Posted by: paul | February 19, 2009

LA Times Hydrogen Article

The February 13 L.A. Times had an article today entitled Honda FCX Clarity: Beauty for Beauty’s Sake in which the author, Dan Neil, dismissed hydrogen for vehicles on two points: cost of the vehicle & the efficiency of generating hydrogen from electricity versus charging a battery from electricity.  Below is an email I sent to him in response to his article.  Hydrogen supporters know that there are other important points that I opted to leave out for brevity (such as the scalability of H2 vs. batteries).


Your calculations are right.  The big challenge for hydrogen from renewable resources is the efficiency of creating the hydrogen.  Batteries are a lot more efficient. [I should have said “charging batteries is a lot more efficient.” – paul]

But that isn’t the whole story.  Although I’ve been involved with hydrogen for awhile, I’ve only recently become an advocate of hydrogen for vehicles, because, like you, I thought batteries and hybrids were a better fit.  The bottom line is that there is a role for both h2 and batteries – they each have advantages and disadvantages, and simply looking at the conversion efficiency misses a lot.  In fact, if you are concerned about greenhouse gasses, particularly CO2, then hydrogen is much better, in large part because of the disastrous carbon footprint of our power supply. Hydrogen allows a gradual transition from fossil fuels to renewables in a way that batteries don’t. Using hydrogen from natural gas today is vastly better than using batteries off the current grid – which is something that virtually all analyses seem to ignore. (Most people seem to think that we can switch to 100% renewable power immediately.)  If you were to do a CO2 comparison of the Tesla (from the CA grid – which is cleaner than the rest of the US) and the FCX (from natural gas, which is where virtually all of it comes from today), you’ll find that the Tesla is much worse.  (By the way, comparing a tiny 2-seater to a family sedan with a spacious trunk is a bit dishonest, don’t you think?) Dr. Sandy Thomas wrote an excellent paper comparing different approaches – I encourage your to read my take at or, if you want the super-detailed analysis, you can read the original paper at

As for the price? The FCX is the first production fuel cell car.  You might as well talk about the cost of an 1888 Benz (the first production automobile – 20 years before the Model T made cars affordable). Or the **real** price of a Tesla (one that would fit 4 passengers and have an 11 cu ft trunk, of course).

I encourage you to give hydrogen a second look. It is not a silver bullet, but it is an important component of a sustainable future.



  1. Paul,

    Thank you for taking the time to write Dan. He’s a great writer, but definitely made some unfair comparisons and got his facts a little mixed up. You’re right, there’s a place for both batteries and hydrogen–perhaps even on the same vehicle–and we shold embrace both technologies.

    In case your readers are interested, here’s the letter the NHA sent to Dan and the editor:

    Dear Editor,

    Dan Niel’s Feb. 13 piece “Honda FCX Clarity: Beauty for beauty’s sake” is a beautiful, eloquent yarn with some absolutely dead-wrong conclusions about hydrogen technologies.

    Let’s start with the conclusion that “hydrogen fuel cell technology won’t work in cars,” citing battery technology as more capable, which is one of the most egregious. The comparison of the family-sized FCX Clarity to the 2-seater Tesla roadster is frought with bad assumptions. I’m strapped with my calculator, but let’s go straight to the punchline: vehicles like the Tesla can never survive as multi-purpose cars even if you scaled them up. A battery vehicle cannot carry a family for 300 miles on one tank/charge. But Hydrogen can. Today.

    If you built one, even the most advanced batteries would be twice as heavy and take up twice as much space as a hydrogen system would—a non starter for designing cars.

    How about infrastructure? You bring up those costs, too. The National Research Council, backed up by a recent study by the National Hydrogen Association, estimates that the investment needed to subsidize the expansion of the hydrogen infrastructure AND subsidize the initially higher cost of hydrogen vehicles will be less than the cost of one blueberry muffin a year for every American for 15 years–or $48 billion over the next 15 years. Incidentally, this is also less than incentives currently provided for the development of other alternative fuels and a fraction of the $87 billion needed to maintain our existing gasoline infrastructure for just one year. Oh and how much would it cost to expand the electricity infrastructure so that every kid-less adult in America (you can’t carry kids if you drive a Tesla) can come home and plug in their roadster and turn on the A/C, TV and lights? That part is conveniently left out.

    Then there’s the emissions. The electricity coming from the national mix with 52% coal would produce more emissions than if the Clarity’s hydrogen was made from natural gas. Plus there’s the refueling time—minutes for hydrogen cars, hours for batteries.
    I must applaud Mr. Neil for claiming to give Honda the benefit of the doubt, albeit at the end of his criticisms. After all, Honda’s not alone, since almost all the world’s major automakers have hydrogen programs. The industry might not do a perfect job of communicating how incredible hydrogen technology is, but you can trust that there are a lot of smart people making hydrogen technologies better and cheaper every day and we’re doing it because we know that the hydrogen fuel cell vehicle is the only vehicle that can simultaneously reduce greenhouse gases to over 80% below 1990 levels, reduce oil consumption (eliminating oil imports by 2060) and reduce societal costs by up to $600 billion/year by the end of the century.

  2. […] about Hydrogen & Electric Vehicles The other day, while I was writing my reply to Dan Neil, fellow hydrogen blogger Greg Blencoe was writing a post entitled “Fallacy of energy […]

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