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Fringe engines

Natural gas and fuel cell vehicles are not growing as quickly as EVs, for good reasons

Battery-fired and plug-in hybrids aren't the only new game on the road.

Other new engines are on their way. Some are young, even by today's technology standards, and their number is already dwarfed by the rise of electric vehicles. Yet they will only add to the array of non-petroleum transport options, biting at oil's domination of the segment.

Among the alternative technologies listed by the US Department of Energy are hydrogen fuel cells, compressed or liquefied natural gas, and liquid petroleum gas (LPG).

Hydrogen fuel cell cars promise to run as cleanly as electric vehicles (EVs). Emissions consist only of water vapour, which is generated by the reaction of hydrogen with the fuel cell catalyst to produce electricity.

They also offer a greater range than today's EVs—about 250 miles. EVs have a wide variety of ranges, which can be as much as 300 miles but are often less. Refuelling a fuel cell car doesn't take as long as recharging an EV, either. Those are among the reasons why Toyota puts so much faith (and research cash) in the technology.

Producing hydrogen, though, takes a lot of energy—if the cars are to be genuinely emissions free, their energy will have to come from renewables. And distribution of hydrogen fuel is in its infancy. According to data collated by TUV SUD, a German certifications company, global hydrogen stations number in the hundreds. In the US, the Alternative Fuels Data Center lists just 35 stations operating in the country, all but three of which are in California. Good luck driving cross country.

"Hydrogen is not established at all, but it does have potential take-off in Japan and South Korea, where the infrastructure need can be met fairly easily and the domestic automakers have very significant interest in producing these vehicles," says Scott Shepard, an analyst at Navigant Research, a consultancy specialising in green tech.

"Outside these two markets, there are not the right conditions to develop a market that's competitive against certain EVs that will offer the same driving experience and environmental benefits at lower cost." Shepard notes that even Toyota, which staked a claim to hybrid motors with its Prius several years ago, is developing new EVs alongside hydrogen cells. "They are coming around to the view that fuel cells are not going to be really competitive in cost and they will always have an infrastructure problem in a majority of countries," he said.

Urban planning

Big efforts have been made to show that fuel cells will work in urban transportation. The EU has trialled fuel cell buses in a number of cities since 2003, though just 67 of them were operating in the bloc last year.

IHS Markit, a firm of consultants, predicted last year that the global fuel cell fleet would number just 70,000 by 2027, or 0.1% of the total. By comparison, the International Energy Agency expects 30m EVs on the road two years earlier.

Oil's sister fuel, natural gas, is another source of competition. Cars running on natural gas or LPG are cleaner than gasoline or diesel, but offer similar performance. Continental Europe has a well-developed network of LPG filling stations. Lower taxes make it cheaper, too. The Natural Gas Vehicle Database estimates that 23m natural gas-powered vehicles were on the road this year—China, Iran and Pakistan accounted for half. The US had 160,000 and the EU reported 1.1m.

67 - Number of natural gas buses in EU in 2016

The technology is relatively old—but Navigant expects steady growth. Annual sales, it reckons, will rise from 2.4m in 2015 to 3.9m in 2025. They tend to work well in high-mileage fleets, such as buses and delivery vehicles that operate from central depots. But, again, a poorly developed filling infrastructure is a hindrance. Nor do many climate advocates see the sense in replacing gasoline and diesel with another fossil fuel.

"In the mid to long term the substitution of fossil oil with fossil natural gas can have no role to play in a decarbonised transport sector," Carlos Calvo Ambel, a transport analyst at Transport & Environment, a clean-fuels lobby group, wrote in a report published last year. "Natural gas is not a 'bridge fuel', as claimed, but an expensive dead-end on the pathway to decarbonising transport."

Lack of infrastructure is the real barrier to a mass breakthrough. EVs suffer from that too, but because drivers can charge their cars at home the problem isn't so severe—and recharging points are mushrooming fast.

A recent study from McKinsey and Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicted that charging stations (public and private) would grow sixfold, to 12m, by 2020. "Putting in a 350 kilowatt charging station is significantly cheaper than putting in a 500-800 gallon equivalent natural gas refuelling station," says Shepard. It's enough to give EVs the jump over other alternative engines—and make them a genuine competitor to internal-combustion engines. Cheaper oil prices in the past few years have also eroded some of the cost advantage alternative fuels have enjoyed. As long as that lasts, it's unlikely that these alternatives, like natural gas-powered vehicles, can pose the same threat to oil. "That's because electricity has taken the limelight and is only going to get more competitive in the future," says Shepard, "thus limiting the extent by which fuel cells might be adopted for light vehicle and even heavy vehicles."

This article is part of a report series on Electric vehicles. Next article: Batteries are streets ahead

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