Fuel Cell Vehicles: Where Should We Get the Fuel?

CALGARY — Fuel cell vehicles, producing zero or near-zero emissions, are being hailed as a welcome solution to the environmental woes of our car-based, polluting culture.

According to a report recently released by a collaborative of the Pembina Institute, Ballard Power Systems, BC Hydro and Suncor Energy, while the operation of these vehicles is environmentally beneficial, it's also the method of producing the fuel to power them that will determine the extent of the environmental benefits.

Fuel cell vehicles can be designed to run on a variety of fuels, including hydrogen, and methanol. But not all fuels, or all fuel technologies, are created equal.

"Overall, moving to a hydrogen-based economy is very positive," said Marlo Raynolds, Director of the Eco-Solutions Group at the Pembina Institute. "But how we get there is important. Canada must evaluate the full life cycle of its fuel supply options to ensure that not only are fuel cell vehicles themselves clean, but also the sources of the fuel that power them." said Raynolds.

The collaborative's report details the results of a "Life-Cycle Value Assessment" of various available methods of producing fuels, and particularly hydrogen, evaluating the economic, environmental and social costs at every stage — from initial extraction of materials to final delivery and use.

One way of producing hydrogen is a process called "electrolysis" — passing an electrical current through water, breaking down water into its components of hydrogen and oxygen.

"We found that hydrogen produced by electrolysis using electricity from renewable energy sources, such as wind power and hydroelectricity, had the fewest negative environmental and social impacts compared with any conventional or alternative vehicle technology in the market," said Jesse Row, Eco-Efficiency Technology Analyst at the Pembina Institute and one of the study authors. "Currently, however, the economic costs remain relatively high."

The report, Life-Cycle Value Assessment of Fuel Supply Options for Fuel Cell Vehicles in Canada, and downloadable from /pub/131 at no charge, also revealed the following:

  • Steam methane reforming technology — using steam to release hydrogen from a methane molecule at a large plant or local fuel station — is the next best environmental choice for powering fuel cells. However, there remain challenges to easy distribution and small-scale production of hydrogen produced in this way.
  • Currently, fuel cell cars running on methanol have near zero tailpipe emissions, but, compared to a standard gasoline car, they do not significantly reduce life-cycle emissions of nitrogen oxides, acid rain precursors or greenhouse gases. This is expected to change as the technology matures.
  • Using fossil fuel-generated electricity, such as burning coal or natural gas, to produce hydrogen via electrolysis for use in fuel cell vehicles is not clearly environmentally beneficial.
  • Using electricity from nuclear power to produce hydrogen via electrolysis has positive and negative environmental and social attributes. Nuclear power-based systems have near zero life-cycle air emissions, but create radioactive waste with long-term negative safety, security and environmental impacts.
  • Battery electric vehicles and electric trolley buses use less electricity than do fuel cell vehicles using hydrogen produced from electrolysis, but they currently face other major challenges. These include high vehicle production costs and limits on the range of travel. Environmental performance is also highly dependent on the source of electricity.
  • It is important to consider regional influences on hydrogen production when evaluating system performance. Environmental, social and economic burdens and benefits can vary significantly from one region to another.

The study focused specifically on three Canadian cities — Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary — and took into account currently available sources of raw fuel, technologies for converting the fuel into hydrogen, methods for storing and transporting the hydrogen, and the types of vehicles that would use the fuel cell technology.

For more information contact:

Marlo Raynolds
Director, Eco-Solutions Group, Pembina Institute
Office: 403-269-3344 ext. 113
Email: marlor@pembina.org

Jesse Row
Eco-Efficiency Technology Analyst, Pembina Institute
Office: 403-269-3344 ext. 110
Email: jesser@pembina.org

Heidi Lasi
Media/Development Officer, Pembina Institute
Office: 613-235-6288 ext. 28
Email: heidil@pembina.org

Get our Pembina Perspectives

Pembina Perspectives provides thoughtful, evidence-based research and analysis to support action on climate — in your inbox every two weeks.

We endeavour to protect your confidentiality; read our full privacy policy.