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Hydrogen is the New Diesel

As hydrogen technology begins to make inroads on an increasing number of electric vehicle and stationary power markets, the question is being asked, “Is hydrogen the new diesel?” Let’s take a look at this from a few different angles and see if we can better understand the question and come to an answer.

How is diesel used today – and why?

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), “most of the products we use are transported by trucks and trains with diesel engines, and most construction, farming, and military vehicles and equipment also have diesel engines.” Diesel fuel is also used in combustion generators that provide backup power to all manner of industrial facilities, large buildings, cell phone tower equipment, hospitals, and electric utilities.

In decades past, diesel vehicles were considered dirty and smelly, but auto manufacturers worked hard and made progress – “clean diesel” became a thing, leading many to consider diesel an improvement over gasoline for many use cases. According to Bell Performance, customers who drive many highway miles – for instance, fleets and long haul trucking – often prefer diesel engines over those running on gasoline because diesel is up to 30 percent more efficient on roads than gas engines. Diesel cars also tend to be more durable, requiring less maintenance due to fewer components than gasoline engines.

Alas, “fewer emissions” are still hazardous emissions. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from transportation account for about 28 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, making it the largest contributor of U.S. GHG emissions. Between 1990 and 2018, GHG emissions in the transportation sector increased more in absolute terms than any other sector.”  

GHG emissions in transportation

And that doesn’t even account for the smog-producing emissions called NOx and Particulate Matter. During the early lockdown phases of the current pandemic, the world saw the difference made by not having those emissions in our atmosphere. We did a bit deeper dive on all of this last year.

The rise of the battery-electric vehicle – and its limits

Enter the battery-electric vehicle (BEV), which has many of the benefits of diesel vehicles while being zero emission. Interesting Engineering posted an article in June 2020 comparing the two, with some interesting, but not unanticipated, results: “If we are talking about carbon emissions, fuel efficiency, noise pollution, and air quality, then EVs are clearly the outright winner. If, however, we are talking about torque or initial price, then diesel-engined cars will win.”

The largest issue in terms of efficiency for businesses is driving range – and for backup power, runtime. As BEVs power larger vehicles being used in fleets of all kinds, space normally devoted to cargo goes to battery storage in order to get the kind of range needed, which drops the efficiency number significantly, while adding cost. The same can be said for stationary power using batteries – in order to add runtime to a facility during an extended outage, more batteries must be purchased and stored on site, taking up valuable rented footprint and adding cost.

Yet, climate change is real and countries are acting accordingly.  A Yale Environment 360 article stated, “over the next decade, 24 European cities, with a total population of 60+ million people, will enact bans on diesel vehicles. A large number of countries, including France and China, are following suit.” 

So, while electric vehicles clearly have issues with range for transportation and runtime for stationary power, going back to diesel cannot be the answer.

Why hydrogen – and can it compete with diesel?

Hydrogen offers an interesting solution. Hydrogen fuel cell-powered engines ARE electric engines and come with all the benefits they offer: zero emission operation, fewer moving parts, excellent torque, lower maintenance. But most importantly, hydrogen solves the problem of range and runtime because it acts like diesel in that it is pumped into a storage tank in a matter of minutes and takes up much less space than batteries, restoring the cargo capacity for transportation vehicles and small site space for stationary power.

When Plug Power CEO, Andy Marsh, was asked on CNBC’s Mad Money whether hydrogen is the new diesel, he replied, “You look at Amazon and Walmart who have sustainability goals for 2030 and 2040 and are looking to eliminate their carbon and there is really only one way to do long distance hauling or anything over 125 miles and that’s using fuel cells. When I think of green hydrogen at three dollars a kilogram, it is about $2 to generate; you can see selling green hydrogen at $6 or $7 and being competitive with diesel fuel today.”

Final Thoughts

There are a number of reasons why it makes sense that hydrogen may replace diesel fuel. Its ability to mirror many of the benefits of diesel – range and fueling time among them – while significantly lowering wells-to-wheels emissions and decreasing maintenance costs are just the opening salvo. Yet, while diesel engines have had decades of operation, hydrogen fuel cells are in their comparative naissance. It remains to be determined whether hydrogen will truly become the new diesel, but one thing is certain – the industry has taken aim.

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