. “It’s the fuel that is the problem.” He says that hydrogen could be turned into highly efficient synthetic fuel without increasing the cost of producing vehicles. At the 8th International DME Conference (DME 8) in Sacramento, California, there was great concern about how to produce hydrogen locally from renewable resources because of shortages of hydrogen at fuel stations in California.

In Southern California, in July and September the major supplier of hydrogen, Air Products was not able to provide hydrogen to many of its stations. Toyota offered rental vehicles for Mira customers and access to its hydrogen fueling station at the port of Los Angeles. FCV owners were frustrated when they had to wait at some of the few stations open to refuel their cars.

“At the end of the day, when people ask me about hydrogen fuel cells, I say, ‘It is too expensive. Hydrogen is expensive for stations, for cars and for fuel, while electric vehicles have the same benefits,’” concluded Shepard.

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