Toyota Defends Its Plans For Fuel Cells

Part 1 of a multi-part series.

Last week after Toyota declared its fuel cell hybrid vehicle (FCHV) sedan concept would bow this month in Tokyo prior to a production version due in 2015, a volley of criticism from plug-in fans ensued.

We’ve seen comments alleging conspiracy theories and ire over a financial and technological boondoggle that’s dead on arrival in the view of in opponents. A general denouncement not specifically directed at Toyota was also uttered last month by Tesla Chairman Elon Musk who said fuel cells are “so BS” and they’re being developed mainly for marketing value.

Actually Musk did not abbreviate his expletive, but Toyota is acting like BS might mean “better solution,” or perhaps “battery supplanter.”

Fuel cells will work for light and heavy duty vehicles. The aim is to build economies of scale and several manufacturers are planning roll out beginning in a couple years.

Fuel cells will work for light and heavy duty vehicles. The aim is to build economies of scale and several manufacturers are planning roll out beginning in a couple years.

Or more realistically, fuel cells could become a battery supplement, as Toyota – which has avoided a full-bore push for EVs – does see uses for battery power in small urban-car applications. Otherwise, it’s spending billions on quick-filling, long-range fuel cells saying they’ll meet more needs without compromises.

This we learned in two interviews this week with Toyota’s Environmental Communications Manager Jana Hartline, Toyota Technical Center Principle Engineer, Matt McClory, and Craig Scott, manager for Toyota’s Advanced Technology Vehicles.

In discussing things, we aired myriad objections voiced by plug-in EV advocates, and Toyota confidently answered each in turn.

Toyota’s latest news is actually a continuation in plans announced four years ago and it says it’s on schedule to deliver its first affordable mass market zero-emission car.

A Long Time Coming

Toyota’s “pursuit of the ultimate eco-car,” and promise of a bright hydrogen future is actually based on work begun in 1992. It launched limited sales of a FCHV in December 2002, and in 2008 developed its FCHV-adv fuel cell system which it’s evolved in a Highlander prototype.

How a fuel cell works can be found at the California Energy Commission Consumer site.

How a fuel cell works can be found at the California Energy Commission Consumer site.

Toyota predicted in 2009 it would whittle costs to one-tenth by a 2015 launch date and does expect several more years after its first car for the technology to take deeper root.

The company also says natural gas will be the primary “feed stock” for perhaps the first decade as researchers and other stakeholders pursue more renewable sources.

This said, Toyota resists allegations of “Big Oil” foisting a scam, or that fuel cell vehicles are an impossibly complex and costly endeavor.

So, let’s dive into the first few objections and answers – summarized, because this is a big topic – but we’ll try and hit the high points.

Net Energy Loser?

Nearly every time we post something about fuel cells, a plug-in advocate will respond saying it takes more energy to produce hydrogen than hydrogen delivers, so for this reason alone, it is a failure from its inception.

To this, McClory said the same argument could be levied at gasoline and other energy sources generated or refined.

Toyota's new fuel cell stack.

Toyota’s new fuel cell stack.

“This is always a kind of mythical issue and I really don’t know where it comes from,” he said. “We could never have started – not only Toyota but all the major automakers – we would not have started doing fuel cells back in the 90s if we thought it would not make sense to come to market as an economical and sustainable solution.”

In short, said McClory, people display lack of understanding in making such assertions.

“So a lot of people who are very negative about it just don’t have the data,” he said.

“The thing is, we’re not going to get away from physics. We’re not going to get away from the first law of thermodynamics,” he said. “Just like producing electricity – and that’s all hydrogen is, an energy medium – it’s always going to take more energy that you start with as a source than what you can actually put in the tank of a vehicle. I don’t care if you’re talking about gasoline or electricity or hydrogen … so the idea that it takes more energy to make the hydrogen doesn’t make any sense. Of course it does, that’s the first law of thermodynamics. So people who talk about this just don’t understand physics.”

McClory cited also the beginning of electrical production during the days of Edison, when efficiencies were perhaps 10 percent or less, he said and they wasted “tons” of energy just to get the first wattage.

Toyota says its  lightweight and compact FC stack and two 70 MPa (10,153 psi) hydrogen tanks riding low in the specially designed body. Power output density for the FC Stack more than doubles the FC stack in the FCHV-adv Highlander.

Toyota says its lightweight and compact FC stack and two 70 MPa (10,153 psi) hydrogen tanks riding low in the specially designed body. Power output density for the FC Stack more than doubles the FC stack in the FCHV-adv.

He said despite loss of 90 percent of power used in coal-to-steam generation, it did not stop that technology from being embraced for the value it provided.

Today hydrogen from mostly natural gas will result in losses, he said, adding California mandates one-third renewable resources under its Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) rules. Presently, H2 production from natural gas is around a 50-percent efficient process – about 50-60 kwh are need to deliver 1 kilogram of hydrogen – and the now outdated FCHV-adv Highlander carries 6 kg in four tanks.

Production of H2 is not as efficient as gasoline production at perhaps 80-percent, but, McClory said, “we see that the future the efficiency of making hydrogen will improve.”

McClory then cited the overall well-to-wheel energy costs which Toyota says beats plug-in cars.

Well-to-wheel Analysis

According to Plug In America’s Chief Science Officer, Tom Saxton, the energy equation for hydrogen does not look so good.

“Like combustion, there’s no getting around having a bunch of energy lost as heat,” he said. “Battery electric vehicles can be, and are, 90 percent or more efficient.”

Saxton conceded the theoretical tank-to-wheel efficiency of fuel cells can be a little higher even than the 50 percent Toyota states, but expressed doubts.

“Still, I’d like to see real-world numbers from a production vehicle,” he said.

W-W_Toyota

Toyota said it acknowledges the inherent efficiencies of battery powered electric motors – by its estimates they tend to be around 81-85 percent efficient, though 90 percent is also attainable.

Both McClory and Scott however said data shows electricity production and transmission across miles of lines, through transformers, and losses in the charging process are where plug-in cars lose with a 36 percent efficiency compared to hydrogen’s 67 percent.

With less than a 2-kwh battery, and a FC stack replacing an Atkinson-Cycle engine such a Prius would have, the FCHV is by definition a "hybrid" fuel cell vehicle.

With less than a 2-kwh battery, and a FC stack replacing an Atkinson-cycle engine such a Prius would have, the FCHV is by definition a “hybrid” fuel cell vehicle.

“Basically we see fuel cells as actually being more efficient than [plug-in] electric vehicles and more efficient than CNG vehicles on a well-to-wheels basis,” said McClory.

Toyota’s Hartline also cited a chart published in 2009 by Green Car Congress saying Toyota is still sticking with this data that even the old FCV-adv beat EVs 40 percent to 33 percent.

Plug In America’s Saxton however is not convinced after seeing the chart presented by Toyota.

“There are so many ways to calculate well-to-wheel efficiency that it’s difficult to comment on results without having a thorough understanding of the underlying assumptions,” he said. “I do think it’s ludicrous to claim that well-to-wheels for an HFC vehicle is more efficient than well-to-tank for an electric vehicle.”

Infrastructural Hurdles

Plug-in vehicle advocates point out infrastructure for their technology of choice already exists – i.e., electric wall outlets and transmission lines everywhere – but fuel cells will need a crazy amount of money to solve the proverbial “chicken-and-egg” dilemma.

Toyota said the move is already underway. California has around 10 hydrogen stations to deliver the gaseous H2 and thanks to over $2 billion in funding from California’s AB8 signed this year by Governor Jerry Brown, and extending AB118, work is underway for 25 stations by 2015, and 45 by 2016.

fuelcell_vehicle_img01

The bill calls for 100 stations in California by 2024 which is more than the 68 minimum estimated as needed by the CAFCP. Beyond California initiatives, its influence extends beyond its borders and other states mentioned by Toyota including Texas and those on the upper east coast are also working to push toward a tipping point.

In October, the governors of seven eastern states which combined with California constitute a little more than one-quarter of the U.S. car market signed a landmark MOU aiming for 3.3 million zero emission vehicles by 2025 with an eye toward 2050.

These states in addition to California are Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont.

“The signatory states agree to pursue the assessment and development of potential deployment strategies and infrastructure requirements for the commercialization of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles,” said one provision of the agreement.

Saxton said plug-in cars and hydrogen cars – as two forms of ZEV – “often get put in the same bucket and thus compete for funding.”

The truth of his statement can be seen by California’s ZEV rules from which the MOU is based, and this can lead to spotty commitment for would-be “solutions.”

For example, automakers may not see the incentive to push limited-appeal cars to more than the states where they are or will be required or expected to minimally sell. Already we’ve seen automakers introducing what plug-in advocates call “compliance cars” – a quasi-derogatory term some automakers have explicitly told us is objectionable.

To start its FCHV rollout, Toyota has not specified location details except for California or whether it will offer a subsidized lease or purchase options. It will go where the infrastructure is, said McClory, but this is part of the unfolding roadmap it and other H2 proponents – including eight other automakers – are expected to pursue leading to national proliferation as soon as they deem feasible

While plug-in car advocates may worry that FCVs will be “compliance cars,” truth is more EVs at this point are more often than not as well.

At any rate, the plan to introduce fuel cell vehicles is moving ahead with the blessings of California’s Air Resources Board and Toyota’s Hartline said it’s too bad that an adversarial stance is being taken by some of the biggest evangelists for plug-in cars.

Elon-Musk-Fuel-Cells-Main-Art

“I think its unfortunate that it has to be either/or in Elon’s mind for example,” said Hartline when asked about the colorful quote by the head of Tesla Motors.

Hartline said FCVs and EVs need not be viewed as zero sum game and Toyota – as the video above illustrates as well – says there’s room for PHEVs, EVs and FCHVs, and it’s otherwise sure it’s on the right path.

However beyond what we touched on here, there remain many more objections against fuel cells, and Toyota did further explain and justify its initiative.

We’ll save that for the next installments of this series examining Toyota’s perspective on what it and the majority of global automakers – including alleged holdout Volkswagen – are preparing.