‘Hydrogen a distraction’: WA Professor on why lithium batteries have the upper hand for transport


To eclipse lithium batteries in the race to become the dominant green transport fuel, hydrogen would need nothing short of a groundbreaking invention and a giant windfall of cash.

“Right now, hydrogen is not even close,” Professor Wills, Managing Director and owner of Future Smart Strategies, told pv magazine Australia.

Essentially, this is because markets tend to prefer single market solutions, Professor Wills says. In other words, monopolies. Think, for example, of Google. Despite all the hype around the potential for democratisation on the internet, just a handful of companies today own and operate the lion’s share. Once a company or technology claws the upper hand, its difficult to stop its ascent. Market advantage tends to stick.

The global fleet of EVs tower over the number of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles

Professor Ray Wills

Which is precisely what Professor Wills believes will happen with lithium batteries, leaving hydrogen in its wake. “Hydrogen as transport fuel is still a long way behind lithium batteries.” 

This, he says, is also telling, since hydrogen has been pursued industrially for about 100 years, where lithium batteries have only been a serious staple for around 15 years. In terms of learning curves and the improved economics that goes with them, hydrogen has had a lot longer but continues to have far less impressive returns.

Today, the global electric vehicle fleet is believed to be more than 10 million. According to EV Volumes, a EV sales world database, sales of battery electric vehicles (BEVs) and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV) rose from 2.26 million for 2019, to 3.24 million in 2020.

These numbers definitively dwarfs hydrogen fuel cell vehicle fleets, which is in the tens of thousands. In a direct sense today, there are simply more EVs being made, which means it’s easier, it’s cheaper, there’s more of a market for them. Wright’s Law is on EVs’ side.

Global vehicle annual sales projections from 2019 to 2030

Professor Ray Wills

So, is it possible for hydrogen to shoot out from behind? Technically, yes, Professor Wills says. But it would need a great push, nothing short of a miraculous invention that could double hydrogen’s efficiency would make it real competitor. Does that seem probable? “Not in the next 5 years.” Which is the timeline the Future Smart Strategies’ MD says hydrogen has to stake its claim before batteries consolidate their position.

The other thing that could see hydrogen take off though is if lithium batteries don’t perform. That is, if their prices and the battery densities for range don’t meet consumer needs. Given the rapid progress batteries have seen in the last decade, however, Professor Wills gives little weight to the scenario.

Why hydrogen has received the hype it has is because, Professor Wills says, oil and gas companies can no longer ignore that they need to move into the renewable game. They’re sticking to something they know – gas – although, as Professor Wills notes, hydrogen is a very different molecule to the gases the industry customarily deals in.

This echoes the sentiments of Smart Energy Council’s CEO John Grimes, who believes fossil fuel companies see hydrogen as a lifeline. Which is why the Council is vehement about finalising its Zero Carbon Scheme to certify green hydrogen as a matter of top priority.

Professor Wills, however, doesn’t quite share the Council’s expectation of a ‘global wave.’ Which is not to say he sees no role for hydrogen, specifically green hydrogen, in the future, but rather that he thinks the fuel will remain a straggler, unable to break out from behind batteries’ shadow.

Another factor is the issue of infrastructure. While it’s touted that hydrogen will be easier to roll out than EV charging stations, since we already have petrol stations dotting our streets, the tanks, hoses and ancillary infrastructure still needs to be built into those sites. So as it stands, Professor Wills says electric charging stations are also winning the infrastructure battle. “Could be overturned? Yes, if someone were to pour money at it.”

Government funds are still the driving force behind installing hydrogen infrastructure. EV charging station infrastructure, on the other hand, is already being competitively installed. “It just adds a layer to the advantage.”

Global vehicle fleet projects to 2040

Professor Ray Wills

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