China targets one million fuel cell vehicles

Image of the editor Lars Engvik By:Lars Engvik

China has established the largest NEV (New Energy Vehicle) market worldwide and target rapid progress in hydrogen activities.

Various media reports that the Chinese government and local authorities now are aiming for one million fuel cell vehicles (FCEVs) on Chinese roads by 2030.

From 1800 to 1000 000 FCEVs in 10 years

This is a considerable growth in number of vehicles compared to the 1800 vehicles on the roads at the end of 2018.

Since the domestic Chinese fuel cell and hydrogen industry still has a way to go to accommodate such volumes, the growth is mainly targeted for after 2025.

The government hopes that the growth can be accommodated by awarding subsidies, for buying vehicles and infrastructure in combination with significant cost reductions for fuel cell systems.

One could say a lot about the Chinese government and authorities but when they put their mind into something they have a tendency to see it through.

First priority is given to implementation of heavy-duty and other commercial vehicles with lighter vehicles suited for ride sharing as next.

Even if one million vehicles seems a lot compared to the 1800 FCEVs on the roads today, this is really not so impressing when considering that more than 300 million conventional cars, trucks and buses are already on Chinese roads.

Globally there are close to 1,4 billion conventional cars, trucks and buses, of which more than 5 million are plug in electric vehicles (This number also includes hybrid models).

Out of the 300 million cars in China, about 2,3 million currently are plug in electric cars (At the end of 2018).

They could do better

What the Chinese do is a step in the right direction to decarbonise and to improve air quality but the numbers are really not that impressive when taking into account the total Chinese market of close to 30 million cars sold every year.

Remember that in 2009, only ten years ago, the number of plug in electric vehicles were close to zero and now it is 2,3 million. This does not include the huge number of Low Speed BEVs, which is a type of EVs unique for China.

I believe they could do a lot better if they really wanted to.

As a curiosity, China has 99% of the worlds more than 200 million electrical two-wheelers.

Energy consumption

Let us have a look at what the increased number of FCEVs would mean in energy terms.

11,4 TWh (Terawatt hours) versus 4,8 TWh per year.

For the sake of simplicity and illustration we assume that the conventional vehicles that would be replaced by FCEVs are all gasoline fuelled light passenger cars with an average fuel consumption of 8,2 litre per 100 km and an annual milage of 15000 km.

One million gasoline fuelled cars would consume about 1,23 billion litres of gasoline, which based on the lower heating value of gasoline (ie. the energy released when gasoline is combusted) is equivalent to 11,43 billion kWh (kilowatt hours) per year.

If the gasoline fuelled cars are replaced with similar sized FCEVs the energy need would be reduced to about 4,8 billion kWh per year.

The above numbers assume an average energy need for moving a vehicle of 16 kWh per 100 km, no adjustments have been made for regenerative braking which could reduce the energy need for the FCEVs.

This rough calculation demonstrates that if the conventional gasoline vehicles are replaced with FCEVS the energy savings could be close to 60%.

Even if the mix of cars also included heavy duty vehicles, the energy savings would be high, but it would be lower since heavy duty vehicles often is fuelled by diesel.

The fuel efficiency of diesel engines, in most cases is better than for gasoline engines.

If a similar comparison is made between FCEVs and only diesel vehicles, the savings is likely to be in the range of 30% – 40%.

However, to get a more complete picture of the energy efficiency, we would have to make a “well to wheel” analysis or even a life cycle analysis to incorporate the energy consumption related to energy and fuel generation, storage and transportation.

For a full life cycle assessment af energy consumption, the analysis would also include energy consumed during manufacturing and end of life scrapping/recycling.

A “well to wheel” analysis indicates that the above energy savings are seriously affected by the methods and energy sources used for hydrogen generation.

If the hydrogen is produced by water electrolysis using renewable energy such as wind, solar or hydro electrical power then the “well to wheel” energy efficiency would still be a lot better for the FCEV if compared to a gasoline vehicle but would be only slightly better than for a diesel fuelled vehicle.

If the hydrogen is produced by electrolysis using electricity generated from burning fossil fuels, the energy efficiency of the FCEVs would in most cases be lower than for a conventional fossil fuelled vehicle.

Hydrogen produced by methane reforming is the only commercially viable, large scale method currently available for hydrogen generation involving fossil fuels, which could be able to match the energy efficiency of water electrolysis by renewable electricity

Unfortunately a by product of this method is large amounts of CO2, this is unless some sort of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology is applied.

Please note that the above assessment only looks at energy efficiency and not at the cost of hydrogen as a potential vehicle fuel, compared to conventional fossil fuels.

Some representatives for the hydrogen supply chain would argue that hydrogen already has or is just about to reach cost parity with fossil fuels. Wether this is right or wrong will to a large extent be dependant on local electricity and fossil fuel prices, since large amount of electricity is needed to produce hydrogen without emitting a lot of CO2.

Hydrogen production is an energy intensive process. Water electrolysis including compression of the hydrogen needs something in the range of 45 – 65 kWh per Kg hydrogen produced. The hydrogen needs to be compressed or liquified to enable storage and transportation.

So, why replace internal combustion engines with fuel cells?

Energy efficiency might not be the main or the only reason for implementing FCEVs , there are other reasons to do this:

  • Reduced GHG emissions since hydrogen can be made from low emission sources (renewables or from fossil fuels with carbon capture).
  • Improved local air quality, since fuel cells only emits water (H2O).
  • Reduced energy consumption.
  • Fuel cell vehicles are not dependant of finite resources such as fossil fuels.
  • Fast fuel refilling, similar to conventional vehicles.
  • Low use of rare earth metals such aa cobalt and lithium.

Despite the advantages with FCEVs, Chinese authorities have a few challenges in reaching their ambitions. China do not yet have an efficient hydrogen value chain and a well developed fuel cell industry.

Will China succeed in reaching their FCEV targets?

Wether the Chinese will reach there target or not remains to see and wether the target is stretched or not is another discussion, one million out of more than 300 million vehicles, one could say that it is not that much.

Despite strong subsidising it is absolutely necessary that availability of hydrogen is aligned with the demand for hydrogen. And further; If it becomes too complicated or expensive to re-fuel people will not invest, even if it is heavily subsidised.