New ICCT Report On European Trucking Has Fatal Flaw Favoring Hydrogen

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The International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) tries to do good and unbiased work. Recently it failed badly, reporting that hydrogen fuel cell trucks in some categories could reach parity with diesel in 2030, and have parity or even be cheaper in 2040 in all categories. Further, it stated that by 2040, for some use cases it would be competitive with battery electric trucks.

The problem is that the underlying cost of electricity for hydrogen and for charging batteries was not the same, not even remotely, despite both scenarios using electricity at charging or refueling stations. It was different by a factor of three.

A study by the ICCT from February 2022 by Yuanrong Zhou and Stephanie Searle found that the price of green hydrogen manufactured locally at hydrogen refueling stations could reach €6 per kilogram in 2030. While a conclusion of the report, that manufacturing hydrogen on site from grid-delivered electricity would be cheapest, was accurate the assumptions that led to the price point are unsupportable. The authors used country-specific wind and solar power purchase agreement prices with limited adders instead of commercial or industrial grid prices for electricity. As a result, their price per kWh for electricity was well under €0.10, likely in the €0.06 – €0.07 range. The report itself excludes the actual numbers that they used.

Underlying costs per kilogram of hydrogen from that modeling were used in a just released ICCT report by two different ICCT researchers, Hussein Basma and Felipe Rodríguez. That report compared the total costs of ownership of different energy pathways for trucking in Europe, with a focus on determining what the most cost effective pathway for decarbonization would be.

Unsurprisingly, they found that battery electric trucking was cheapest in all categories. Very surprisingly, they found that hydrogen fuel cell trucking was very cheap as well. Hydrogen Insight’s headline is as good as it gets given the flaws:

Hydrogen trucks will be more expensive to own and operate than battery equivalents in Europe until at least 2040: report
But fuel-cell trucks will reach cost parity with diesel as soon as 2030, says International Council on Clean Transportation paper

Hydrogen Insight is by far the most balanced of the hydrogen-specific media outlets, and it is merely reporting what the report says. Unfortunately, the report is wrong, so the headline is wrong.

Basma and Rodríguez relied on their colleague’s cost of hydrogen when manufactured, stored and compressed at the refueling station for their report. And for battery electric trucks, they relied on the commercial or industrial average cost of electricity per kWh, between €0.21 and €0.24.

As a result, their cost of energy for hydrogen at exactly the same point in the distribution grid using exactly the same electrons is a third or a quarter of the cost of the energy for battery electric vehicles.

That something was deeply wrong should have been clear to Basma, Rodríguez and their reviewers, Chelsea Baldino, Oscar Delgado, Peter Mock, Tianlin Niu, Rohit Nepali, and Nikita Pavlenko. The primary interactive diagram that the ICCT created showed that the cost of energy per kilometer for battery electric was €0.11 compared to €0.17 for hydrogen in one case in 2030 and dropped to €0.11 to €0.12 in 2040 in another case, a mere 10% more expensive for the energy.

Graphic of electric vehicle vs hydrogen fuel cell vehicle efficiency courtesy Transport & Environment
Graphic of electric vehicle vs hydrogen fuel cell vehicle efficiency courtesy Transport & Environment

As a reminder, the best case scenario for manufacturing green hydrogen has an efficiency of roughly 70%. When 100 kWh of electricity is used to turn hydrogen into water, in other words, only 70 kWh of electricity is embodied in the hydrogen. And then in the most efficient fuel cell, only 60% of the energy in the hydrogen is returned as electricity to drive the wheels.

Ignoring all other process losses and capital costs, that means that at best 42% of the energy in the electricity could be returned to the wheels. In reality, it’s worse.

The Transport & Environment graphic above shows the actual efficiency losses for green hydrogen. Even assuming that the manufacturing it locally at the hydrogen refueling station reduces the 26% energy losses of transmission, distribution and storage down to 10%, the best possible case scenario is 27% of the energy returned, compared to the 73% for battery electric vehicles.

The best possible case using exactly the same electricity in exactly the same place as the ICCT report does should show that the cost of energy for a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle is three times higher than for a battery electric vehicle.

There is literally no way around this fundamental thermodynamic reality without rewriting the laws of physics. And yet the ratio of energy costs in the ICCT report just released show energy costs that are only 1.5 times as high or even 1.1 times as high. This is a glaringly obvious visual anomaly that the ICCT authors and all of their reviewers missed. Eyeballing it should have made them realize that there was a problem.

And to be clear, making storing, compressing and pumping hydrogen requires much more expensive capital costs at the refueling station than for battery electric vehicles. Electrolyzers are very expensive at present, and even if they fall in price drastically, they will still be more expensive than any component at an existing truck refueling station. The pumps which will pressurize the hydrogen to 700 times the pressure of the atmosphere at sea level are also very expensive. The pumps that drivers use to pump hydrogen into their trucks are also very expensive (and due to the nature of the interaction, freeze solid to the vehicle a remarkable percentage of the time).

Megachargers for electricity power delivery, by comparison, are much cheaper. And before anyone says, “What about the grid expansion necessary to delivery the electricity!”, remember that in both ICCT scenarios, electricity is being delivered to the refueling station, but in the hydrogen case, three times as much electricity is being delivered. The cost of beefing up the distribution grid assuming a hydrogen for energy use case is significantly higher than for a battery electric use case.

Similarly, leveling electricity demand across a 24/7 cycle to do cost arbitrage and reduce peak demand also favors battery electric use cases. The capital cost of the electrolyzer requires high utilization, so it can’t be run at times of low electricity rates without increasing the cost per kilogram of hydrogen substantially. As such, the same or larger battery buffer would likely be required to balance demand with cheapest supply as for the battery electric trucking solution.

It’s unfortunate that the ICCT has made this obvious and basic mistake and didn’t catch it. As noted, they try to do good work, and are not one of the many hydrogen for energy biased organizations attempting to shoehorn hydrogen into use cases that it cannot and never will be able to compete in, like trucking. But this report used electricity a third the price for hydrogen and as a result gives care and feeding to the biased organizations pushing it, even if it still found batteries were cheaper.

The ICCT and authors should publicly retract this report. They should assess all lifecycle trucking reports to see if the error is pervasive and withdraw any that have also made this mistake. They should rework their numbers and issue a new and accurate report. I trust that they will.


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