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The EV vs. Fuel Cell Wars Heat Up As the Cars Head to Market

There are many overlaps between battery electrics and hydrogen fuel-cell cars: both run on electric motors and use electronic controllers. It's useful to think of a hydrogen car as an EV with a fuel cell instead of a battery pack. But just being in the same family is no guarantee that these siblings are going to get along -- in fact, there's a big and growing gap between their passionate partisans.

Straddling the EV and hydrogen camps are such automakers as Mercedes-Benz, General Motors, Toyota and Honda, which make both types of vehicle and want everybody to get along (or the gasoline engine will win). That's a great point, because nobody's going to "win" this war.

As it happens, I'm driving a fuel-cell car this week, a Toyota Highlander FCHV-adv that is part of a fleet maintained at Connecticut's Proton Energy. Proton's owner, Tom Sullivan, made his fortune as the owner of Lumber Liquidators, and is now privately funding a "hydrogen highway" on the East Coast from Maine to Florida. That, coupled with the intended commercial rollout of hydrogen cars (from Toyota and Honda, plus a more limited commitment from GM) amounts to more action on the fuel-cell front than we've seen in decades.

A perceived competition for federal dollars
At the same time, battery EVs are hitting the marketplace -- both the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf met new owners this week. Unfortunately, EVs and fuel cell proponents see themselves as competitors for the same federal support dollars, as symbolized by Energy Secretary Steven Chu's decision to "zero out" hydrogen funding (later reversed by Congress).

At the introduction of the Nissan Leaf, Plug In America co-founder Marc Geller told me that hydrogen funding is a "divergent path" that "takes our eye off the prize" of battery cars with a robust national charging network. "The $10 to $20 million a year that California has been putting into hydrogen every year could have build tens of thousands of EV charging stations," he said.

Hydrogen counterattack
The hydrogen forces (recently unified by an October merger between the National Hydrogen Association and the U.S. Fuel Cell Council to form the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association) are counter-attacking, and aiming straight at the battery EV's key vulnerabilities, limited range and charging from a dirty grid.

In an as-yet unpublished paper entitled "The Green Hype about Electric Vehicles," C.E. "Sandy" Thomas, a hydrogen consultant and the former president of H2Gen Innovations, points out that more than half of U.S. electricity comes from burning dirty coal. He cites Department of Energy statistics to claim that battery EVs with 100-mile range (like the Leaf) will produce 230 grams of carbon dioxide equivalent per mile from an average American grid energy mix. Even worse, he says, are plug-in hybrid cars like the Volt, which he rates at 270 grams per mile. These entries are in alarming red on his chart.

In contrast, the fuel-cell vehicle running on hydrogen derived from natural gas is at 200 grams per mile, dropping down to 95 grams per mile if the hydrogen comes from coal gasification with sequestration (a future technology if ever there was one). The hydrogen entries are in soothing green on Thomas' chart.

Zero emissions?
This goes right to the heart of the "zero emission" that is often stenciled on the side of battery cars. Obviously, there are emissions associated with them, even if they lack a tailpipe and don't produce any pollution while on the move.

Thomas also cites figures from Argonne National Laboratories that he says show that the Volt operating in coal-dependent Illinois would actually generate slightly more greenhouse gas than a conventional car, and a Leaf-type battery car would generate more CO2 than a Prius. An independent survey by University of Michigan professor John DeCicco also came to that conclusion.

Fuel Cells 2000 takes a slightly less aggressive stance toward battery cars, producing a chart that contrasts the salient features of fuel-cell vehicles such as the Honda FCX Clarity and Mercedes B-Class F-Cell with the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf. Obviously, the Clarity is going to look better on range (240 miles) than the Leaf (73). And it also takes a hit on refueling/recharging times: five minutes (Clarity) versus seven hours (Level II 220-volt).

"Fuel cell vehicles stack up well against the alternatives," says Elizabeth Delmont, a program assistant at Fuel Cells 2000. "They have by far the best all-electric range, and they refill in just a few minutes, while batteries need hours to achieve a full charge."

Electric defense
Them's fighting words, of course. Fast charging at 480 volts may have some formidable cost challenges, but it can recharge an EV in just 30 minutes. And claiming that fuel-cell cars have "all-electric range" is kind of problematic, too -- it takes energy to produce hydrogen, either from water or natural gas.

Paul Scott, a vice president at Plug In America so passionate about the Nissan Leaf that he's on the sales floor selling it, dismisses Thomas' numbers. "I don't have time for a thorough analysis, but in the past, the hydrogen guys have always lied about this," he said. "They literally neglect the well to tank completely in most documents. They're are on their last legs, trying desperately to get funding from somebody, anybody, to keep their jobs."

Let's all get along
And all this sniping brings us to Sascha Simon, head of advanced product planning at Mercedes-Benz and the shepherd of the Mercedes B-Class F-Cell hydrogen car. Like the Leaf and Volt, the F-Cell went to its first customer this week, Vince Van Patten, executive director of the Producers Guild of America. He's paying $849 a month, and will fuel up at UC Irvine and in Culver City.

"We need both technologies," Simon told me. "We at Mercedes would never pick sides, because they're both so fundamentally necessary and relying on each other. This war is very unfortunate, and we are encouraging all sides not to do that. Negative comments only prolong the life of the internal-combustion engine. It's not helpful. The fuel-cell car needs a strong battery, so why should the hydrogen advocates be against battery development? If they all want to blame somebody, they should go after the oil guys -- not shoot at other groups."


Photo: Jim Motavalli
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