Oil companies are not stupid. Benevolent? Probably not. But definitely not stupid.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve seen several of my customers at oil majors moving into roles related to hydrogen. I kept wondering why because hydrogen simply doesn’t seem like it has a chance in the automotive world–too little, too late, and too expensive compared to electric cars.
I also remember the documentary “who killed the electric car?” The documentary talked about how hydrogen was a panacea sold by the oil companies to delay adoption of electric cars. Pretty much the same arguments as today–range anxiety, charging time as negatives for batteries whereas hydrogen would be completely clean and anyone could fill up whenever they want just like today. I even remember Governor Arnie signing the “hydrogen highway” bill in CA–and 20 years later there are a total of 45 hydrogen refueling stations in the entire state.
The documentary pointed out many flaws in hydrogen such as the low energy density, difficulty to seal, and cost. The current crop of hydrogen fuel cell cars are closer to solving these issues, but there is still a lot of work to do.
The cars themselves cost $50,000–$60,000, which is likely a subsidized price.
To have enough hydrogen fuel, it is compressed up to 10,000 psi in the car’s tank. I’m not sure how I would feel about having that kind of pressure in a tank a few feet from me.
And the fuel is still expensive. 1 kg of hydrogen (energy equivalent of about 1 gallon of gasoline) is still $12-$16.
My take is that hydrogen is just not there yet for cars. Maybe in 20 years, but I suspect electric cars will “cross the chasm” before then.
So, why are these big companies diverting teams of engineers to hydrogen? This is not mere PR hype. They are actually pursuing commercialization.
And one of my contacts pointed out where they think they will go–heavy industry. If you want to decarbonize a cement plant, how are you going to make the high temperatures needed to make cement? Bill Gates has a solar plant idea, which is nice. But if you want to retrofit the existing sites for zero CO2 emissions? You need a zero CO2 fuel. Hydrogen.
And I’d rather have a 10,000 psi tank of hydrogen sitting static at a cement plant than underneath my back seat.