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A Tale of Two Vehicles: Exploring BEVs and Hydrogen FCEVs

As the global community intensifies its efforts to combat climate change, the transportation sector has emerged as a crucial battleground. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from transport constitute approximately 23% of total global CO2 emissions from energy combustion and industrial processes. The IEA’s latest data from 2022 shows that total transport emissions increased by 2.1% (or 137 metric tons) to 7.98 billion metric tons (Mt). However, the increase would have been even higher without the accelerating deployment of low-carbon vehicles. Electric car sales topped 10 million units in 2022, accounting for more than 14% of global vehicle sales. If these electric cars had been conventional diesel or gasoline vehicles, global emissions for 2022 would have been 13 Mt higher.

COMMENTARY

In the U.S., the relative impact of transportation emissions is even greater than the global averages. Annually, transport vehicles in the U.S. emit 1.85 gigatons (Gt) of CO into the atmosphere, accounting for 29% of domestic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, constituting 22% of global transportation emissions. This positions the U.S. as the world’s largest polluter from transportation-related activities by a significant margin. Curbing emissions from the transportation sector is critical to meeting economy-wide emissions reduction targets, which has prompted a broad range of strategies and policies in the U.S. and most industrial nations. A major focus is on the adoption of low-carbon technologies in the automotive and truck industries, including recent energy policies and incentives from the Biden administration that aim to transition from internal combustion engines (ICE) vehicles to electric vehicles (EVs) for passenger cars as well as light- and heavy-duty trucks. Although the term electric vehicles is commonly synonymous with battery power, the transition from ICE vehicles that use fossil fuel to electric power is enabled by two types of EV technologies: Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs) and hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles (FCEVs). While frequently characterized as being competitive, each technology has unique challenges and offers distinct advantages. When these are considered, the World Business Academy argues that embracing both technologies, depending on the precise application, is essential for achieving the broadest impact in reducing transportation emissions.

Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs)

BEVs are reshaping urban mobility by utilizing electricity stored in rechargeable batteries, eliminating the need for gasoline or diesel fuel, and thereby reducing tailpipe emissions to zero despite increasing CO2 from energy production so long as grid-based energy continues to burn fossil fuel resources to produce electricity. In recent years, advancements in battery technology have significantly extended BEV driving ranges and decreased recharging times at fast charging stations (when available and affordable), enhancing the viability of EVs for the average consumer. BEVs are especially well-suited for urban residents and persons with short-to-medium commutes, for whom battery electric power from the grid (either from a home charger or at a recharging station) provides an efficient and convenient solution. Expanding charging infrastructure, especially in cities and along major highways, has further enhanced BEV appeal by reducing the rapid-charging time to 30-45 minutes for about 200 miles of range in a passenger car. However, practical challenges regarding range, charging duration, and wait times at rapid-charging stations can significantly affect travel efficiency. For instance, one of the Academy's staff members, who has driven a hydrogen FCEV car for six years, recently purchased a BEV known for its better-than-average driving range. During a 330-mile trip in California from Santa Barbara to San Francisco, which typically takes a little more than 5.5 hours in a gasoline vehicle, including one refueling stop just outside San Francisco to ensure a full tank the next morning, the experience differed markedly. Traveling at 70 miles per hour, which reduces range, the BEV required three charging stops, including one on the outskirts of San Francisco to start the next day fully charged. Due to waiting times for available chargers and the actual recharging process, the journey consumed more than 8 hours, highlighting the operational delays that can accompany current BEV technology despite advancements both in battery capacity and infrastructure. Despite their growing popularity, BEVs continue to face other challenges, especially in their reliance on the electrical grid. In regions like California and Texas, where the grid often operates near capacity, adding millions of BEVs will impose significant strains, necessitating costly upgrades to transmission infrastructure or systemwide blackouts and charging time restrictions, as have already been imposed in both states. Additionally, the production of lithium-ion batteries introduces environmental and ethical concerns, such as significant disruption from raw material extraction and high emissions from energy-intensive manufacturing processes. End-of-life disposal and recycling of batteries present other substantial challenges, highlighting the need for sustainable lifecycle management. Temperature sensitivity is another significant challenge for BEVs, particularly affecting their range in colder climates. In such conditions, lithium-ion batteries experience a marked decrease in efficiency, resulting in much slower recharging time, reduced energy storage capacity, and diminished vehicle range. This affects BEVs' practicality for routine use and exacerbates frustration regarding charging time and range anxiety among consumers, which has begun to stir political debate regarding the Biden administration's push for a transition to electric vehicles. Moreover, the broader impact of BEVs on global emissions is contingent on electricity generation sources. Where grids rely heavily on fossil fuels, the overall environmental benefits of BEVs are greatly diminished, highlighting the essential link between clean transportation technologies and the adoption of renewable energy sources in the power sector to avoid merely shifting emissions from the vehicle’s tailpipe to the power generation site unless the electricity used is sourced from renewable energy. Integrating BEVs into commercial trucking introduces additional challenges, notably due to the weight of the batteries required to power such vehicles and the subsequent effect on net payload and owner/operator profitability. In commercial trucking (other than small delivery vans), payload capacity is crucial as it directly impacts the economic viability of transport operations. The heavy batteries needed for long-haul electric trucks can significantly reduce the amount of cargo a truck can legally carry, requiring more trips to transport the same amount of goods. This reduction in payload capacity and long recharging times presents significant hurdles. Even with high-speed charging infrastructure, the time required to recharge a heavy-duty electric truck's battery can lead to considerable downtime, adversely impacting efficiency and operational costs. From the Academy's perspective, in addition to developing more efficient battery technologies and enhancing the charging infrastructure for BEVs, integrating hydrogen fuel cell technologies provides an important pathway to overcoming these challenges. Addressing these issues is not only important for the sustainability of the transport sector, but also for maintaining the competitiveness and operational feasibility of commercial trucking in a future dominated by electric vehicles.

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles (FCEVs)

Hydrogen FCEVs represent a compelling alternative within the electric vehicle spectrum. They utilize hydrogen to store energy and produce electricity through a chemical process within a fuel cell. This technology offers several advantages over BEVs, including rapid refueling capabilities that are comparable to conventional gasoline or diesel vehicles, the potential for significantly longer ranges, and reduced overall weight. At the same time, because they emit only water vapor during operation, FCEVs align with global sustainability goals. FCEVs show promise in transport sectors where BEVs encounter operational challenges, including long-haul trucking, public transportation (including buses, trains, and lorries), and other heavy-duty applications requiring high energy density and rapid refueling. Unlike vehicles that rely on batteries for energy storage, FCEVs can be refueled in just a few minutes, offering a practical solution for commercial and industrial vehicles that require minimal downtime to maintain operational efficiency and avoid lost productivity. Hydrogen for FCEVs can be produced from various renewable energy sources, including wind, solar, existing landfill off-gassing, biomass waste, and hydroelectric power. Depending on the geographical distance to the markets where clean energy is needed, hydrogen can be transported via tube trucks for gaseous or liquid hydrogen, pipelines, ships, or even airships, creating a sustainable cycle of fuel production and consumption that does not place additional burdens on the electrical grid. This strategic use of hydrogen not only enhances energy diversification but also reduces reliance on any single energy source, thereby broadening the geographical and economic reach of renewable energy and ensuring a more resilient and diversified energy landscape. This is particularly important in the impoverished Southern Hemisphere, which results in hydrogen production being particularly desirable. In this regard, it is worth noting that there are remote locations thousands of miles from major energy demand centers, where harsh climate conditions (e.g., desert solar, high winds, geothermal) result in lower renewable energy costs, thereby making hydrogen production and liquefaction economically viable even when factoring in the costs associated with long-distance transport. In situations where the distance from production sites to energy markets exceeds the viability of electrical transmission lines—even employing high-density direct current (HDDC) cables—hydrogen emerges as a more cost-effective option than transmitting renewable electricity. Some examples include Western Australia to Singapore, Korea, and Japan; the MENA region to Western Europe; and South America to the U.S. Another significant advantage of FCEVs is their robust performance in colder temperatures. Unlike lithium-ion batteries in BEVs, whose efficiency decreases materially in cold conditions, hydrogen remains a viable option and fuel cells maintain a consistent—perhaps somewhat enhanced—performance level. This reliability provides a distinct advantage, particularly for regions where colder temperatures adversely affect EV performance and consumer satisfaction. Despite these advantages, the adoption of hydrogen FCEVs has been slower than BEVs, primarily due to the higher costs extracted by shared monopolies for hydrogen production, storage, and distribution, as well as the much less developed fueling infrastructure. However, with significant government incentives aimed at advancing hydrogen technology and improving its economic feasibility, these barriers are expected to diminish. As technology advances and economies of scale are realized, the obstacles that have historically impeded greater FCEV adoption will decrease, promising broader adoption across various sectors. For example, following the proven history in Silicon Valley with microchips and, more recently, with photovoltaic (PV) cell cost reductions, the cost for electrolyzers and fuel cells are expected to decrease dramatically due to continuing innovation by private sector competitors and as production efficiencies occur with higher volume production. As the landscape of EVs continues to evolve, FCEVs stand out as a powerful complement to BEVs, particularly in applications where the limitations of BEVs described herein adversely impact their feasibility. Together, BEVs and FCEVs can address a comprehensive range of transportation needs, offering a dual approach that maximizes the benefits of electric transportation while minimizing environmental impact. This synergy between battery and hydrogen technologies is pivotal for achieving a sustainable, efficient, and resilient transportation ecosystem in the future.

Synergistic Potential and Looking Ahead

The narrative that BEVs and FCEVs are in competition misses a crucial point: the path to a fully sustainable transportation sector is not a zero-sum game. Instead, these technologies are synergistic, with each addressing gaps left by the other. BEVs utilize local grid power, which has accelerated their adoption. At the same time, FCEVs unlock the potential for tapping into lower-cost energy from remote sources that are otherwise economically inaccessible by electrical transmission lines. While BEVs are ideal for lighter-duty and shorter-range applications, FCEVs excel for heavier and longer-range vehicles and perform more reliably in colder climates. Together, BEVs and FCEVs provide a comprehensive framework that addresses all aspects of transportation, leveraging the respective strengths of each technology to create a robust and resilient green transport ecosystem. As we continue to advance towards a low-carbon future, both BEVs and FCEVs will play pivotal roles. By embracing both technologies, we can ensure a smoother transition to sustainable mobility, effectively mitigating the environmental impact of our transportation needs while satisfying the diverse requirements of consumers and industry. This dual approach not only maximizes the benefits of each technology but also exemplifies the innovative strategies needed to overcome modern energy challenges. Rinaldo Brutoco is founding president and CEO of the World Business Academy.