As big groups like Adani, Ambani, Tata and L&T make moves on the hydrogen fuel sector, an analysis of the relative strengths of hydrogen fuel cell technology and battery technology suggests that the HFC technology is likely to turn out to be the long term winner.
The analysis suggests that battery-based technology will definitely dominate the personal transport vehicles, such as cars and SUVs, through the 2020s.
However, hydrogen fuel cell technology will first make a breakthrough in the commercial vehicle sector, as using batteries to travel 1,000 km per charge will make the trucks extremely expensive. This will lead to hydrogen-fuel-cell technologies being adopted by the trucking fleets, with hydrogen refueling pumps getting established strategically on major highways.
Once that network is established, and the technology itself becomes slight more cost-effective, hydrogen is then likely to then spread to the personal vehicles market as well.
How Batteries and Fuel Cells Work
Before comparing battery and hydrogen vehicles, it is important to understand how each powertrain technology functions at a basic level.
Battery-electric vehicles utilize large rechargeable lithium-ion battery packs to store and provide electricity to power the vehicle’s electric motor. The motor converts the electrical energy from the batteries into mechanical torque that turns the wheels. EVs are plugged in to charge up the battery pack, which can typically provide 200-300 miles of driving range on a single charge. Recharging times vary from 30 minutes to over 12 hours depending on the charger power level.
Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles also use an electric drivetrain, but with electricity generated onboard by the fuel cell stack rather than stored in a large battery. The fuel cell combines hydrogen from the tank with oxygen from the air to produce electricity through an electrochemical reaction. The only byproduct is water vapor. Fuel cell vehicles can be quickly refueled with pressurized hydrogen gas in around 5 minutes, and generally have driving ranges over 300 miles.
So in summary, BEVs store energy in batteries, while HFCVs use hydrogen as the energy carrier and generate electricity as needed. Both powertrain technologies result in vehicles with swift, quiet electric drive and no tailpipe emissions. Now let’s explore how they compare in other areas.
Efficiency and Well-to-Wheel Emissions
A key consideration in comparing electric drive powertrains is overall efficiency and emissions from initial energy source to turning the wheels, referred to as well-to-wheel emissions.
For BEVs, the energy conversion steps are electricity generation, battery charging, and then battery to electric motor. Each step has some loss and emissions depending on how the grid electricity is generated. On average, modern BEVs can utilize about 70% of the initial source energy. For renewable energy sources like solar or wind, there are minimal emissions during electricity generation. But for fossil fuels, there are upstream greenhouse gas emissions that must be accounted for.
Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles have efficiency losses during hydrogen production, transport, storage, and conversion in the fuel cell stack. Overall well-to-wheel efficiency averages around 35-40% currently. Most hydrogen today is produced by steam reforming natural gas, which has associated CO2 emissions. But in the future, more production is expected to come from water electrolysis powered by renewable electricity, which would make hydrogen a very low emission fuel.
So on the whole, BEVs are presently more energy efficient and have lower well-to-wheel emissions in most regions based on current grid power generation. But HFCVs have the potential to reach true zero-emissions status as renewable hydrogen production increases.
Practical Driving Range
Because BEVs and HFCVs rely on stored energy or fuel to power the electric motor, driving range between refueling is a key differentiator.
Today’s BEVs offer 200+ miles (320 km) of range on a single charge thanks to improving battery energy densities. For example, the Tesla Model 3 Standard Range Plus is EPA rated at 263 miles per charge. Real world range varies based on driving conditions, but ranges over 200 miles allow most daily commuting and errands between recharges. However, longer road trips require careful planning around charging stops, which adds inconvenience. Range anxiety around running out of charge remains a concern for some drivers.
In contrast, HFCVs can currently achieve driving ranges over 300 miles (480 km) between fills and can be refueled quickly in 5 minutes. The Toyota Mirai and Hyundai Nexo are rated at 312 and 380 miles respectively on a kg of hydrogen. So hydrogen vehicles alleviate range anxiety and are better suited for long trips without extended charging sessions. Range could improve further as hydrogen tanks become lighter weight and more compact.
Overall, HFCVs offer range and driving convenience advantages over today’s BEVs. But as battery densities continue improving, BEV ranges will become more comparable within the next 5-10 years.
Environmental Impact and Sustainability
Environmental sustainability is a major incentive for switching to BEVs and HFCVs over fossil fuel powered vehicles. But there are differences in the environmental footprints between the technologies.
Battery electric vehicles have zero tailpipe emissions, which can greatly improve urban air quality. And well-to-wheel emissions are low when renewable energy powers the grid. But lithium-ion batteries require mining of materials like lithium, cobalt, and nickel. Raw material production and battery disposal/recycling processes have environmental impacts. There are also ethical concerns around materials sourced from certain countries. These factors mean BEV life cycle impacts may be higher than commonly assumed.
For HFCVs, the biggest sustainability impact comes from how the hydrogen itself is produced. As mentioned earlier, most production today comes from natural gas reforming which has a large carbon footprint. But electrolysis using renewable electricity offers a zero emission hydrogen source. The materials needed like platinum are scarce but recyclable. Overall, HFCVs appear more environmentally friendly when the hydrogen supply is fully renewable.
So while BEVs hold the edge now, clean hydrogen could ultimately make HFCVs the lower carbon option especially considering potential grid decarbonization delays in some regions. But responsible material sourcing and battery recycling will be important for BEVs as well.
Current State of Global Adoption
Understanding the current marketplace penetration and sales trends for BEVs versus HFCVs gives an indication of where momentum is headed in the near term of the next 5-10 years.
Battery electric vehicles have seen rapidly rising adoption in recent years, approaching 5% of global new car sales in 2021. All major automakers now offer BEV models, with Tesla leading the pack. Continued model diversity, reducing costs, and expanding charging access is driving sales higher each year, especially in Europe and China which are ahead of the US market. Consumer familiarity with BEVs is accumulating quickly.
Meanwhile, hydrogen fuel cell vehicle adoption remains very niche, accounting for well under 0.1% of global sales. The limited model availability and fueling network has hindered mainstream progress. Currently, Toyota, Hyundai, and Honda are the primary OEMs offering HFCV passenger cars mostly targeted to retail consumers in California and parts of Asia. But numerous truck manufacturers are now piloting hydrogen trucks for commercial transportation applications.
So in the short term, BEVs have a substantial head start and will likely dominate eco-friendly vehicle sales for some time. But high profile investments in hydrogen infrastructure signal that momentum is picking up. HFCVs may establish an initial foothold in commercial vehicles and gradually spread to consumer markets during the coming decade.
The Case of India
India was the 5th largest producer of motor vehicles globally in 2021, manufacturing over 4.4 million units. Domestic sales reached 3.8 million units, led by entry-level compact cars and two-wheelers which together accounted for over 85% of local passenger vehicle sales. Due to low average incomes, cars remain unaffordable for most Indians. Just 2.5% of Indians own a car compared to 80% in the United States. Two-wheelers and public transit dominate personal mobility, with over 200 million registered motorcycles and scooters plying Indian roads.
Within the passenger vehicle segment, Maruti Suzuki and Hyundai lead the market with over 60% combined share. Tata Motors, Mahindra & Mahindra, Toyota, and others make up most of the rest. The government owns two major domestic OEMs – Hindustan Motors and SAIC. Commercial vehicles are also a major industry focus, led by Tata and Mahindra. Overall, India exports around 15% of domestically produced vehicles, mainlycompact economy models, hatchbacks, trucks, and two-wheelers.
Despite relatively low car ownership rates, India already faces major transportation challenges from vehicular congestion and air pollution as a result of population density and unplanned urbanization. 13 of the world’s 50 most polluted cities are in India. Transportation accounts for 10% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, nearly 85% of which comes from road travel. India relies on imported crude oil for 80% of its fuel needs, costing billions in foreign exchange outlays. Hence curbing fuel consumption and diversifying from petroleum are also government priorities.
In this complex context, India aims to rapidly transition a significant portion of transportation from ICEs to electric drivetrains over the next 10-20 years. But policymakers remain divided on whether batteries or hydrogen will be the optimal zero emission transport energy carrier to enable this shift.
Vehicle costs will be central to adoption rates by Indian consumers. Projecting future cost decline curves for EVs and FCVs provides clues on when each option may achieve mass market price parity with ICEs.
Third party estimates see lithium-ion battery pack prices dropping from around $160/kWh currently to $100/kWh by 2025 and closer to $60/kWh by 2030. Accounting for smaller battery sizes needed for frugal Indian-market EVs, packs could reach $5,000-$8,000 by 2030. Combined with simpler electric drivetrains, modest BEVs may only cost 10-20% more than equivalent ICE models, on par with projected gasoline cost premiums. So BEV price parity could come by the late 2020s.
For fuel cell vehicles, current costs above $55,000 must drop sharply. Automakers are targeting costs of $15,000-$25,000 for compact FCVs in the 2030 timeframe, enabled by localized manufacturing. If achieved, FCVs could near cost parity with ICEs sometime in the late 2030s. But hydrogen fuel costs will be a large variable factor in total ownership costs.
These rough projections indicate BEVs likely reaching Indian price parity first, suggesting a 5-10 year lead on FCVs. But sustained policy support and technical breakthroughs could alter the trajectory substantially.
Given the current visibility over technology and costs, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles appear to have a realistic chance at supplanting battery-electrics as the dominant zero emission powertrain in the long run. However, BEVs are likely to lead the transition from gasoline vehicles through the 2020s based on superior near term economics and charging infrastructure. But as hydrogen costs and distribution networks mature, HFCVs have strengths in fast refueling, long range, and potentially lower carbon life cycle emissions that could drive more rapid adoption starting in the 2030s timeframe.
Ultimately, the growth of BEVs and HFCVs over the coming decades will depend on continued technology improvement and infrastructure investment by both public and private entities. For example, if a breakthrough is achieved in battery technology that make them both cheaper and lighter, it would be possible to increase the range of a battery-powered car to around 700 km per charge, which is the maximum that a private vehicle is likely to travel at one stretch.
Where Are Indian Companies Betting?
One of the ways to figure out in which direction the wind is blowing is to figure out where the money is flowing.
For example, groups such as Reliance Industries, Tata, Larsen & Tourbro have already started investing in building up mega hydrogen infrastructure — such as setting up a large chain of hydrogen re-fueling centers.
Reliance Industries (RIL) has unveiled plans to build a 5,000 MW green hydrogen ecosystem over the next 10-15 years, which would generate around 90 tonne of hydrogen per hour, or nearly 0.8 million tonne of hydrogen per year.
This will involve setting up gigawatt-scale electrolyzer factories and developing hydrogen mobility solutions. RIL has acquired major electrolyzer makers like Norway’s REC Solar Holdings and USA’s NexWafe to obtain technology expertise. It is also exploring producing hydrogen from natural gas through methane pyrolysis technology and integrating hydrogen production with its oil refineries. The group aims to become one of the leading domestic producers and suppliers of green hydrogen in India.
Another big conglomerate in India, Adani Group, signed an MoU with France’s Total Energies in 2021 to jointly develop green hydrogen production and distribution infrastructure in India.
It plans to invest over $50 billion in renewable energy generation capacity and produce 1 million tons of green hydrogen annually by 2030.
Adani Group targets to be one of the largest green hydrogen producers in the world through cost-competitive electrolysis technology and use of renewable energy. It aims to supply green hydrogen for various industrial uses like steelmaking, fertilizer production, refining, heavy-duty transportation etc. Adani is also exploring producing blue hydrogen using natural gas combined with carbon capture.
Similarly, in 2021, L&T entered into a partnership with Indian Oil Corporation to manufacture and deploy alkaline water electrolyzers used for green hydrogen production. L&T is planning to set up a gigawatt-scale electrolyzer manufacturing facility in India and has capabilities across the hydrogen value chain from manufacturing of electrolyzers to storage, transportation and utilization of hydrogen as an energy source.
Tata Chemicals also has significant focus on hydrogen fuel cells. It has partnered with Indian Oil Corporation and NTPC to set up a green hydrogen production and utilization ecosystem in India.
Other companies like Acme Cleantech Solutions, Thermax, Hindustan Petroleum and Greenko are also working in areas like electrolyzers, hydrogen storage and transportation, fuel cell development and demonstration projects across the hydrogen value chain.