Where does power for alternative fuel vehicles come from?

There was some cleantech related news out of CES as Toyota’s announced that it would roll out a fuel cell powered passenger vehicle in 2015 for the general public, starting in California. CES is increasingly becoming a location for automakers to project the image that their vehicles are next-generation technology.

To my mind there are a number of cons to fuel vehicles and a few pros. The pros are mainly that the cars have longer ranges, particularly compared to their alternative fuel competitor—battery powered EVs. Toyota says their sedan will go 300 miles on a tank of hydrogen fuel and refueling will take 3 to 5 minutes.

The cons are mainly that current fuel cell tech is expensive, vehicle performance like acceleration appears mediocre, and a major buildout of refueling infrastructure is needed.  But perhaps the biggest current con for fuel cell vehicles is one that is never reported: while fuel cells run on hydrogen fuel which has no emissions, hydrogen fuel is itself is largely manufactured from natural gas (methane) and is a significant contributor to climate change.

In fact a recent CNET article which reported on Toyota’s fuel cell car noted:

At the Consumer Electronics Show, the automotive company on Monday talked up its big bet for electric cars: fuel cell technology, which boasts no emissions but water vapor. The cars will hit the market in 2015, Toyota said.

While a competitor like Tesla uses pure battery power to make its vehicles run, Toyota’s offering — the first of its kind to be put on sale for consumers — uses hydrogen to generate electricity on board the car. In layman’s terms, here’s how it works: Pure hydrogen is pumped into the tank and combined with air to create water, a reaction that also produces electricity. The fuel cell channels the electricity to a drive motor, powering the car.

At no point in the article does the writer mention the reality that hydrogen fuel cells run on a fuel produced from a carbon emitting hydrocarbon. This omission among journalists is fairly common and misses the larger story about the actual carbon emissions that result from driving that car.

Of course there are no emissions at the site of the vehicle. But at a methane reforming plant where that hydrogen fuel is produced, carbon atoms are being removed from methane to produce pure hydrogen fuel. Those carbon atoms then combine with oxygen to produce CO2. The one hope to create a truly zero emissions and renewable fuel cell is to capture biogas and produce hydrogen fuel from this recaptured methane. Or to electrolyze water to capture the hydrogen. But doing both of these processes is far more complicated and expensive. And not necessarily scalable.

To be fair, it’s not just fuel cells claiming zero emissions. Tesla does the same. The actual emissions of a Tesla or any electric vehicle depend upon where that power comes from. Some Model S sedans run on coal because that’s the fossil fuel that produces the available electricity where that Model S is charged. Other Model S sedans run completely clean, charged from solar or wind power.

But at least with battery powered EVs we have the chance to have an automotive fleet that runs only on clean power. As states like California move toward ambitious renewable energy mandates that are transforming grids toward clean power and as the price of rooftop solar falls, options are opening up for consumers to truly run their vehicles on a clean power source. To truly run with zero emissions.

Don’t get me wrong, all of these alternative fueled automotive options are important steps but a conversation about how to connect these new automotive options with clean power is important. For example, with EVs, many automakers and utilities are beginning to consider how to create incentive systems for scheduling customer vehicle charging around when solar power is most available. That conversation gets at the reality that the reality that how we create power for cars matters.

Similarly, the hydrogen fuel cell deployment should include a discussion of the most promising options for producing cleaner hydrogen fuel, be it electrolyzing water or harvesting biogas. Because until then, we’re still stuck with a fossil fuel source that contributes to climate change.