Batteries vs. Fuel Cells

For three days in late September, California’s Air Resources Board hosted their annual “Zero Emission Vehicle” (ZEV) Symposium. It’s interesting to see how the agenda has evolved this year, to put more emphasis than ever on battery electric vehicle technology instead of hydrogen fuel cell technology.

If you review the presentation agenda you will see that the hydrogen lobby managed to dominate most of the conference. But if you view the various presentations, you may be struck by the difference in tone and content between these competing technologies. Basically, the hydrogen folks trotted out the same slides they delivered last year, with minor updates. On the battery electric sessions, however, there was an excitement and vitality that comes from knowing you are in the vanguard of an impending revolution.

Battery/electric automotive technology, you see, doesn’t require a government hand-out – or mandate – to survive. It’s venture financed instead of taxpayer financed. It’s nurtured by some of the most hard-headed, brilliant capitalists the Silicon Valley ever spawned, people who have made their fortunes by beating the competition in the free market, and who are willing to invest their winnings in another winner whose time has come – battery/electric cars.

The most revealing and illuminating comparison between hydrogen fuel cell technology and battery/electric technology came on page 21 of the electric car presentation delivered by Martin Eberhard, CEO of Tesla Motors. In this he poses the question “how many miles will one unit of electricity power a car?” and proceeds to prove that the battery powered car will travel about 3.5 times further than a hydrogen fuel cell car on the same amount of electrical input. We believe Mr. Eberhard, since we’ve quantitatively demonstrated similar results in our post “The Hydrogen Hoax” and in our pro-battery/electric vehicle feature story “The Battery Powered Car.”

Eberhard doesn’t quit there. He also demonstrates the advantage photovoltaic arrays hold over biofuel crops on pages 25 and 26 of his presentation. He demonstrates that one acre of land covered with photovoltaics will enable an electric car range 32 times further than the same acre of land used to produce a biofuel crop. We agree, as the calculations prove in our post “Biofuel vs. Photovoltaics.”

It is wonderful to see the truth beginning to come to light. It may be batteries, or it may be ultracapacitors (or a combination of the two), that power the electric motors of next generation ultra-green cars. One thing is certain: It won’t be hydrogen fuel cells. And while biofuel has potential, particularly if it is factory grown, the abundant green energy of tomorrow is going to come, overwhelmingly, from photovoltaic arrays.

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