Is Hydrogen the Future of U.S. Transport Fuel?

Big growth predicted for hydrogen vehicles and related infrastructure.

March 31, 2020

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—For years, investors and petroleum interests have expected electric vehicles to emerge on the scene and cut into demand for petroleum-based fuels. But according to Fuels Market News, a revolution is underway in hydrogen production that will result in rapid growth in hydrogen-powered vehicles and the infrastructure needed to fuel them.

Hydrogen power is not new, and hydrogen vehicles have been around since the Ford Model A. Hydrogen fuel cells have been used for years by the military and NASA. Hydrogen is used as a rocket fuel and is dominant in buses and forklifts. However, the U.S. has only 300 hydrogen cars (mostly in California) and only 48 retail fueling stations (43 are in California). But things are changing with the price of hydrogen fuel, its production source and business model for transport fuel.

Currently, U.S. production of hydrogen is nine million metric tons (t) per year, or 20 billion pounds. A pound of hydrogen has 62,000 BTUs, or almost three times that of gasoline (21,000 BTUs per pound). So, from an energy standpoint, the U.S. has a 60 billion gasoline-gallon equivalent (GGE), or enough hydrogen to power 30% of all autos in the United States.

Hydrogen has many applications: food processing, metal fabricating, fertilizer manufacturing and pharmaceuticals. It is a major component in desulfurization at petroleum refineries, which is why 90% of all hydrogen is today produced only in three states: Louisiana, Texas and California.

Presently, hydrogen costs $14/kilogram which is $5.6/GGE. With cheap power and new technology, that cost will fall to $5/kilogram, bringing the GGE to $2. Gasoline costs 10 cents/mile at $2.50/gallon. $5/kilogram of hydrogen is 10 cents/mile given the energy content and efficiency of hydrogen. Consumers may welcome hydrogen cars since they do not come with the range anxiety of electricity nor the expense of gasoline-fueled vehicles. Several manufacturers have announced plans for major U.S. hydrogen vehicle production including: 

  • Honda-Nexo
  • Hyundai—Tucson
  • Toyota—Mirai
  • Mazda—Rx-8RE
  • Nissan—unnamed
  • BMW—unnamed

It’s reported that hydrogen vehicle sellers plan to bundle five years of fuel at the time of vehicle purchase, with in-vehicle devices showing fueling locations and fuel balances. Even Class 7 and 8 trucks that were never viable candidates for electric because of distance and torque issues are moving down the path to hydrogen, with Kenworth, Nikola, U.S. Hybrid and Toyota in the testing phase.

The major issue for hydrogen acceptance as a passenger car fuel is the current lack of fueling facilities. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates for every one million hydrogen cars, the U.S. will need 200 stations. If the country has 10 million hydrogen vehicles, which is the ambitious goal of original equipment manufacturers and zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) state mandates, the country will require 2,000 retail fueling stations which will cost about $1.5 billion in capital expenditures, not including the real estate.

NACS Magazine explored the use of hydrogen as an alternative fuel in “Fuels Errand?” in the October 2019 issue.