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The Massive Cost of Fuel Cell Vehicles. Part 1

November 3, 2015

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) has approved Advanced Clean-Car Rules that will result in 1.4 million zero-emission or plug-in (PHEV) cars on the road by 2025, with one-in-every-six (15%) cars sold in 2025 being a zero-emission or PHEV vehicle.

Battery electric vehicles (BEVs), fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) and plug-in electric vehicles (PHEVs) rely on electricity or hydrogen as their “fuel”.

Earlier articles have shown that BEVs and PHEVs cost more than comparable gasoline powered vehicles. See, Is There a Future for Battery Powered Vehicles?

While BEVs make little economic sense, FCVs using hydrogen make even less sense.

Hydrogen fuel cell powered Mirai from Toyota

Hydrogen fuel cell powered Mirai from Toyota

There are three problems with using hydrogen in FCVs. Safety is not one of them, though people sometimes refer to the Hindenburg disaster as an indication that hydrogen is dangerous.

The four main problems for FCVs using hydrogen are:

  • Production of hydrogen
  • Delivery, i.e., transportation of hydrogen
  • Storage of hydrogen on FCVs
  • Cost of fuel cells

Production of hydrogen

There are two conventional methods for producing hydrogen:

  • Steam reforming of natural gas
  • Electrolysis of water

Currently, nearly all the roughly 10 million tons of hydrogen produced each year in the United States are used in the chemical, refining and metals industries, with 95% of the hydrogen produced by the steam methane reforming process.

Nearly all of the reformed hydrogen is currently produced at centralized locations. This requires the hydrogen for use in vehicles to be transported to fueling stations.

  1. Centralized production
  • If hydrogen is produced at central facilities, it must be transported to fueling stations.
  • Hydrogen must be transported as a liquid in cryogenic trucks where approximately 30% of the energy in the hydrogen is lost due to the refrigeration process.
  • The cost of transporting the hydrogen, including the heat loss, and constructing fueling stations would increase the cost of the hydrogen at the pump, from an estimated potential cost of around $4 per kg, to approximately $6 per kg.

(a) Investment required for centralized production

(1) The Colorado School of Mines prepared a report describing how centralized facilities could operate. The number of such facilities and their cost was not established, however the price of hydrogen from such facilities was estimated to be $6.80 per kg, to which the cost of transportation must be added.

    2. Local production at the fueling station

  • If hydrogen is produced using reforming at the fueling station the cost of the hydrogen will vary depending on the size of the fueling station and associated reforming capacity.
  • H2Gen, which was bought by Air Products, published a table showing that the cost of hydrogen for a 100-car-per-day fueling station would be around $6 per kg.

(a) Investment required for local production

(1) There are 168,000 gasoline fueling stations in the United States.

(2) NREL projects a cost of $2.8 million for each hydrogen fueling station capable of handling 100 cars per day. The total investment required to replicate the number of gasoline stations would be $470 billion.

What would it take to eliminate gasoline powered vehicles?

Cutting CO2 emissions 80% is the goal established by Obama and the EPA. This is a draconian objective that cannot be reached by halfway measures, if at all.

It requires eliminating all gasoline and diesel powered vehicles, which is the reason for forcing the adoption of so called clean-cars on the public. It’s the end game for radical environmentalists.

So why not examine the outcome if all vehicles were FCVs, and there were no more gasoline or diesel vehicles?

Here are interesting comparisons if all the cars in the US were fuel cell vehicles.

  1. Total vehicle miles traveled in the US were 3.1 trillion miles in 2014.
  2. How much hydrogen would be needed to drive FCVs 3.1 trillion miles?
  • Reforming would require producing 57 million tons of hydrogen, or roughly 6 times the 10 million tons currently produced, which is already mostly used by industry.
  • Producing hydrogen by using electrolysis of water would require using 3.1 trillion kWh of electricity, which is equal to 80% of all the electricity consumed in the US in 2014.

3. In other words:

  • The United States would have to invest billions of dollars in new reforming facilities, or
  • Build approximately 1,800 new power generation plants rated 500 MW, the size of a typical new natural gas combined cycle (NGCC) power plant … at a cost of over $1 trillion.

Conclusion related to producing and distributing hydrogen for FCVs

  1. Using electrolysis requires building 1,800 new power plants that emit CO2. The cost is in excess of $1 trillion which should preclude using electrolysis, especially if the objective is to eliminate CO2 emissions. Reforming, does however, emit some CO2.
  2. It would require an investment of at least $460 billion to provide hydrogen at 168,000 fueling stations.
  3. At $6 per kg for hydrogen, and a 60 mpg (equivalent) for FCVs versus 25 for gasoline powered vehicles, an FCV might provide a small cost savings of $200 per year if gasoline cost $3.00 per gallon. However, the current cost of hydrogen dispensed at California fueling stations is around $14 per kg. At $14 per kg, there are no savings in fuel costs, just additional costs.


The cost of producing and delivering hydrogen to fueling stations is exorbitant.

The cost of manufacturing FCVs will be discussed in part 2.



Data, such as miles driven, are readily available on the Internet.

Links to other more obscure data are shown here:

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Catcracking permalink
    November 3, 2015 6:12 pm

    A good summary on the economic viability of hydrogen powered autos.
    Besides the economics, you make an excellent point as to the cost of providing an infrastructure comparable to the 168,000 existing facilities that were provided by the free market system for gasoline and diesel. It seems as though the environmentalist think the tax payer should subsidize them as they do with electric charging facilities.

    One aspect I don’t understand is the claim that hydrogen powered vehicles are zero emission. Are they unaware that the steam reforming process from methane, CH-4, releases the carbon molecule into the atmosphere as CO-2? What a waste of energy. Also the process normally uses natural gas or another fossil fuel to provide the significant heat energy required for the chemical reactions to occur? More CO-2 emissions.

    Furthermore there is a lot of energy, including high pressure compressors running on electricity, required to liquefy the H-2 in order to ship it to distribution sites, where as indicated in the article ,significant losses occur to keep it refrigerated during storage and transportation. A lot of energy is wasted in this application.

    Finally the Hydrogen must be stored in the stainless steel vehicle tank as a gas at very high pressures, in the order of 9000 psi. Since the molecule is so small it is very difficult to prevent leakage at fittings, etc. I would not put a 9000 psi H-2 tank in my garage. What happens in an accident?

    Hydrogen is needed in many processes and other applications, powering a car is not one of them.

    • November 4, 2015 8:37 am

      Thanks. Excellent points re CO2 emissions from reforming. Also re storage at fueling stations, including in garages etc.

  2. concerned public permalink
    November 4, 2015 9:04 pm

    Hi Donn,

    I find your columns enlightening.

    There is some noise about fusion energy or Low Energy Nuclear Reactions (also Brillouin Energy). I realis it’s just speculation and even if prototypes emerged it would I suppose take years to come to market as a sure alternative to coal/gas.

    Also, it seems obvious that the fossil fuel industry cannot just ”exit stage left” unless we are prepared to upset the apple cart.

    LPP Fusion (see link below) indicate a 5MW reactor would cost USD 300,000
    Maths are not my strong point but if that dream came true it might make hydrogen fuel cells workable (provided all other massive infrastructure investments were made).
    ”…A 5 MW Focus Fusion generator may cost around $300,000 and produce electricity for 1/5th of a cent per kWh. This is ten times less than the cheapest current technology. Fuel costs will be negligible because a 5 MW plant will require only five pounds of fuel per year….”

    The last link below is from a German economist who claims that EU investments in renewable energy (mainly wind) have cost EURO 5.7 trillion which seems like a big number to me.
    I just think its a mistake to invest in weather dependent energy sources which are not going to solve any issues, just adding to the overall cost of eventually replacing carbon.
    Not to mention the rising electricity costs as the investors must get their return on all those wind energy investments.

  3. November 5, 2015 8:46 am

    Thanks for your comment.
    Fusion has been an elusive concept for fifty years, with billions of dollars spent on various designs, such as the ITER experimental unit in France.
    There are at least three concepts floating around the Internet about fusion. There is the University of Washington proposal, the Lockheed Martin proposal, and another, I just learned about today, from Germany called the Stellarator. If any of these ever actually work, they could be revolutionary. So far, fusion has been a dream that continues to be elusive.
    I’m also of the view that Germany’s energiewend program has been a disaster, with wind and solar being far more expensive than coal or natural gas generated electricity.


  1. Weekly Climate and Energy News Roundup #204 | Watts Up With That?

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