Skip to main content

The chemical symbol for hydrogen is engraved on the cover of the hydrogen fuel tank of a Mercedes-Benz F125 concept car in Hanover, Germany, on April 25, 2016.

Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters

Mac versus PC. Android versus iPhone. Betamax versus VHS.

There are plenty of famous tech rivalries. While some ended with winners, others ended in stalemates.

For green-car experts, the most electrifying battle is still under way: batteries versus hydrogen.

Story continues below advertisement

On Twitter, Elon Musk has called hydrogen fuel cells “fool sells” and has said that importing hydrogen to power them is “staggeringly dumb.”

But Jorgo Chatzimarkakis, secretary-general of Hydrogen Europe, a hydrogen industry association, doesn’t think it should be a battle at all.

“We need to overcome the confrontation [between hydrogen and battery electric]. There is room for both technologies to flourish,” Mr. Chatzimarkakis said last week in a debate at Revolution, an Amsterdam-based virtual energy conference. “There’s not room for ideology if we really want to reach climate neutrality.”

Elemental differences?

Battery electric vehicles (BEV) and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles (FCV) are both electric vehicles. BEVs get their electricity from batteries that have to be plugged in and recharged.

Right now, that can take typically anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes at a fast charger, five to eight hours at a 240-volt “Level 2” charger and overnight, or longer, at a 120-volt household outlet.

Fuel-cell vehicles make their own electricity on board from hydrogen stored in tanks. They have to be refilled at a hydrogen station. For a passenger car with a 500- to 600-kilometre range, that typically takes less than five minutes.

Neither car produces CO2 while you drive it. A BEV has no tailpipe emissions at all, while a FCV spits out only water.

Story continues below advertisement

The vast majority of EVs on the road in Canada are BEVs or plug-in hybrids (PHEVs).

According to IHS Markit, in the first quarter of 2020, 8,412 BEV and 3,586 PHEV vehicles were sold in Canada. That’s about 3.8 per cent of total passenger vehicles sold. There still aren’t many hydrogen cars in Canada. For instance, there are only about 75 hydrogen-powered Toyota Mirais in Canada, Toyota says.

Let’s look at how the two technologies compare – and why we may need both:

Practicality

For passenger cars making short commutes in a city, batteries make sense, according to Mr. Chatzimarkakis. “I would never suggest using hydrogen in an urban environment where you need less than 40 kWh,” he said.

But hydrogen makes sense for longer distances because it can be refilled quickly. For bigger passenger vehicles, such as SUVs, a hybrid BEV/FCV might help get more people to switch from gas.

Plus, hydrogen tanks are lighter than batteries. That makes hydrogen ideal for transport trucks.

Story continues below advertisement

“In trucks at the moment, driving 100 kilometres is equal to one tonne of battery,” Mr. Chatzimarkakis said. “But for hydrogen, you only use one [kilogram] to drive 100 kilometres.”

Infrastructure

This is where BEVs are ahead for now. There are more than 5,000 charging stations in Canada; 883 of them are fast chargers.

But if you have a hydrogen car, you can’t go very far yet.

There are four public hydrogen stations in Canada – three in British Columbia and one in Quebec. A fourth B.C. station is expected to open in Victoria at the end of this month.

“By the end of 2021, there should be eight open in B.C,” said Colin Armstrong, president and chief executive of HTEC, a company that produces hydrogen and builds hydrogen fuel stations. “There will be another in Quebec City and one in Montreal by the end of 2021 or the beginning of 2022.”

Stations cost about $2-million to $4-million to build, “which we all know is too high,” said Mr. Armstrong, speaking at a panel discussion last week at f-cell+HFC, a Vancouver-based virtual hydrogen conference.

Story continues below advertisement

As more stations get built, costs should come down, Mr. Armstrong said.

While BEVs fare better when it comes to places to refuel, both technologies will need more infrastructure to get Canadians to buy electric vehicles.

“There’s a chicken-and-egg problem for both technologies,” Mr. Chatzimarkakis said.

Ottawa is set to release a hydrogen strategy this fall that to boost Canada’s ability to produce and distribute hydrogen.

Energy efficiency

While battery-electric and hydrogen cars don’t produce CO2 when you drive them, they’re only as green as the source of their energy. “If you produce your own solar electricity, then you should have a battery-electric car,” Juergen Rechberger, manager of the global fuel-cell competence team at AVL, an Austria-based engineering company, said at the f-cell+HFC conference. “But that’s not the average customer – the average customer will rely on the grid.”

If you live somewhere where nearly all the electricity comes from renewable energy sources, such as in B.C., then your BEV is green. But if you’re plugging in your car in Alberta, where 92 per cent of electricity comes from coal or natural gas, your BEV is contributing to climate change.

Story continues below advertisement

That’s where hydrogen might make sense. Green hydrogen is produced by electrolysis – using cheap electricity from a renewable source to split water into hydrogen and oxygen.

Potentially, green hydrogen could be shipped by pipeline to places without a reliable supply of renewable power and be used to fuel vehicles there.

Canada already makes about three million tonnes of hydrogen a year by steam-methane reformation of natural gas. Since the process releases CO2 into the atmosphere, it’s called grey hydrogen.

But if that CO2 is contained using carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, you get blue hydrogen, which is less polluting.

Oil companies in Alberta are already producing blue hydrogen for their own use, but for now, most aren’t selling it.

Another process, called pyrolysis – where natural gas is heated up to produce hydrogen and solid carbon that you can bury or reuse – is “quite cheap” compared with carbon capture and has promise, Mr. Chatzimarkakis said.

Story continues below advertisement

“I do not agree that one technology can save us all,” he said. “We are polluting at the moment using battery-electric cars. We need to co-operate.”

Stay on top of all our Drive stories. We have a Drive newsletter covering car reviews, innovative new cars and the ups and downs of everyday driving. Sign up today.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies