Could Hydrogen Be A Better Choice For Green Automobiles?

The US government and automakers are all pushing hard to get the general masses to adopt electric vehicles. It's easy to understand what they're going for. The goal is to reduce pollution and our reliance on oil. Certainly, I'm not an engineer, but I have been paying attention to my local city of Colorado Springs, Colorado, looking for electric vehicles and available charging stations.

Colorado Springs is a military city. There's a large army base called Fort Carson outside of Fountain, which is connected to Colorado Springs on the city's western edge. It's a big military base there is with 71,961 people counted in the population of the base. Of that number, there are 25,099 active duty military members and 38,018 family members. However, while the base has a large number of active-duty soldiers and family members, there isn't that much on-base housing, with 57 percent of soldiers and their families living off-base.

I point out how many people live on the military base because it makes housing an issue in both Colorado Springs and Fountain, Colorado, where the base is located. That means there is a huge demand for housing in the city, and house prices are high. As a result, many people living in the cities of Colorado Springs and Fountain live in apartments.

Certainly, not every city has a military base attached, but Colorado Springs is a moderately sized city of about 300,000 people that is representative of many cities around the country. Apartment complexes in the city aren't prepared for electric vehicles. I have yet to see an employer outside of an auto dealer that has electric vehicle chargers. There are EV chargers in place at some of the Walmart stores, and there are some in place at Sam's Warehouse.

In downtown Colorado Springs, there are multiple Tesla Superchargers in place in a large parking garage which I frequently drive by. However, rarely are cars attached to those chargers, and I rarely see EVs attached to the chargers at Walmart or Sam's. That suggests most people are charging at home. Since most employers don't have electric vehicle chargers and most apartments don't have electric vehicle chargers, if the federal government succeeds in pushing a large percentage of the population to electric vehicles, where exactly will people charge their vehicles if they are in multi-family housing? Are they all going to fight for the six Tesla chargers in a single parking garage downtown? Are they all going to hang out at Walmart or Sam's to charge their vehicles?

Apartment dwellers certainly don't have the option to plug in at home, and the vast majority of people don't have the option to plug in at work. I put some thought into this, and my thoughts are that pushing a large percentage of people to electric vehicles in many cities will create an incredible amount of congestion at charging stations. If we were successful in moving 20 percent of the driving population over, that's thousands and thousands of electric vehicles in one moderately sized city that need to charge at least once per week. It takes a couple of hours, even on the fastest chargers, to top off many EVs. Electric charging stations could end up with lines reminiscent of people waiting for gasoline during the fuel shortages in the 70s.

Some people may believe the answer to the problem is simply to have apartment complexes install charging stations by mandate. Not only would that be a massive cost to the owners of the apartment complexes, anyone who's ever lived in an apartment can tell you it's near impossible to get people to park where they're supposed to, even if the complex has assigned parking. You can guarantee a vacant charging spot would be taken by someone desperate to get home after a long day at work, even if they're not in an electric vehicle. Some significant challenges face the electric vehicle market that have nothing to do with the price of the vehicles and how far they can drive.

Some automakers may be having similar thought processes as there is still significant work going into hydrogen fuel cell-powered cars. However, one of the biggest problems facing hydrogen as a fuel source is the lack of a hydrogen fueling infrastructure. Certainly, for now, the lack of infrastructure for hydrogen fueling is much more significant than the lack of infrastructure for electric vehicle charging.

However, that may be changing sooner than we think. One good example of this is Nikola, a company that builds semi-trucks that run on hydrogen fuel cells. The hydrogen fuel cell produces water as emissions and is as non-polluting as a normal electric vehicle utilizing batteries. Nikola knows that the only way for its hydrogen-powered semi-trucks to catch on and be effective in their jobs is to have a hydrogen fueling infrastructure along all major roadways around the country. To facilitate that, it has signed an infrastructure agreement with TC Energy to do that.

Significant amounts of research are being put into green and more readily available processes to produce hydrogen. For example, we talked about a chemical process to convert gas produced by sewer systems into hydrogen in September. MIT researchers have also been able to produce hydrogen using scrap aluminum and water. These new processes mean that the production of hydrogen could be localized at some point in the future.

The upside to using hydrogen rather than a battery electric vehicle is that you don't need charging stations at home, at work, or in parking lots at your favorite grocery store. Instead, all you need to do is roll into a hydrogen fueling station and spend five minutes putting a tank of fuel into your car, just like you do with gasoline or diesel now. These hydrogen fueling stations could be right alongside your regular gas station, and the infrastructure for fueling vehicles with gas is extremely robust in every city.

What's interesting is that many of the major automakers are actively working on vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells. It appears they see that technology as an alternative to battery electric vehicles. One good example is the Toyota Mirai, a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle already selling in California. That vehicle was recently able to travel 845 miles on a tank of hydrogen. Hyundai has also announced its Hydrogen Vision 2040, outlining how it plans to produce vehicles that use hydrogen fuel cell technology.

BMW is also working on a version of its X5 SUV running a hydrogen fuel cell. While some automakers are ramping up research and development on this type of vehicle, others are cutting back. For example, Honda eliminated its Clarity hydrogen-powered vehicle last summer. Hydrogen seems as if it would eliminate the charging issue, which particularly plagues those who live in apartments or condos. Which technology do you think would be a better option?