Researchers balance infrastructure costs of batteries and fuel cells

Researchers balance infrastructure costs of batteries and fuel cells

Technology News |
By Nick Flaherty

The costs of the respective infrastructure – a charging network for battery-powered vehicles or hydrogen filling stations – depend heavily on how many vehicles need to be supplied. The comparison of the Jülich Research Centre shows: From several million vehicles and more, it is more cost-efficient to establish a hydrogen infrastructure. Though the study took into account the conditions in Germany, the results may have a certain general validity. 

“Germany has set itself ambitious targets for climate protection,” says Martin Robinius of the Jülich Institute for Energy and Climate Research and one of the authors of the study. “In the transport sector, however, we are still well behind the targeted reductions.” The industrial engineer argues, however, that the transition to low-emission vehicle fleets could be achieved by using electric vehicles that draw their energy from renewable sources.

When the wind turbines in the north of Germany run at full speed, they generate so much electricity that the grid cannot absorb it. This energy could be used to power vehicles. The form in which energy is stored and transported is of central importance: Should battery-powered electric cars be rolling across our roads in the future, or should they be fueled with hydrogen?

Schematic diagram of considered infrastructure set-ups
Source: H2 MOBILITY / Forschungszentrum Jülich, Robinius et al.

Both technologies are still at the beginning of their market development. It is precisely for this reason that it is of central importance to estimate the costs of future infrastructure at an early stage in order to avoid a technological impasse: “If we put everything on one card from the outset, it will be difficult to convert the system if the framework conditions change,” argues Robinius. The study at hand, commissioned by the joint venture H2 MOBILITY, is intended to provide orientation here.

Many experts are currently favoring the battery, because the electrical network already exists. All that would have to be done is to set up a certain number of additional charging stations. In addition, a fully electric process “from well to wheel” is highly efficient. For hydrogen, the situation is different: A large part of the infrastructure still needs to be built up: On the one hand, these are electrolyzers who use the electricity from high-wind phases to split water. The hydrogen produced in this process could initially be stored in underground salt caverns and then distributed to the filling stations via a pipeline system, for example.

The experts analyzed both scenarios and came to the conclusion that profitability depends on how many vehicles with battery or fuel cell drive systems are on the road. The initial investments in infrastructure development for both technologies are almost the same for both technologies as long as the vehicle stocks is below a threshold of several hundred thousand vehicles. Hydrogen would still be provided by industry from conventional sources during this period.

A transition phase should then follow, during which the production and storage of green hydrogen will be expanded with the help of surplus electricity. The cost of the required electrolyzers increases the price of hydrogen. At the same time, they also make it possible to store seasonal surpluses of renewable energies in the form of hydrogen over longer periods of time, which is not possible with battery technology alone.

Comparison of the cumulative investment of supply infrastructures
(Source: H2 MOBILITY / Forschungszentrum Jülich, Robinius et al.) 

“Battery electric cars represent the cost-optimized path in this phase, but in the long term they are not optimal,” explains Robinius. “As soon as the installed of cars base exceeds several million vehicles, the ratio begins to reverse.” The study from Jülich considers a market penetration of up to 20 million vehicles, which corresponds to almost half of today’s stock. At €51 billion, investments in a charging station infrastructure (the study refers to the German market) will then be higher than those in the hydrogen infrastructure (€40 billion). Mobility costs, on the other hand, hardly differ at this stage. In both cases they are between 4.5 and 4.6 euro-cents per kilometer.

In both cases, the total costs are significantly lower than investments in other infrastructure sectors. The authors of the study therefore recommend that both paths be extended. “We need both infrastructures, and we can afford them: batteries and hydrogen are not mutually exclusive. And we need to start building them both as soon as possible. This is undoubtedly also a great opportunity for innovation,” says Detlef Stolten, head of the institute.

Original publication:

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