Hydrogen, gasoline, solar panel hybrid or cellulosic ethanol: what’s better, what’s best?

January 13, 2014 |

Toyota-FCVAs a flurry of coverage on Toyota’s hydrogen cars and Ford’s solar hybrid floods the airwaves, here in Digestville we look at the hard data.

And we find that, sometimes, there is less than meets the eye.

This past week, we’ve had the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Plenty of opportunities for new automotive technologies to strut their stuff — and they’ve picked up substantial and relatively breathless coverage from the Associated Press and Reuters.

Reuters coverage.

AP coverage.

AP was particularly fascinated with Toyota’s hydrogen fuel cell vehicle and Ford’s solar panel hybrid. Let’s look at the FCV first.

The hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, in detail

The Toyota FCV will go on sale in 2015 in the United States. In noting the $50,000 to $100,000 price tag, AP writer Rayn Nakashima opined that “the Earth might thank them later” for consumers who make the purchase, highlighting that the vehicle’s engine can produce a range of 310 miles on one tank “while only emitting water and water vapor”.

Let’s look at the hard data.

• The hydrogen fill-up for 300 miles of driving is expected to range between $30 and $50 per tank.

• The car seats four passengers, has a wheelbase of 109 inches, width of 71 inches and a length of 191 inches. Think Toyota Camry, except one less passenger.

• The state of California is going to have to invest $200 million to provide 20 fueling stations by 2015 and 100 by 2024. Toyota itself says that a minimum of 68 stations would be needed to make the technology viable for consumers. That might be cutting it a little thin. Right now, there are around 10,000 fuel outlets needed to provide consumer choice and convenience in the Golden State.

• The hydrogen comes from natural gas, which is generally produced via steam reformation. One ton of hydrogen produces 9-12 tons of CO2. So, an 11-pound tank of hydrogen, using current technology, results in roughly 99-132 pounds of fossil CO2.

So let’s put that together: $200 million to build infrastructure to support a 4-passenger car that costs $30-$50 to refill, has a range of 310 miles and results in 99-132 pounds of CO2 per full tank.

Compare the options: gasoline, cellulosic ethanol

Let’s compare that to options already on the road, namely a Camry running on traditional gasoline, or a Camry-grade vehicle such as the flex-fuel Chevrolet Malibu LS running on cellulosic ethanol.

Now, a Camry gets 28 MPG and has a 17 gallon tank ( the Malibu LS running E85 will get around 21.8 MPG and has a 15.8 gallon tank), so we’ll have to calibrate figures to make a comparison based on 310 miles — that is, one tank of hydrogen running in the FCV. We’ll take the mid-range for the values we have for the FCV. and $3.50 for the gasoline price and $2.60 for E85 cellulosic ethanol cost (a 2-cent discount to gasoline, after accounting for 25% less range).

So here’s the tale of the tape.



The FCV produces 30 percent more CO2 than already-available options, seats 20% fewer passengers, has virtually no fueling infrastructure, costs some $52,000 more upfront, and adds 169% to the cost per mile over five years.

You might begin to wonder why the “Earth might thank them later”.

[You might also wonder how much you get for $200 million building E85 blender pumps. At $15,000-$50,000 per pump, depending on whether one is installing a new pump or converting the mid-grade pump to cellulosic biofuels, you get 4,000-13,000 outlets. Vs. the 100 California expects to get with the same budget for hydrogen pumps.]

The Solar Panel Hybrid

This is a concept solar hybrid car — good news is that is takes a charge directly from the sun, via solar panels on the roof. No need to plug into the wall to charge up. Fascinating.

Here are the problems. (Note: this is a concept car — not a vehicle heading for showrooms any time soon.)

1. You need to park the car in custom-designed carport to charge it. No curbside parking or inside garage, and not your current carport — because this one has to be 15-feet high.

2. Carport has to be 15 feet high – think two stories.

3. 7 hour recharge time.

4. The carport has to be aligned in an east-west direction. If your house is on the wrong alignment, you’re out of luck.

5. You have to charge it by day, obviously — so no commuting, please.

6. Electric-only range is 21 miles. No commuting, in other words — of course, the day-charge requirement made that basically impossible already.

7. Important: You have to move the car a few inches every hour to get that full charge – as the sun moves position during the day.

8. If you don’t move the car in the prescribed manner, the range goes down to 3 miles.


OK, so what do we have? A car that takes 7 hours to charge so that potentially you can drive it 1.5 miles each way. In a custom-carport that will set you back a lot of dollars even if your homeowner’s association will allow a two-story carport on an east-west alignment. By comparison, you can walk the three miles in an hour and a half. And not have to move the car every couple of hours while you take the day off to supervise the charge-up.

As we mentioned, it’s a concept car.

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