With apologies to Jim Kenzie…

The column by Jim Kenzie published on Saturday October 1st, 2016, needs a little editing. Jim’s words, my words.


Is the time finally right for electrically fuelled cars?

It’s long past time.

There is little doubt that electric motors are a pretty good way to power a vehicle. Maximum torque at zero r.p.m., so excellent launch characteristics and strong acceleration. Low to no noise, compared to ‘infernal’ combustion. And zero emissions from the vehicle itself.

None of this is news. It was all true of the Baker electric, which went out of production in 1916.

The problem with the Baker Electric remains the problem with all modern battery-powered cars.

It’s called “energy density”, which is a measure of how much power you can get per kilogram of weight.

And, frankly, we are a heck of a lot farther advanced now than we were a century ago.

Jim Hall is one of the smartest guys I’ve ever known.  As Managing Director of 2953 Analytics, an automotive consulting firm,  he said in The New York Times in September of 2008, “You’ve got to consider the Volt an investment in new technology,” he said. “As was the case with the Prius, G.M. won’t earn a profit during the life cycle of the first-generation Volt, but they will gain a foot in the door with this new technology.”

Mr. Hall also said: “If G.M. were alone in this initiative, the Volt probably would be enough to boost it back to the top of the technological heap. But in Toyota City, there’s a seven-story tower called the Electric Powertrain Building. And Chrysler has a hybrid project called ENVI that’s progressing more quickly than expected. So the best that can be hoped is that the Volt will move G.M. to the front row of companies with contemporary propulsion technology.”1

Even if the next “right around the corner” breakthrough is in fact right around the corner and they do solve the energy density issue – the upcoming Chevrolet Bolt promises 300 kilometers of range under ideal conditions – where is the electricity to recharge these things going to come from?

Fortunately, consumption of electricity is down 12% since 2005 in Ontario. In fact, Ontario is a net exporter of electric power, so that surplus can be used to fuel a huge increase in the rolling stock of EVs.2

If we need more electricity, to keep greenhouse gases to a minimum, the only viable option at the moment is nuclear. Ever hear of Three Mile Island? Chernobyl? More recently, Fukushima?

In Canada, no member of the public has ever been harmed as a result of nuclear power plant operations.3

A huge chunk of the world’s electricity right now comes from burning fossil fuels. In Ontario, a little over half of our electricity comes from nuclear power.4 With the closure of the coal-fired plants in Ontario, a small percentage of electricity generated also produces greenhouse gases.

If only there was a better way to put electricity into cars.

Fuel Cell vehicles are essentially electric vehicles. They get their power from the on-board fuel cell.  There is usually a battery system as well to smooth out the delivery of power to the electric motor.  Battery powered electric vehicles are the better way to fuel EVs, and are getting better all the time.

Thanks to our visionary Provincial politicians, who are often criticized for being blind, stupid, short-sighted, bought off or all of the above (depending on what country you’re talking about), we have one of the most aggressive rollouts of EV charging stations in Ontario, allowing cross-province and eventually cross-country driving without burning a single drop of petroleum.

I have recently driven the only two fuel cell vehicles (ho, ho…) available in the Canadian market, the Hyundai Tucson and Toyota Mirai.

(Honda’s Premacy is available in California, but not yet in Canada.)

These may be part of the future, folks, but not all of it.

Hydrogen powered vehicles have always faced big PR issues.

Mention hydrogen to most people and they think of the hydrogen bomb. Not a friendly association.

Hydrogen fuel-cell cars drive like regular cars. No adaption necessary.

No need to plug the thing in on a freezing cold Feburary night when you get home – assuming of course that the battery hasn’t died and you do get home. This probably happens as often as running out of gasoline in a conventional car. I must be doing something wrong.  With over 40,000 km of EV driving under my belt, I haven’t managed to strand myself once.

No one needs to install a $1,500 240-volt charger in your garage so it won’t take overnight to recharge the thing.

With a hydrogen car, you pull up to a filling station, just like you do now. Get 500 kilometres of range or more (at any temperature) in three to five minutes, just like you do now.  The cost to fill up a fuel cell vehicle for 300 miles (about 500 km) is about $66 ($50US).  The cost to fill an electric car, overnight, at current rates, for 500 km is about $9.00 CDN (100kW @ 8.7 cents/kW).56

No need to worry about disposing of a battery from an EV, which can be recycled or repurposed as battery backup for generators or solar installations.

The problem with hydrogen has always been delivery infrastructure. How do we get hydrogen to every street corner like we do gasoline?

EVs don’t suffer from this problem. The infrastructure is already found in every home.  There aren’t many homes in Ontario that don’t have access to electricity.

Turns out this might not be such a big deal. Canadian Tire is converting the forklift trucks in their distribution warehouses across the country to fuel-cell power. If they open it up to the public, you can drive to Brampton, Bolton or Calgary to top up your fuel-cell powered vehicle.

They are getting their hydrogen from electrolysis, which of course also uses electricity, but again the efficiency is much better. It’s unfortunate that the energy you put into making hydrogen is more than you get out in usable fuel, making the process inherently inefficient.

It’s also technically possible to strip hydrogen off natural gas, which, of course is already available on almost every street corner. You can even have an outlet installed in your garage.  A hydrogen fuel station is a bit pricey at $4,0007 but, with incentives and volume, this price will come down.

True, this doesn’t solve the fossil-fuel issue, but the delivery infrastructure is in place.

Longer-term, solar-powered catalytic converters in the Indian Ocean could break seawater into oxygen (which we can also use) and hydrogen, which goes into our existing pipeline network. Pipelines do come with their own problems, with the potential for leaks.8   When you burn hydrogen, you get water.

In fact, infrastructure is a massive problem facing battery-powered cars, too. A single ice storm two Christmases ago took out the city of Toronto for six days. You couldn’t refill gasoline powered cars or run the compressors for fuel cell cars either with the power off, but that’s besides the point.  That’s how robust our electrical infrastructure is. Let’s plug half a million cars into that every night and see what happens.

The answer? Nothing.  Most EVs charge overnight, when demand is a fraction of that of daytime hours.  Time-of-use billing from Ontario’s electricity suppliers gives incentives to charge overnight.

So, regardless, we needn’t invest big-time in hardware.

A study by the McKinsey and Company concluded that to upgrade Germany’s electrical system to accommodate a “critical number” of battery-powered cars would cost about five times as much as to install a similar system for hydrogen powered cars. Another McKinsey study said that costs of hydrogen infrastructure are affordable: in fact, comparable to other fuels and technologies such as charging infrastructures for Battery EV and Plug-in Hybrid EVs, not five times cheaper.9  So why build out a brand-new infrastructure to power fuel cell vehicles when the infrastructure for charging battery powered EVs already exists?

It also just happens that Canada has some of the most advanced hydrogen-generation and distribution expertise in the world.

Ballard Power Systems in Burnaby, B.C., ironically enough was initially set up to explore lithium-ion batteries, until they realized what a rabbit hole that was for them.

Hydrogenics in Mississauga is a world leader in hydrogen infrastructure development, as is Mississauga neighbour Next Hydrogen.  All three of these companies – and others – deserve a column all on their own, and I will try to give each justice in the coming months.

My point is, the science seems settled. Battery-powered electric vehicles are the best way to go forward.

One way or another we don’t have to pay the infrastructure piper.

Why not focus on a system which not only has immediate payout compared to the available alternatives, but has infinite long-term potential, too?

I mean, when we run out of solar power and seawater, we’re done as a species anyway.

And, we have the knowledge right here at home.

  1. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/14/automobiles/14AUTO.html?_r=0
  2. http://www.davidsuzuki.org/blogs/climate-blog/2016/09/is-ontarios-surplus-electricity-a-problem/
  3. https://cna.ca/why-nuclear-energy/safe/safety-record/
  4. http://www.opg.com/communities-and-partners/teachers-and-students/documents/grade9student.pdf
  5. http://www.hydroone.com/MyHome/MyAccount/UnderstandMyBill/Pages/ElectricityRates.aspx
  6. http://www.greencarreports.com/news/1093840_hydrogen-fuel-cell-cars-50-for-300-miles–or-free-to-fill-up
  7. http://www.hydrogencarsnow.com/index.php/home-hydrogen-fueling-stations/
  8. http://www.aria.developpement-durable.gouv.fr/accident/35860_en/?lang=en
  9. https://www.hydrogen.energy.gov/pdfs/htac_02_2011_hayter.pdf

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