The Recent “Mind Bogglingly Stupid”* Arguments Against Fuel Cell Vehicles

During a press conference at the Automotive News World Congress in February Elon Musk was famously quoted saying hydrogen fuel cells are “extremely silly,” and that fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) are “incredibly dumb.” He made two arguments to support this view – that electrolysis to generate hydrogen is way less efficient than using solar to charge vehicle batteries and that hydrogen was an unsafe fuel. So this is pretty transparent: it’s just the old slam-your-competition marketing ploy.  Musk’s Tesla must feel pretty threatened by the spate of fuel cell electric vehicles coming on the market, especially in Japan and California. But then a month later we get Climate Progress publishing an article by Joe Romm seconding Musk’s view and supporting his opinion with actual charts.   Romm’s analysis, with all its credentials, is no better than Musk’s uninformed off the cuff commentary.

Romm essentially recycles an article he published in Scientific American in 2006 where his primary criticism, as I interpret it, follows this equation:


REI=> (CHG) or (EWMFC) => EMP


REI=Renewable power in

CHG= Charge battery

EWMFC=Electrolyze water for hydrogen, make fuel cell

MP=Energy expended motive power

In the case of a FCEV fueled with hydrogen from renewably generated electrolysis, only 20% to 25% of REI ends up as EMP.  An electric vehicle (EV) charged with renewably generated electricity gets 75% to 80% of REI.


That’s it.  The sum total of the argument. Note the complete absence of any economics. Eliminating cost (and the discussion of other paths for zero emission FCEVs) relegates this whole argument to the realm of fierce debates over how many angels dance on the head of a pin.  Perhaps intellectually challenging, but irrelevant to the market or to policy decisions.  Think about it: install a solar array at a particular cost. Use its output to operate an electrolysis unit for hydrogen or use it to charge batteries.  Is one more efficient in the use of solar power? Sure.  But does it matter? No. Either way you have a true zero emission vehicle.  And as long as the cost per mile is competitive, it makes sense in the market place. Might the battery vehicle be a little cheaper in cost per mile? Perhaps, but what if the end user is willing to value range, where the FCEV wins hands down?

The reality, however, is that we are on the cusp of a new market of lower emission vehicles.  The zero emission world is still a good distance away because economics are a real factor.  That means we need EVs and FCEVs, and it also means that they are not completely “green” but rather olive drab.  EVs in most places will not be charged with renewable electricity but from whatever the local grid supplies, and that can be pretty dirty.  Most FCEVs will get their hydrogen from natural gas – its use in a fuel cell is an improvement over direct combustion but still results in carbon emissions.

The bottom line here is that simplistic assertions are no more than that, and while soundbites in headlines attract, they are not analysis and should not be taken seriously.

** Headline in EV World, July 7, 2014 “Musk: Fuel Cells ‘Mind Bogglingly Stupid'”

Contrarian Approach to Fuel Cell Powered Forklifts and Scooters in Taiwan 燃料电池发展的逆向操作:台湾叉车及摩托车

The worldwide population of motor scooters is approaching 130 million. China alone produced over 40 million gasoline powered motor scooters in 2011. Many of these engines emit 8 to 30 times the hydrocarbons and particulates emitted by automobiles. Several companies are developing fuel cell powered scooters to reduce these enormous emissions. Fuel cells are devices that make electricity from hydrogen and oxygen, emitting water vapor as the exhaust. When hydrogen is produced from renewable sources, or even from natural gas the emissions are far less than those resulting from oil refining and combustion. Fuel cell powered scooters run on that electricity.


Two years ago I wrote about a very forward thinking fuel cell technology company in Taiwan (, Asia Pacific Fuel Cell Technologies, Ltd. (APFCT). The company had just rolled out its first major demonstration of fuel cell powered scooters.

两年前我在台湾为一家非常具有前瞻性的燃料电池公司 – 亚太燃料电池科技公司写了一篇文章(。该公司当时刚举行其首次大型燃料电池摩拖车的示范运行。

What was unique about the company and its scooters was the approach APFCT took to fueling. APFCT designed their system with simplicity and consumer convenience in mind. Instead of taking the path of nearly all fuel cell transportation devices that require the refilling of an onboard cylinder with highly compressed hydrogen, the APFCT units use small canisters that store hydrogen in metal hydride powder. Instead of driving the vehicle to a fueling station and waiting for a cylinder to be filled the user simply takes their empty canisters to a vendor who exchanges them for filled canisters (with about the same internal pressure as a racing bike tire).


In its first demonstration APFCT put 80 scooters on the road at a beach resort in southern Taiwan. Tourists were permitted to use the scooters for free. When they ran out of hydrogen all they needed to do was to take the empty canisters to any 7–Eleven convenience store, repair shop or police station for exchange. Why 7-Eleven? Taiwan has the fifth largest number of 7-Eleven stores in the world, behind the U.S., Japan, Thailand and South Korea. There is a 7-Eleven within walking distance of almost any place in Taiwan.


APFCT has continued to build upon this hydride storage fueling model over the last two years. It has tested a number of different vehicles, all of which use identical canisters. Those with larger hydrogen demands simply require more canisters for operation.


Scooters 2.0


Last November, APFCT began a second scooter demonstration in Taiwan with the city government of Taipei. In this demonstration 20 scooters have been deployed for use in environmental auditing site inspections and surveying by city officials.


101 scooters

APFCT’s current scooter model has a range of approximately 80 km.


glacier color scooter

Fueling costs can be very economic – in the Taipei demonstration, the local cost of electricity to generate the hydrogen results in a canisters exchange cost of NTD 30 (about USD 1).

充氢成本可以是经济实惠的 – 在台湾示范运行中储氢罐交换价格为新台币30元 (约一块美金),此价格包括当地产氢所使用的电力及物流费。

rear canisters

chen fueling

APFCT says this current model would sell for about NTD 90,000, about USD 3,000. That’s not quite a commercial price, but getting close. Assuming a successful demonstration, orders from city governments and the public could generate sufficient volume to get the price down, which would make APFCT fuel cell scooter be competitive with gasoline powered scooters.


Fork Lifts


APFCT has migrated its consumer friendly fueling system to a forklift application. They recently completed a demonstration of 5 forklifts in a distribution center in Taiwan operated by the RC Mart chain.


forklift front


Forklifts are an area of significant growth for fuel cells and one of the few applications that are commercially economic. Globally, there are at least 5,000 forklifts in operation at large distribution centers. These forklifts were all originally electric drive battery units. Their electric drives were all replaced with a fuel cell power system. The fuel cell systems themselves are somewhat expensive, however when one compares their total cost of ownership of the swapped out system with that of an electric drive, fuel cell systems are cheaper to operate and increase worker productivity.


The following chart provides a quick cost comparison between the two systems. In this case, a Class III forklift is used, which is a smaller unit where the operator rides on the truck.


TCO chart

Source: APFCT, Worthington Sawtelle LLC, National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Annualized cost

图片来源: APFCT, Worthington Sawtelle LLC, National Renewable Energy Laboratory

The bottom line here is that even though their fueling infrastructure and electricity costs are less, the battery driven units require significant labor for charging and refueling. What the chart does not show is that more battery units are required for a three shift day than fuel cell units; one battery unit must always be charging.


Virtually all fuel cell options for forklifts use high pressure hydrogen storage linked to a fuel cell with high internal pressures. Notice that in the high pressure bar above, all but the cost of hydrogen are likely to be relatively constant. The economics of the system depend almost entirely on the cost of hydrogen fuel. All systems currently in operation get their hydrogen delivered to a dispensing station in the distribution center from tube truck deliveries. The cost of that hydrogen increases with distance from the hydrogen production facility. Because of these high costs, a few operators are considering the installation of small natural gas reformers to generate hydrogen on-site from natural gas, which is relatively inexpensive in today’s market.


APFCT, characteristically, has developed a much different solution to this application, one which enhances its already winning cost analysis. The APFCT unit is shown as the third bar in the chart above, labeled “Low Pressure Fuel Cell.” This forklift design uses four fuel canisters that are identical to the ones used in the scooter. But unlike most other fuel cell forklifts, the APFCT unit uses a low internal pressure fuel cell. Lower internal pressures are less susceptible to membrane failure and have less moving parts. In the picture below the cabinets by this unit are the refuelers. Fuel canisters are placed in a rack in the unit and refilled with hydrogen being released from water through electrolysis.

亚太燃料电池一如既往地为叉车发展出与众不同的解决方案,图表成本分析中也显示了此解决方案的优势。亚太的叉车系统列在图表中的第三条,标有“低压燃料电池” 。该叉车设计采用四个储氢罐,与燃料电池摩托车所使用的储氢罐是相同的。和大多数燃料电池叉车不同的是,亚太使用了低内压的燃料电池。较低的内部压力使质子交换膜较不易损坏且运动部件较少。在图中位于叉车旁边的柜子内置有充氢机。充氢机可透过电解水制氢将氢气充填至氢气罐。

Next Steps


The best technology does not always make it in the marketplace, however. APFCT’s fueling approach offers a number of clear advantages over what is now regarded as conventional. Nonetheless, a number of alternative methods to store and dispense hydrogen in transportation applications have been attempted and then largely abandoned – usually due to the fact that such commercialization decisions are heavily influenced by the automobile manufacturers. It remains to be seen if APFCT can overcome the momentum already gained by others who are thoroughly invested in the high pressure cylinder on-board hydrogen storage model.

有时最好的技术并不容易商业化,亚太的低压储氢方式提供了许多明显的优势。尽管如此,目前已有部份储氢和配氢的替代方法都已经尝试过后并放弃 – 通常是由于此类替代方案的商业化主要是由汽车制造商所决策。让我们拭目以待,看亚太是否能克服多数使用高压储氢罐的主流,让低压金属储氢成为通往氢经济的快捷方式。