Electric Vehicles or Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles?

In 2021, 26% of the UK’s emissions came from transport, making it the largest emitting sector of greenhouse gases. As the energy transition progresses, transportation needs a sustainable revolution. The two technologies touted to facilitate this are Electric Vehicles (EVs) and Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles (FCEVs). Each has its unique benefits and challenges, but which comes out on top?

Electric Vehicles

Electric vehicles are widely used, and are already a key part of the move towards cleaner transportation. They use lithium-ion batteries to store electricity, which then powers the vehicle. According to Zap Map, as of May 2024, there are 1,110,000 fully electric cars on UK roads – but what is it that makes EVs appealing over traditional internal combustion engine vehicles (ICEVs)?

Pros:

  • Environmental Impact: On average, an ICE car produces 1.42 metric tons of CO2 every year. EVs produce zero harmful emissions while driving, meaning a huge reduction in GHG levels per ICEV traded for an EV.
  • Lower Running Costs: EVs are cheaper to run than ICEVs. Driving an EV can cost as little as 7.5p per mile compared to 20.2p for an ICEV.
  • Lower Maintenance Costs: EVs have fewer moving parts, meaning maintenance is less frequent and cheaper.  
  • Convenient Refuelling: For those with the financial resources, EV owners can have charging stations installed at home. Even without a home charging port, there are now 24,000 more EV charging stations in the UK than petrol stations. However, there would still need to be a significant increase in EV charging stations to support nationwide adoption
  • Energy Efficiency: EVs convert electricity directly into movement meaning they can reach approximately 77% efficiency. ICE cars only use around 20% of their fuel for propulsion. The remaining 80% lost to heat and other inefficiencies.

It is important to note that most of these benefits are only applicable to domestic transportation and become null when applied to long distance / heavy duty travel.

However, there are a number of problems which limit the usefulness of EVs.

Cons:

  • Power generation: While Evs produce no emissions while driving, they require significant electricity usage. Fossil fuels still generate 60% of the UK’s power. Until we can fully power the grid renewably, EVs still contribute to GHG emissions. However, the national grid has pledged that by 2030 there will be enough renewable power to support widespread EV adoption.
  • Charging Infrastructure: Many homes, especially those without dedicated parking, lack suitable charging facilities. Building enough public and commercial charging stations requires massive public investment. This could widen wealth gaps since public charging is more expensive than charging at home.
  • Weight and Distance Limitations: Lithium-ion batteries are not suitable for heavy or frequently used vehicles due to their limited energy density and long charging times. Fast charging can reduce battery life and put stress on the grid.
  • Resource Scarcity: Lithium-ion batteries require materials such as lithium, cobalt, and rare earth metals. The current and projected demands on these resources exceeds their availability, making large-scale EV adoption challenging.
  • Efficiency Concerns: While EVs are efficient on the road, making and maintaining the batteries is less efficient. Over time, batteries lose capacity and require resources that are hard to recycle.

Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles (FCEVs)

FCEVs use hydrogen to generate electricity in a fuel cell which then powers the vehicle. Despite being less common domestically in the UK, they are gaining traction in industrial applications.

Pros:

  • Refuelling and Range: Hydrogen vehicles refuel quickly, like to petrol or diesel cars, and provide longer driving ranges. In February 2024 the record was set at 406 miles for the longest distance traveled on a single tank of hydrogen.[KH4] This makes FCEVs ideal for heavy-duty and long-distance travel.
  • Energy Density: Hydrogen has much higher energy density than lithium-ion batteries, allowing FCEVs to operate more efficiently over longer distances.
  • Resource Availability: Hydrogen has a number of different production methods which utilise naturally abundant materials, unlike the less attainable resources needed for lithium-ion batteries.
  • Reduced Grid Impact: Using hydrogen for fuel cells doesn’t require the extensive grid upgrades needed for EV chargers.
  • Reduced Infrastructure Changes: We can also use existing gas pipe infrastructure for hydrogen transportation. Though, to achieve this without upgrading the system, we must blend it with natural gas (at a 15-20% hydrogen concentration)

However, FCEVs also face challenges.

Cons:

  • Limited Refuelling Infrastructure: Very few hydrogen refuelling stations are currently in operation. This makes it difficult to refuel FCEVs compared to the steadily improving public charging network for EVs.
  • High Hydrogen Fuel Costs: Currently, hydrogen fuel is significantly more expensive than electricity. However, as the use of green hydrogen becomes more popular, production prices will reduce.
  • Complex Drivetrain: The drivetrain of an FCEV is more complex than that of an EV. It involves a battery, motor, power electronics, fuel cell, and hydrogen storage, meaning higher maintenance and production costs.
  • High initial costs: FCEVs are more expensive [KH5] To purchase initially than both EVs and ICEVs.

Tandem Renewable Transport Technology Integration

Both technologies have their strengths and weaknesses, each excelling in different ways. Instead of pitting EVs and FCEVs against each other, we should recognise how these technologies are complementary. By employing both, the energy transition only benefits.

  • Urban and Suburban Mobility: EVs are ideal for personal and light commercial vehicles in cities and suburbs where shorter distances and available charging infrastructure make them practical.
  • Heavy-Duty and Long-Distance Transport: FCEVs excel in heavy-duty applications such as trucks and buses, and for long-distance travel due to their quick refuelling times and higher energy density.
  • Environmental Benefits: Both EVs and FCEVs contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. EVs decrease fossil fuel use in transport, while FCEVs, powered by green hydrogen produced through renewable energy-driven electrolysis, emit zero greenhouse gases. Green hydrogen also serves as an energy storage solution, enhancing overall energy system resilience.

A significant growth trajectory for both of these technologies is projected, with electric cars leading domestically while fuel cell vehicles expand into industrial use and public transport. Securing a greener future for transportation is not about choosing between EVs and FCEVs, but about integrating both technologies into our society. By recognising the strengths and addressing the limitations of each, we can develop a robust and adaptable energy system which supports a diverse range of transportation needs. The energy transition requires a collective approach – the more ways to target traditionally fossil fuel reliant industries, the better. That means both EVs and FCEVs have their place in the energy transition. If utilised properly these technologies could drive us towards a greener future together.

+44 (0) 2080 903 643

enquiries@storelectric.com