Fuel cell electric vehicles: Embracing the scapegoat
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Jun 3, 2021
Matthew Klippenstein

Battery-electric technology will dominate transport, but hydrogen and fuel cells have an important supporting role to play explains Matthew Klippenstein

Battery-electric technology will dominate transport, but hydrogen and fuel cells have an important supporting role to play, explains Matthew Klippenstein

The French anthropologist Rene Girard — popular in Silicon Valley — had a theory about scapegoats. He argued human communities reduce the risk of within-group tensions (which can tear them apart) by creating scapegoats everyone can unite against.

Enter fuel cell electric vehicles. Freud’s narcissism of small differences makes them the perfect scapegoat for the plug-in electric vehicle community. Without them, the community would splinter into factions. Poke around and you’d think they were worse than combustion!

Let me mellow everyone’s blood pressure by affirming that plug-in electric vehicles are fantastic. We bought our PHEV in 2012, four years before we could plug in where we lived. (Public charging is a wonderful thing.) They’re marvelous! Best of all, batteries are manufactured on an enormous scale, while fuel cells aren’t, yet.

What scale are they at, then? They’re currently tracking both the size and growth rates of wind in the late 1990s and solar in the mid-2000s, with worldwide production (in megawatts) in 2020 on par with wind in 1997 and solar in 2005. They pose no threat whatsoever to batteries, but if you underestimated wind and solar years ago, there’s still time to underestimate fuel cells.

Fuel Cell Solar PV and wind turbine annual production (MW)

The People’s Front of Efficiency

The big knock against fuel cells of course is that compared to batteries, they’re inefficient. That’s accurate but incomplete. If a Martian saw a 200-pound man climb into a 4,000-pound vehicle, occupying one out of five seats, then drive it several thousand paces before returning home — and then brag about efficiency — that Martian would be very confused. That’s about a 5 per cent payload fraction, barely better than a SpaceX rocket. And the rocket has to carry its payload into outer space!

If I were to tell an e-bike advocate how efficient I was, they’d retort by pointing out my vehicle required 100 times the materials as theirs, used 20 times as much electricity per kilometre, congested cities with traffic, and even contributed to salmon die-off through tire wear. And they aren’t a fringe group: e-bikes will vastly outnumber battery electric vehicles (BEVs) soon, and even decrease owners’ car dependence. Disruption always comes from below.

Now, efficiency does have value. It’s a virtue. The problem is our standards for efficiency generally reveal, Lycra-like, every unflattering lump and bulge of our life choices. And a no-brainer for some may be a deal-breaker for others, as in the e-bike vs. BEV discussion above. That’s why governments of pluralistic societies prioritize options for everyone, instead of one idealized solution.

As nice as it is, efficiency isn’t the key. I’ll prove it in one paragraph.

Imagine a parallel universe exactly the same as our own, except that combustion engines were 99 per cent efficient while battery discharging was 33 per cent efficient (releasing a lot of heat). Would any one of us have decided to stick with combustion? Of course not, because the North Star of net zero is fuel switching.

Eliminate tailpipe emissions and all transport will come from low-carbon energy soon enough. And that’s our end goal.

The non-existent war between wind and solar

If efficiency mattered, EV advocates would praise wind and condemn solar. Wind turbines’ theoretical efficiency is about 59 per cent (the Betz coefficient) and their real-life efficiency is closer to the mid-40s. Single junction solar photovoltaics have a theoretical efficiency of 33.7 per cent (the Shockley-Queisser limit) with real world efficiencies in the mid-20s. But no one screams about solar panels’ inferior efficiency. There’s no scapegoating, because everyone agrees the North Star of net zero is fuel switching.

It gets worse for solar panels. In boreal countries, wind capacity factors can be twice as high as those of solar arrays. Wind also delivers appreciable power in winter, when our energy demand peaks. Analysts at Bernstein recently estimated the lifecycle emissions of wind to be 11 g CO2/kWh. Solar was four times higher at 44 g CO2/kWh.

But it gets even worse, because all solar arrays really should come with batteries — barring cloud cover at different latitudes, all solar at a given longitude peaks at the same time of day. And batteries don’t generate energy. They’re pure emissions. A 2015 Stanford study estimated the energy intensity of solar-plus-storage could come in at 200 g CO2/kWh, but battery manufacturing emissions estimates have come down since then. 

Even if battery emissions are now one-third as large, solar-plus-storage lifecycle emissions would come in around 100 g CO2/kWh, 10 times the lifecycle emissions of wind. Do we support solar-plus-storage? Absolutely. Because the North Star of net zero is fuel switching. 

Efficiency: A good thing, but not the only thing

Of course, it’s true that going from electricity to green hydrogen to fuel cell-based forward motion is about one-third as efficient as using a battery. It’s seductive to think everyone should then only drive battery-electric. But in real life, efficiency isn’t the only thing.

Suppose the government of an impoverished region said they could get six million calories per acre with one crop, 12 with another, and 18 with a third. You’d get perfect marks for efficiency for telling the government to push everyone into crop three, but you’d eventually create the Irish potato famine. (Wheat and corn are the other examples.)

Closer to home, Western governments have spent the past-century offshoring manufacturing in the pursuit of economic efficiency. Consumers benefited from lower costs, but the same governments are now rushing to re-localize production for strategic industries. And along the way, rust belt communities sacrificed on the altar of efficiency helped elect Donald Trump. Efficiency doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

But let’s return to fuel cell electric vehicles. Suppose they were one-tenth as efficient as battery-electric vehicles? Would they exist anywhere?

We have the result of a similar experiment. Evolution ran it for us, and as our biomimicry friends like to say, it’s the culmination of 3.8 billion years of R&D.

See, mammals require 10x the calories (energy) per kilogram per day as reptiles. A Martian modeller might conclude that mammals should only exist in ecological niches inhospitable to reptiles: unique environments where the more-efficient creatures wouldn’t outcompete and obliterate them.

Speaking as a mammal, I’m pleased to report we’re doing okay. Even in the tropics. 

Now that’s a silly example, but this next one isn’t. Plant photosynthesis isn’t optimized for efficiency either. If it was, leaves would look black. Photosynthesis is optimized for resilience, for stability. Darwinian selection resulted in a photosynthesis path that can shake off the environmental stresses which always come, because on its own, efficiency always leads you into trouble. Ask Toyota: 60 years after inventing just-in-time manufacturing, they realized it was causing them problems. They eventually changed their strategy to be more resilient, stockpiling select critical components in expectation of future supply chain disasters like today’s chip shortage.

Electrifying everything is important for our climate goals. Avoiding potato famine-style single points of failure is too. That means building resilience with diversified bets, even at the cost of efficiency, as we do with residential solar-plus-storage.

Let me absolutely confirm that thanks to manufacturing scale, battery-electric technology will absolutely dominate transport. That’s a wonderful thing! We need those emissions reductions ASAP. The lesson is that trying to prune out inefficient or “irrational” options runs counter to evolutionary strategy. Three point eight billion years of R&D.

Beyond right and “wrong”

Fuel cell electric vehicles being scapegoats, bashing them on efficiency has long been an acceptable prejudice. But prejudices don’t stay acceptable forever. Efficiency is the rope with which e-bike advocates will hang us — and our best counter-argument will be that in nature itself, efficiency isn’t the only thing that matters.

Fish burger meme

Compared to electricity and batteries, hydrogen and fuel cells will only play a supporting role in road transport — like the Filet-o-Fish on the McDonald’s menu. McDonald’s doesn’t sell that many, and consultants might tell them it’s more efficient to drop them off the menu, but McDonald’s decided it was easier to serve people who prefer fish, too. It’s a private-sector example of the philosophy of “options for everyone” instead of “one idealized solution.”

The fifth miracle

It’s encouraging that with net zero on everyone’s minds, governments are more supportive of hydrogen and fuel cells than they were even a few years ago.

When governments only aimed for 20 per cent, 40 per cent or 60 per cent GHG reductions, neither was really needed. But only 10 years after Dr. Steven Chu struck a blow for efficiency by cutting their U.S. Department of Energy funding on the basis of “four miracles,” commenting that the technology needed four miracles (technical breakthroughs) to be viable, while saints only needed three miracles.

Happily, a fifth miracle occurred: they turned out to be indispensable for achieving net zero commitments. Keystones, even.

Which brings us back to Rene Girard. He argued that communities eventually regard their former scapegoats as sanctified figures, saviours even. No one’s going to be calling hydrogen or fuel cells our salvation, but we can expand on the lesson from The Dark Knight. It’s not just heroes that can live long enough to become villains; villains can live long enough to become heroes too. Or, as in this case, sidekicks.

Matthew Klippenstein Headshot

Matthew Klippenstein P.Eng. is the Regional Manager, Western Canada, for the Canadian Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association, and Branch Manager for Hydrogen BC. This article represents his personal views, and doesn’t represent the views of any employers past, present or future.

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