Are Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles a Practical, Ethical, and Sustainable option?

The environmental impacts of the transportation industry have been at the forefront of mobility discourse for the last decade. With 27% of greenhouse gas emissions coming from transportation and a significant percentage of low-income households’ total earnings going to transportation (over 30% in some instances), the need to significantly reduce the amount of vehicle emissions is desperate. One agenda item, for example, is the need to reduce single occupancy vehicles (SOVs). This is true even if the SOVs are electric. Electric vehicles (EVs) still need to charge, and electricity is typically powered by fossil fuels. The batteries that power EVs, lithium-ion batteries, also require a large quantity of cobalt, which is largely mined in Congo. The working conditions of Congolese miners are horrific as many miners report poor or delayed paychecks, unsafe working conditions, physical abuse, intimidation, and discrimination. In a lot of ways, electric vehicles are still ironically powered unsustainably and unethically, but offer a sense of moral comfort to the user. 

In fairness, however, electrification offers several benefits including better fuel economy, federal tax credits, and lower cost of use (assuming the increased electric bill is less expensive than gas, which is almost certainly true in the summer of 2022). This is what makes the conversation about low-and-zero-emission vehicles so complicated; there is a delicate balancing act to be had when developing new technologies and hoping those technologies do not leave society with a set of obstacles greater than the prior technology. This blog will explore some of the pros and cons of EVs versus hydrogen fuel cell vehicles as alternatives to the traditional internal combustion engines (ICEs).

Hydrogen is a chemical element. It is very combustible and, when burned in a hydrogen fuel cell, is a clean energy source and emits only water. Hydrogen does not exist in its pure form on earth and is only found combined with other elements, which means hydrogen must be extracted from water through a production process in a lab. Although hydrogen itself is a clean molecule, the overwhelming majority of hydrogen produced in the United States is produced in a lab powered by nonrenewable resources. The two most common processes for hydrogen production in the United States are gasification and electrolysis. Gasification, also known as natural gas reforming, is when synthetic gas is made by reacting natural gas with high-temperature steam (the carbon monoxide is reacted with water to produce additional hydrogen). Electrolysis is when an electric current splits water into oxygen and hydrogen. Excess renewable energy can be used to power the electrolysis process, making it completely “green hydrogen”, but the production of hydrogen through gasification must be considered when measuring hydrogen fuel cells’ environmental impact. 

This process is not efficient. By the time the hydrogen is produced, compressed, stored, shipped, and finally put into a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, the hydrogen has lost 70% of its efficiency. In many ways this inefficiency may be justified because hydrogen is an extremely energy-dense material, meaning the number of miles a vehicle could drive is very high per unit. This may be a potential benefit to consumers with range anxiety who worry that an electric vehicle will die quickly or at an inopportune time.

Another consideration is hydrogen leakage. Hydrogen fuel would prevent the emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from traditional ICEs (which is a significant benefit in the face of the climate crisis), but a leakage of hydrogen will still have atmospheric consequences. Hydrogen leakage will contribute slightly to climate change, however not nearly as severely as continuing to burn fossil fuels within ICEs. 

Though there are many pros to hydrogen fuel, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are still expensive and the fueling infrastructure is few and far between. Only Toyota, Hyundai, and Honda have produced hydrogen fuel cells for the United States’ retail market, and Honda discontinued its hydrogen fuel cell vehicle in 2021. Today there are just 45 hydrogen fueling stations in the United States and 43 of them are in California. Both Toyota and Hyundai’s models are approximately $60,000, which is almost double the starting cost of an EV. 

Hydrogen fuel cells may become more affordable and accessible. Over the past several years, charging stations for EVs have become more commonplace and the cost of initially purchasing an EV has decreased as the numbers of miles per charge have increased. It is possible that hydrogen fueling stations may follow the lead of EV charging stations, however few states other than California have legislation or even public comments about such policy initiatives. Green hydrogen certainly suggests the potential exists, however it is unclear how much time and money are required to store both renewable energy (for electrolysis) and liquid hydrogen (from electrolysis) because the existing technology is nowhere near enough to sustain the 276 million vehicles on the road in the United States. Because this process causes hydrogen to lose its efficiency, researchers and policy makers must decide if using that renewable energy to produce green hydrogen is truly more efficient than other alternative uses such as powering high-emission factories or energy grids in low-income, marginalized communities. (At this point, you may be thinking “but it sounds like there is a lack of infrastructure, technology, and political will to use renewable energy for those projects, too” and if you are thinking that then you are correct). 

This brings us to the ultimate question posed by this piece: could hydrogen fuel be a more ethical and sustainable alternative to EVs and, if so, is implementation practical? Though EVs have become more affordable, that transition took approximately a decade, and it still takes up to several hours to fully charge the battery. Between the hefty price tag and the lack of infrastructure outside of a few counties in California, hydrogen fuel cells have a long way to go before they are a practical alternative to the EV for most personally owned vehicles. The most difficult part of this question is deciding if hydrogen is more ethical or sustainable than EVs.

The most obvious social justice impact of hydrogen fuel cells may be that, unlike EVs, there will be no increased demand for Congolese cobalt mined with forced labor because there is no increased demand for batteries. However, as this blog post previously stated, all innovation has unforeseen consequences and we have to make calculated decisions about whether a new technology’s shortcomings are less harmful in the aggregate than the set of problems the technology solves. There is little available information about the ethics of hydrogen fuel cells on a large scale; I simply cannot speculate whether the mass production of hydrogen fuel cells has its own equivalent to cobalt mining. However, there are two relevant points regarding the unknown human consequences: first, we cannot let perfection be the enemy of progress or we will surely not meet the lofty environmental justice goals set out by COP26 and similar action plans, and, second, meeting those goals will take a lot more than hydrogen fuel cells. We should monitor the labor, access, and environmental impacts of producing hydrogen as we continue to conduct research, but the transportation revolution demands more.

Though hydrogen fuel cells may be part of the ultimate solution, this blog began by criticizing the prominence of SOVs. There is no magic bullet that will remedy the ethical and sustainable problems created by the transportation industry. Though hydrogen fuel may have the potential to eliminate some of the problems that remain as EVs become more popular, encouraging ridesharing and public transit are also vital parts of this equation because we cannot afford to have 276 million vehicles on the road while we continue to tinker with more sustainable alternatives. We should not abandon our hydrogen fuel cell research, but rather embrace that it may be one component of a complex solution. Even if hydrogen fuel proves to be a more ethical and sustainable alternative to the lithium-ion battery, time is running out if we are going to meet the international goals set by COP26.

So, what are the legal tools we can use to move forward? First of all, federal and state tax credits can be powerful. The Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 began providing tax incentives to reduce the cost of hydrogen fuel cell projects. There are also a variety of grants available through government agencies including the Department of Transportation to facilitate alternative fuel corridors that provide better access to hydrogen fueling stations in addition to EV charging stations. There are also dozens of potential federal and state grants to further fund hydrogen research, which may improve storage or reduce the cost passed onto the consumer. 

There is a delicate balance to be had. The transportation sector cannot put all its eggs in the hydrogen fuel cell basket, but investing some time and money to include hydrogen as one tool among many to ensure sustainable, ethical transportation is worthwhile.

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