Thought Leaders

Battery Electric Vehicles vs. Hydrogen Vehicles

President George W. Bush promised that a child born at the beginning of his administration would be able to buy a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle as their first car. President Obama proposed that we deploy 1.5 million plug-in battery vehicles by 2015. Electric platform vehicles are going to be required to meet ambitious global climate change targets such as a 76% reduction from 2005 levels by 2050.

However, these vehicles will be more expensive than advanced gasoline vehicles. While lower fuel costs on a cents/mile basis can offset additional vehicle costs, 2015 may be too early to market either option commercially. However, the electric options can be more competitive as gasoline approaches $4+/gallon in the future1.

If the fuel cell system manufactured cost is about $50/kW and the hydrogen storage system is about $13 to 17/kWh, then fuel cell vehicles would be about $5000 to $7000 more expensive than a gasoline vehicle. The current DOE assessment for fuel cell system costs when mass produced in quantities of 500,000 is $60/kW2 and that 5000 psi and 10,000 psi hydrogen storage tanks meet the above values respectively3. Thus sufficient progress has been made on these component costs for automobile manufacturers to consider early marketplace entry by 2015. In fact Toyota, Honda, Daimler and GM have made public announcements that they plan to have tens of thousands of fuel cell vehicles available by 20154 and demonstrate 5000 hour fuel cell system durability to provide the public with a reliable product.

If a 40 mile range battery manufactured cost is about $300/kWh and has a state of charge of 70%, the incremental plug-in vehicle cost would be about $5500 to $9000 more than a gasoline vehicle. A National Research Council report5 casts doubt on reaching either of these goals, but an Argonne National Laboratory report6 has described Lithium ion battery technologies that can meet the above performance and cost numbers. DOE projects high energy intensity batteries could meet those targets by 20147.

Along with bio-fuels, electric platform vehicles address two national program needs: Global climate change and national security. They are the only DOE programs that effectively address the second issue. Our currency is now considered a safe haven, the dollar is getting stronger and the price of oil is decreasing. But this nation is taking on unprecedented debt. As our debt grows the U.S. dollar will become weaker and oil prices will increase. How soon the U.S. will be seen as a nation with an unsustainable debt is hard to predict but that specter is there.

Oil is at or near peak production and the industry has to go to more distant lands, deeper offshore resources and more expensive oil extraction technology just to keep provable oil reserves constant. However, with China, India, Brazil and other countries rapidly developing, there is increasing pressure from the demand side with little supply side options. Finally there have been several attempted attacks directed by Islamic fundamentalists at the airline industry, the subway system, Times Square, and Fort Hood. It is not too much of a stretch to fathom attacks on the oil supply system as well. We need to have alternative options available ASAP.

As part of the American Refinancing and Recovery Act, the administration funded $2.5 billion in contracts to develop battery manufacturing capacity to produce 500,000 batteries by 2015. This is an aggressive vehicle market transformation activity. At the same time the Secretary of Energy eliminated any fuel cell vehicle market transformation activity. He claimed that the hydrogen fuel cell vehicle needed four miracles to become a commercial reality.

His first claim was that fuel cell vehicles are too expensive. That is true but based on the expected fuel cell and storage system costs achieved in 2009, no more expensive than plug-in hybrid vehicles based on battery cost targets to be achieved in 2014. His next claim was that a breakthrough is needed in hydrogen storage. High pressure tanks are able to achieve 280 mile range (Honda Clarity) and 480 mile range (Toyota Highlander) on consumer vehicles. These tanks have been crashed, burned, shot at, etc and are rated for 10+ years of operation, while the high energy intensity battery needs to be extended from 3+ to 10+ years.

His next statement was that it is inefficient to make hydrogen. For the next 15 years, hydrogen will be made from natural gas. Results show that FCVs using hydrogen from natural gas emit 60% fewer GHGs than today's gasoline vehicle, and 35% fewer GHGs than natural gas vehicles. After 2025 hydrogen will be produced from coal, natural gas and biomass with carbon capture and sequestration.

The last claim by the Secretary was that building a hydrogen infrastructure is too difficult and too costly. An NREL report8 shows that hydrogen can be cost-competitive with gasoline and stations can be deployed using a coordinated cost-effective, regional urban strategy. Initially station networks will be deployed in LA and NYC, and then expanded to a total of 22 urban centers by 2025 to supply million(s) of vehicles. The hydrogen infrastructure cost per vehicle is actually equal to or less than the electric infrastructure cost depending on home/highway implementation and fast charging requirements9.

In summary, DOE needs to stress the importance of a vehicle market transformation strategy for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in concert with the Zero Emission Vehicle mandate. The President and the Congress need to recognize the hydrogen fuel cell program as part of a significant international effort to commercialize the fuel cell vehicle and the role that the California Zero Emission Mandate plays in that scenario. The vehicle market transformation line item needs to be restored in the 2011 hydrogen program budget that would provide for 50/50 cost share of the infrastructure and vehicles from 2012 to 2014 (up to 3000 vehicles) and 2015 to 2017 (up to 30,000 vehicles) at a cost of $75 million/year for four years (FY 2011-14) and $330 million/year for three years (2015-17). The hydrogen budget for the initial four years would need to be restored to $210 million to accommodate the increased budget.


  1. Gronich, S., Are plug-in/battery electric vehicles more market ready than hydrogen fuel cell vehicles?, presented at the National Hydrogen Association Conference, May 5, 2010
  2. James, B. and Kalinoski, J., (DTI), Mass-Production Cost Estimation of Automotive Fuel Cell Systems, Presented to the Fuel Cell technology Team, August 12, 2009
  3. Lasher, S., McKenney, K., and Sinha, J., TIAXLLC, Analyses of Hydrogen Materials and On-Board Systems - Cost Results Summary for On-Board Compressed & Cryo-compressed Hydrogen Storage,, presented to hydrogen storage technical team meeting, 12/17/09
  4. Letter of Understanding on the Development and market Introduction of the Fuel Cell Vehicles, Daimler, Ford, GM/Opel, Honda, Toyota, Hyundai/Kia and Renault/Nissan
  5. Transitions to Alternative Transportation Technologies--Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles, National Committee on Assessment of Resource Needs for Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Technologies Research Council
  6. Nelson, P.A., Santini, D. J., and Barnes, J., Argonne National Laboratory, Factors Determining the Manufacturing Costs of Lithium-ion Batteries for PHEVs, EVS4, Stavanger, Norway, May 13-16, 2009
  7. Howell, D. Energy Storage R&D Overview. Presented at 2009 DOE Vehicle Technologies Annual Merit Review, May 2009
  8. Melendez, M., Milbrandt, A. Geographically Based Hydrogen Consumer Demand and Infrastructure Analysis: Final Report. October 2006. NREL.
  9. Thomas, C. E., EV Fuel Infrastructure Costs

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