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Hydrogen Or Electric: Why Not Both?

·5-min read

Renault has just announced its first hydrogen-electric hybrid concept car, using hydrogen to push its EV models further. While automakers continue to argue over which technology will power the future of transport – electric batteries or hydrogen fuel cells – Renault is combining the two to offer an alternative option.

Unlike a traditional hybrid car, which uses fossil fuels to power the vehicle, a hydrogen-electric hybrid incorporates a hydrogen fuel cell into the design. This means that the vehicle can run off electricity or hydrogen fuel, much in same the way as a traditional hybrid.

In the case of Renault, its Scenic Vision has a hydrogen engine, electric motor, battery, fuel cell and a hydrogen tank. The tank weighs around 2.5kg and takes approximately five minutes to fill. The battery component is expected to be recyclable. The addition of a hydrogen fuel cell could significantly increase the range of the EV, to around 800 km, allowing drivers to switch to fuel on longer journeys.

Gilles Vidal, Renault’s design director, stated that the concept car “prefigures the exterior design of the new Scenic 100% electric model for 2024.” And that the incorporation of hydrogen technology is “part of a longer-term vision, beyond 2030.”

Some automakers have been developing hydrogen-fuelled cars as an alternative to electric battery vehicles, arguing that the longer range is necessary for many commercial vehicles. It is also being widely considered for public transport, from planes to buses and trains.

With governments around the globe encouraging a movement away from internal combustion engines (ICE) in favor of greener alternatives, the rollout of more hydrogen fuelling stations is expected by the end of the decade. In the U.S., there were 48 retail hydrogen stations in 2021, with a further 60 under construction. And in the U.K., as many as 2,000 green hydrogen fuelling stations are expected for 2030.

There has been a long-standing battle between hydrogen and battery electric vehicles, with big names taking sides. BMW, Hyundai, and Toyota are all testing out hydrogen fuel cell technology, as well as developing EV models.

In a statement, the car manufacturer said, “BMW is convinced that hydrogen can make an important contribution to sustainable mobility alongside battery-electric vehicles in the future – provided the necessary hydrogen infrastructure is in place and offers a good price for hydrogen, and the price of the vehicles falls,” And, “In those circumstances, hydrogen fuel cell cars can be the zero-emissions technology that allows users to maintain the flexible driving habits they are accustomed to.”

The biggest hurdle to producing zero carbon emissions green hydrogen is the high cost compared to traditional fuels and electric alternatives. In fact, to make fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) mainstream by the end of the decade, costs would have to fall from around $840 per kilowatt to $420 per kilowatt. But the development of large-scale green hydrogen facilities around the world could help bring down prices, much in the same way solar and wind energy has become more cost-effective due to its growing scale.

Automakers are backing hydrogen fuel cells due to their long-range and fast fuelling time, which makes them highly competitive with electric batteries. While traditional EVs are more well-known, some manufacturers such as BMW and Audi believe that as the market remains in its infancy it could quickly shift to hydrogen if costs can be reduced.

Related: The Electric Vehicle Boom Has Turned Argentina Into A Lithium Hotspot

Not to forget, that due to supply chain disruptions, shortages, and rising demand, material costs for EVs have been rapidly increasing over the last year. Automakers have had to increase the prices of their EVs due to soaring component costs, at a time when they were expected to drive prices down to become more competitive and make EVs more widely accessible. Tesla, Rivian, and Cadillac have all hiked their prices in recent months as the cost of batteries has gone up, with mineral mining not meeting battery production levels at present.

However, not everyone believes hydrogen is practical for EVs, with Volkswagen and several automakers keeping their focus on electric batteries. VW believes traditional EVs meet the needs of most consumers and can be widely developed for the rising demand over the next decade. In addition, their maintenance costs are much lower than ICE engine vehicles, reducing the long-term pay-out. In terms of hydrogen, it believes companies would be reliant on hydrogen imports for FCEV production, and with limited green hydrogen production at present this would be restrictive.

But, going forward, what if automakers could incorporate both electric battery and hydrogen fuel cell technologies into one car to produce a more durable, longer-range EV? Renault’s concept car promises a 75 percent smaller carbon footprint than a conventional EV, with zero emissions emitted during its production. It does not require rare-earth elements, and the smaller battery – to be produced in France by 2024 – is lighter and cheaper to make than traditional EV batteries.

While automakers continue to argue over which is better for the future of transport, electric batteries or hydrogen fuel cells, Renault has thrown a spanner in the works by offering both in the form of a hybrid. A vehicle that combines both low-emissions technologies could provide the day-to-day advantages of an electric battery-powered engine with the longer range of an FCEV.

By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com

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