April 17, 2003
Comments on the draft document of The European Commission:
HYDROGEN ENERGY AND FUEL CELLS –
A VISION OF OUR FUTURE
Ulf Bossel, Dipl. Ing., Ph.D. Gordon Taylor, B.Sc., M.Sc.
European Fuel Cell Forum G T Systems
Morgenacherstrasse 2F 19 The Vale
CH-5452 Oberrohrdorf Stock, Ingatestone, Essex,
Switzerland CM4 9PW, United Kingdom
Decisions on energy strategy should be based on solid quantitative evidence. Yet we
find that the draft of HYDROGEN ENERGY AND FUEL CELLS – A VISION OF OUR
FUTURE fails to provide a sound case for even the present level of European hydrogen
and fuel cell R & D activities, much less for any increase leading towards a hydrogen
economy. Our concerns are based on the following:
The draft document is an extended summary of well-known qualitative arguments in
support of a hydrogen economy. However, it completely fails to consider the physics
involved. The few numbers presented relate to energy in general, but there is no
quantitative evidence related to hydrogen and the hydrogen economy. Since no other
energy options are considered, they certainly do not allow the conclusion that a
hydrogen economy is the only and the best clean energy solution. Nor do they justify any
R & D for a hydrogen economy, especially when other current and near-term options are
urgently needed to prepare our energy system for a sustainable future.
The European Fuel Cell Forum was founded to promote fuel cell technology based on
sound science and engineering. It has just completed the attached engineering study
"The Future of the Hydrogen Economy: Bright or Bleak?" The report can also be found
on the internet at www.efcf.com/reports/hydrogen_economy.pdf. It is a complete
quantitative study and analyzes the energy needed to operate a hydrogen economy.
This includes the energy to produce hydrogen by electrolysis, to package the gas by
compression or liquefaction, to transport the packaged energy carrier by road and
pipeline, to produce hydrogen onsite at filling stations, and to transfer hydrogen to
storage tanks. The alternative of packaging hydrogen in synthetic liquid hydrocarbon
fuels is also considered.
The study reveals the fundamental weaknesses of a hydrogen economy. Its overall
"well-to-wheel" or "source-to-service" efficiency is so low that from an energetic
perspective the use of elemental hydrogen makes no sense. While only 12% of the
source energy is lost between oil wells and gasoline tanks, at least 50% of the source
energy would be lost between electric power plants and hydrogen tanks. Moreover,
there is the question of the source of electricity for making and delivering the hydrogen.
Today, about 80% of the energy is supplied to the consumer as natural gas, gasoline,
diesel or heating oil, and only 20% as electricity. If the chemical 80% were to be
replaced by hydrogen, the electric power generating capacity would need to be
increased tenfold. A factor of five is needed for simple energy substitution, while a
second factor of about two is needed to meet the losses of a hydrogen economy. It is not
clear at all where the primary energy for the electric power production could come from,
especially as it would all have to be carbon-free.
In the USA, a "clean coal" strategy has been proposed for the generation of electricity
needed to produce and deliver hydrogen. This involves carbon capture and permanent
sequestration. The overall efficiency of the energy chain, i.e. coal mine - coal-fired steam
power plant – AC power transmission – transformation and AC-DC conversion –
electrolysis – hydrogen compression or liquefaction – hydrogen distribution – hydrogen
transfer to vehicle tanks – hydrogen conversion to DC power in fuel cell cars – power to
the wheels, is below 10%. This is less than the overall energy efficiency of the steam
engine era around 1900. Moreover, permanent carbon sequestration on this scale would
be extremely difficult, especially as any failure (releasing the CO2 into the atmosphere)
would be completely unacceptable.
Energy strategy decisions should be based not on qualitative visions but on a
quantitative assessment of the "well-to-wheel" or "source-to-service" energy chain.
Europe should not blindly follow the present US Administration, whose FreedomCar,
Hydrogen, and Clean Coal Initiatives are experiencing increasing opposition from the
international community of scientists and engineers familiar with the laws of physics and
the specifics of hydrogen. Indeed, we expect that these energy proposals will not outlive
the present US Administration.
The high energy consumption associated with hydrogen production, packaging,
distribution, storage and handling is directly related to the physics of the lightest of all
elements. Physics and properties of hydrogen cannot be changed by parliaments,
governments or committees. Nor can the properties of hydrogen be changed by
research and development. However, the potential impact of a hydrogen economy can
be analyzed on the basis of existing knowledge and engineering experience. Therefore,
before proposing any further R & D related to a hydrogen economy, the energetic,
economic, environmental, and social consequences should be properly analyzed. By
doing this, Europe could define its own energy strategy based on sound physics and
engineering and lead the world towards a clean energy future.
We agree with the authors of the draft vision document that future energy strategy will
depend on renewable energy. We also agree that a hydrogen carrier will play an
important role in such a renewable energy economy, as a link between physical energy
(e.g. kinetic energy of wind and water, radiation from the sun) and chemical energy (e.g.
transport fuel). However, our analysis shows that it would be extremely inefficient to use
elemental hydrogen for stationary and mobile applications.
• Stationary applications: A hydrogen infrastructure such as that shown in
Figure 1 of the draft vision document is highly improbable. As hydrogen is
effectively electrical energy converted with significant losses, it cannot
compete with direct electric power distribution. The "source-to-service"
efficiency of electricity conversion to hydrogen, its packaging by compression
or liquefaction, its distribution by road or pipeline, and its re-conversion to
electric power by fuel cells would be at most 25%. However, the direct delivery
of electric power to the end user via cables has an efficiency of over 90%.
Irrespective of how the electric power is generated, converting it to hydrogen
does not make sense for stationary applications.
• Mobile applications: For similar reasons, a hydrogen infrastructure may also
never be established in the transportation sector. Whichever path is chosen,
the "well-to-tank" efficiency would be less than 50%. Even the best fuel cells
have an average "tank-to-wheels" system efficiency, based on the Higher
Heat Value of the fuel, of 40% or less over typical driving cycles. Hence the
overall "well-to-wheels" efficiency would be only about 20% or less. This is
less than e.g. liquid-fuelled engine-electric hybrids. Thus elemental hydrogen
makes no sense for mobile applications.
For an environmentally benign energy supply in the transportation sector, there are
much better solutions, notably synthetic liquid hydrocarbon fuels. These may be made
by combining hydrogen derived from renewable energy with re-cycled carbon derived
from biomass, organic waste or captured CO2. They have volumetric energy densities far
higher than elemental hydrogen, whether compressed or liquefied, and comparable to
gasoline and diesel fuel. Moreover, it takes much less energy to produce, distribute and
handle synthetic liquid hydrocarbons than to make and deliver hydrogen. Furthermore,
they are much easier to handle, and can be transported and stored via the present
infrastructure. Hence synthetic liquid hydrocarbons could play a dominant role in the
transportation sector of a future renewable energy economy.
However, streamlining our present energy system should be the first priority of a
European Energy Program. The overall energy consumption should be reduced by
active and passive means, encouraged by legislation, and by changes in consumer
behavior. The necessary restructuring of the energy system must occur in the near
future and must be implemented for electricity, portable fuels and heat.
For stationary applications, including those requiring simultaneous heat and power,
natural gas will remain an important energy carrier for some decades. Hence any
European energy research, development and implementation activities should include
fuel cells for natural gas. However, there is no necessary connection between fuel cells
and hydrogen. Fuel cell systems promise to improve the efficiency of power generation
from natural gas, whereas hydrogen-only fuel cell systems should only be supported if
elemental hydrogen is likely to become a market commodity fuel.
Based on this analysis and on our report we urge the European Commission to consider
the following measures:
1. Improve the "source-to-service" energy efficiency of the existing energy
system by legislation and incentives. The goal should be to maintain the quality
of life while reducing the energy consumption significantly by 30 to 50%.
2. Commission three independent engineering studies of the energetic and
economic consequences of a hydrogen economy. These studies should be
prepared not by visionary promoters of a hydrogen economy, but by engineers
and scientists with solid backgrounds in natural sciences. Any further actions of
the European Commission should be based on the findings of these studies.
3. Intensify the support for research and development on renewable energy
systems for the generation of cost-competitive heat and electrical energy.
Surplus electricity from renewable sources could be converted to hydrogen and
combined with biocarbon to fuel an energetically viable synthetic liquid
In conclusion, we welcome initiatives for the encouragement of a renewable energy
economy. However, we also believe that European energy strategy should be based on
quantitative scientific arguments and hard engineering evidence rather than purely
qualitative visions. In our report we have shown that an elemental hydrogen economy is
not the only and certainly not the best solution. Therefore, we find the draft document
"Hydrogen Energy and Fuel Cells – A Vision of Our Future" fails to make a case for any
European hydrogen and fuel cell initiative. Indeed, the draft document should be
withdrawn completely, since it lacks any quantitative consideration of the physics and
engineering of hydrogen as an energy carrier.