Joe Romm’s seven arguments against FCVs

Joe Romm has been arguing that fuel cell vehicles are a lost cause since even before he published his 2004 book The Hype about Hydrogen. On April 8, 2015 he published Tesla Trumps Toyota: The Seven Reasons Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars Are Stalled. In that article he asked and then answered the following questions about “alternative fuel vehicles” (AFVs).

Consistently with his 2004 book, the general thrust of his answers strongly favors batteries over hydrogen as an alternative fuel. However his reasoning is based more on the same hypothetical arguments he has been using for decades than on any actual boots-on-the-ground experience with the latest technology in this sector. My own experience as a Toyota Mirai owner and driver has led me to quite a different conclusion, as I will explain after listing his questions.

1. High first cost for vehicle: Can the AFV be built at an affordable price for consumers? Can that affordable AFV be built profitably?

2. On-board fuel storage issues (i.e. limited range): Can enough alternative fuel be stored onboard to give the car the kind of range consumers expect — without compromising passenger or cargo space? Can the AFV be refueled fast enough to satisfy consumer expectations?

3. Safety and liability concerns: Is the alternative fuel safe, something typical users can easily handle with special training? [Presumably “with” should have been “without”. “Easily … with special training” is surely an oxymoron.]

4. High fueling cost (compared to gasoline): Is the alternative fuel’s cost (per mile) similar to (or cheaper than) gasoline? If not, how much more expensive is it to use?

5. Limited fuel stations (the chicken and egg problem): On the one hand, who will build and buy the AFVs in large quantity if a broad fueling infrastructure is not in place to service them? On the other, who will build that fueling infrastructure — taking the risk of a massive stranded investment — before a large quantity of AFVs are built and bought, that is, before these particular AFVs have been proven to be winners in the marketplace?

6. Improvements in the competition: If the AFV still needs years of improvement to be a viable car, are the competitors — including fuel-efficient gasoline cars — likely to improve as much or more during this time? In short, is it likely competitors will still be superior vehicles in 2020 or 2030?

7. Problems delivering cost-effective emissions reductions: Is the low-emission or emission-free version of the alternative fuel affordable? Are fueling stations for that version of the fuel affordable and practical?

You can see Dr. Romm’s answers at his article. Here are mine.

1. High first cost for vehicle. Romm broke this into a two-part question: (i) affordable, and (ii) profitable.

I can answer (i) very easily. The only BEVs available today that are more affordable than the 2017 Toyota Mirai’s monthly lease of $350 have a range about a third of the Mirai and take more than ten times as long to refuel even on a DC Fast Charger, let alone a slower Level 2 charger.

In a year or two Tesla may have a vehicle cheaper than a Mirai, namely the promised Model 3. But since Tesla today has no vehicle with the range of the Mirai at even twice the price, it would be a miracle if any battery electric vehicle manufacturer in the world, GM, Mercedes, Nissan, Tesla, whoever, could produce a 2018 BEV that beat the 2016 fuel cell Mirai on both price and range. More on this below.

As to profitability, what on earth is Romm thinking? In 1997 each $17,000 Prius cost Toyota an unprofitable $32,000 to make, yet ultimately the Prius was wildly successful and enormously profitable for Toyota. Romm himself has not only spoken highly of Toyota’s Prius but drives one himself.

Yet now we find him staking his credibility as an expert on hydrogen as a fuel on Toyota’s inability to perform that trick again. Why? Because of insider information that Toyota’s management has lost its marbles? No, this has nothing to do with Toyota. Romm has been convinced for more than a decade that no manufacturer in the world can make a fuel cell vehicle that will be competitive with battery electric vehicles judged by even one of his seven criteria.

Dr. Romm is a modern-day Lord Kelvin. In 1895 Kelvin stated emphatically that heavier-than-air flight was a physical impossibility even for a well-funded team of the best aeronautical engineers in the world, let alone two bicycle mechanics from rural Ohio. Scientific American bought lock stock and barrel the argument Kelvin and other distinguished scientists had been making, so much so that even a year after the Wright brothers historic flight at Kittyhawk they were still convinced it was a fraud. The French maintained the same conviction for five years until the Wright brothers eventually felt obliged to ship their plane to France and fly it under their very noses. Such is the inertia of belief based on theory even when confronted with evidence based on experience. More on this below.

2. On-board fuel storage issues (i.e. limited range). Again Romm breaks this issue into two questions, (i) range and (ii) refuelling time. For (i) the EPA range for the 2017 $350/mo Mirai is 312 miles. The only BEV in the world that exceeds this is the Tesla Model S P100D with an EPA range of 315 miles and an expected price of $134,000 when it eventually goes on sale—no lease has been set yet. The cheapest Tesla today is the S 60 at $685/mo with an EPA range of 210 miles, a mere 2/3 of the Mirai’s range!

For (ii) my Mirai refuels in 60 seconds per kilogram, so 5 minutes from completely empty to completely full, more typically 3-4 minutes. This is incredibly faster than any BEV. With a home charger the Tesla recharges overnight, while at a supercharger, even after 20 minutes or four times as long as the Mirai the Tesla is still only recharged to half its range, while a full charge take 75 minutes or 15 times as long as the Mirai!

3. Safety and liability concerns. There are three main concerns here, namely the environment, human toxicity with contact, ingestion or inhalation, and the hazard of fire.

Gasoline. Although aerosols used to be a problem with gasoline, today the environment is impacted primarily by oil spills from ocean-going drilling rigs and tankers, emission of the greenhouse gas CO2, and particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5) from the exhaust, brake pads (thousands of tons annually), and tires. Hybrids with regenerative braking greatly reduce brake pad PM.

Regarding toxicity, in normal use gasoline itself does not have acute toxic effects. After combustion however vehicles emit a number of carcinogenic gases and fine particulate matter.

Regarding fire, whereas the typical autoignition temperature of paper is famously about 450 °F, gasoline’s autoignition temperature is a somewhat higher 500 °F or so.

Hydrogen. The tank-to-wheels environmental impact of hydrogen is limited to dribbling about half a cup of water a mile onto the road, and particulate matter from tires (relatively little from brake pads in models with regenerative braking). The impact of hydrogen production depends heavily on the production method and can range from negligible to high.

As to toxicity, hydrogen at room temperature is not strongly reactive and is therefore not acutely toxic to the skin, but, like helium, when inhaled may cause asphyxiation if it has displaced much oxygen. (CO2 is much worse: even at a mixing level of 6% by volume and displacing only nitrogen, so no risk of asphyxiation at all, it can still cause acute respiratory acidosis.)

Like gasoline, hydrogen is inflammable, with a relatively high autoignition temperature of 997 °F but a relatively low quantity of heat needed to trigger ignition. With these dangers of hydrogen in mind, especially the latter, states set stringent regulations on compressed hydrogen in both pumps and cars aimed at minimizing leakage and damage from violent decompression in the event of a component failure or collision.

Batteries. Like hydrogen, batteries have no environmental impact in normal use, but again like hydrogen their manufacture and charging can have various environmental impacts depending on the sources of their materials and electricity. Unlike hydrogen the disposition of spent batteries may have a further environmental impact.

With normal handling automobile lithium-ion batteries are no more toxic than those in laptops, cellphones, and cameras. Their much higher voltages however can be lethal if touched.

The higher energy density of lithium-ion batteries puts them at greater risk of thermal runaway. As a result of a number of fires on planes it is now standard to prohibit them as cargo on passenger planes. With such fires as a consideration, batteries used in electric vehicles are shrouded in fireproof packaging adding as much as a third to the weight of the constituent cells of the battery pack.

4. High fueling cost (compared to gasoline). As proponents of internal combustion engines will cheerfully tell you, gasoline is indeed cheaper than either batteries or hydrogen, at least with the present oil glut and cheap natural gas. However this analysis overlooks the costs of further atmospheric CO2. If those costs can be overlooked then why suffer the high cost and long recharge times of BEVs when gasoline vehicles are so much cheaper and easier to refuel? FCVs refuel as quickly as gasoline vehicles, are half the cost of a BEV with similar range, and suffer primarily from an infrastructure that in Northern California is only a few months old and is nonexistent in the 49 other US states. The rate of growth of that infrastructure is however well matched to the ability of FCV manufacturers to ramp up production.

5. Limited fuel stations (the chicken and egg problem). Chickens and eggs coevolved from amoeba via dinosaurs. Today fuel cell vehicles and their hydrogen stations are coevolving in a few regions such as Japan, Germany, and California starting from tiny quantities of both. The proper questions are, how fast will these new-age chickens and eggs grow in volume, and how will increasing volume lower costs? Anything that can double each year can grow a thousand-fold in a decade and a million-fold in two.

A year ago California had no publicly accessible hydrogen stations and hence no market for FCV manufacturers to sell into. Today California has 20 stations with at most one being down for maintenance at any given time, with the result that there is no shortage of hydrogen for FCV cars in California south of Fort Bragg other than for the few unfortunates showing up at the one that is down if any. (Toyota’s Entune app for iPhone and Android shows which stations are up any time you look.) At the moment of writing there is one station down, namely San Juan Capistrano, understandable because it has only been open for a few day and is still in its “soft opening” phase. Expect stations to open along paths towards the east coast as FCV manufacturers ramp up production, for example along I-10, I-40, I-70, I-80, and I-90. Relatively recent (2013) projections of growth and cost of the hydrogen highway can be seen at the 2013 National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) report Hydrogen Station Cost Estimates estimating rollout and costs up to 2030 under various scenarios.

6. Improvements in the competition. Romm is quite right that FCVs have been hanging back well behind BEVs for years. But suddenly several FCV developers have rocketed past BEVs in the manner I described in 1-5 above. Perhaps this will encourage complacent BEV manufacturers to up their game in order to catch back up. Whether they can however remains to be seen, as this has now turned into a race between alternative energy technologies.

7. Problems delivering cost-effective emissions reductions. A fair question. I would argue that BEVs and FCVs are in a dead heat here, at least in California. According to PG&E, BEVs charged from their grid are getting electricity from 20% renewable sources. According to True Zero (my hydrogen vendor), FCVs refuelling from their stations are getting hydrogen from 30% renewable sources. This gap however is closed almost exactly by the fact that fuel cells are only 2/3 the efficiency of batteries: the EPA scores the Mirai at 67 MPGe and the Tesla S 60 at 100 MPGe.

BEV owners have the option of charging from home solar provided (a) they have home solar and (b) their BEV stays at home during the day. The latter however is a bit ridiculous. The home solar owner can argue that their system feeding the grid during the day is offsetting the carbon cost of charging the BEV by night. However everyone with home solar is doing the same thing, including those who own FCVs. Doing the math, an FCV owner’s home solar benefits the atmosphere no more or less than a BEV owner’s does.

This is not to say that Tesla’s cars have no advantages over the Mirai. In fact they have quite a few: more luxury, more interior space, faster (even ludicrous) acceleration, 20 mph higher top speed, and a less radical exterior design. What is odd about Romm’s criticisms of FCVs is that it completely overlooks all these pluses for the Tesla and instead finds fault in precisely those areas where the Mirai actually dominates every model of Tesla!

On the other hand there is one more very significant area stressed in Romm’s 2004 book that one might have expected him to ask about as an eighth question, phrased perhaps as “is the weight of the power train reasonable?” Although Tesla does not release that property of its battery packs, a member of the Tesla Motors Club purchased the 85 kWh battery from a salvaged Model S. Although the whole battery was too heavy for him to weigh in one piece, he was able to estimate its total weight based on weights of its major components, arriving at a figure of about 900 lbs for the cell assembly and 300 lbs for its protective packaging. This made the total weight 1200 lbs or 544 kg. The EPA range of the Model S 85 is 265 miles, making the energy density of the Tesla’s power train in terms of range 265/544 = 0.49 miles/kg.

The Mirai’s power train consists of two tanks weighing 87.5 kg, a 56 kg fuel cell, and a 36 kg 1.6 kWh nickel metal hydride (NiMH) drive battery very similar to that used in Toyota’s Camry Hybrid. Those plus 5 kg of hydrogen add up to 184 kg. The EPA range of the Mirai being 312 miles, the corresponding energy density for the Mirai comes to 312/184 = 1.70 miles/kg or 3.5 times that of the Model S 85!

Although Tesla has since replaced the rear-wheel drive S 85 with the all-wheel-drive S 90D, the former used to lease for $1,099/mo according to A Tesla with only 85% of the range of the Mirai and a power train three times as heavy therefore leased for more than twice the monthly cost of the Mirai. Today the S 90D as its closest replacement has brought the EPA range up to 294 miles, much closer to the Mirai’s 312, but its lease price of $1,104/mo has remained stubbornly close to twice that of the Mirai while its larger battery seems unlikely to have grown much lighter than the S 85’s.

To summarize, I have been unable to find any merit in even a single one of Dr. Romm’s seven arguments against FCVs.  But this then raises the question, how could he have got all this so wrong?

There is a simple answer. As my responses to Romm’s seven questions hopefully made clear, the fuel cell scene has changed dramatically in the 14 months since he asked those questions. Technology advances very quickly, making it essential for technology experts to keep abreast of new developments or risk losing their credibility.

Dr. Romm’s decades of valuable experience as an expert on hydrogen as a fuel is at risk of depreciating rapidly if not kept up to date.

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2 Responses to Joe Romm’s seven arguments against FCVs

  1. Zalman Stern says:

    Re: “But since Tesla today has no vehicle with the range of the Mirai at even twice the price” it may be worth adding a note as they now do have such a vehicle in the 100kWh models.

  2. Thanks for that, Zalman. Page 32 of the EPA’s 2016 ratings gives the Tesla Model S P100D a range of 315 miles. That puts the Mirai’s 312 miles in second place among EVs. I’ll amend the article accordingly.

    So in theory if the two cars were to start out together from Fattoria E Mare in San Mateo (which is 5.6 miles from both a hydrogen station and a supercharger) and drive down 101 together to San Ardo and back, a distance of 312 miles, and then drive around that neighborhood until each could go no further, the Tesla should end up 3 miles beyond the Mirai. It would say something about EPA ratings if this theory were put to the test.

    If a P100D customer is willing to do this, I’m game for it.

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