ImageAt the Hanover Fair in Germany, I sat down with Dr. Jon Moore of Intelligent Energy, a UK firm that specialized in hydrogen fuel cells. I came to this conversation with a wind/solar/renewable policy background, and limited knowledge of hydrogen technology, except for being aware of criticism it receives from competing renewable energy advocates. Dr. Moore debunked many of these criticisms in the interview you can listen to below.

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While not yet commercially cost competitive, the core value of hydrogen fuel cells is that it, depending on how the hydrogen was generated, has zero emissions. At minimum, widespread hydrogen adoption may be an upgrade from and substitute for petroleum gasoline. Eliminating oil from consumers’ lives is a more pressing problem in the UK, where prices are already over $8 per gallon as rising (over $9 in the Netherlands).

ImageAnd rather than competing with renewable energy as I’d always been told, hydrogen fuel cells have the potential to resolve or mitigate renewables’ major shortcoming- the effective inability to store, and thus control, supply. Hydrogen fuel cells allow for greater range than offered by most electric vehicles, therefore resolving ‘range anxiety’. In using a chemical rather than combustion process, they also are appropriate for sensitive environments.

Using electricity to generate hydrogen offers some advantages to straight electricity for transportation power. Generating hydrogen may be better than charging and exhausting batteries made of expensive, limited and geopolitically complex rare earth elements. Alternatively, a hybrid of hydrogen fuel cells and batteries may maximize range benefits, while minimizing bulk in electric vehicles. Hydrogen fuel cells are also quite complimentary to existing renewable technology in that they provide another option for the conversion of energy from intermittent renewable resources to portable stored energy.

The only area of direct competition between hydrogen and renewables may be investment. One wonders whether investors will be interested in funding a network of hydrogen fueling stations for hydrogen cars as well as charging stations for straight electric EVs. Electric vehicles have the advantage of being further along the cost curve, and that consumers have easier access to fuel- as easy as plugging into a wall. It begs the question which will come first- the resolution of EVs’ limiting factors before hydrogen advances, or hydrogen incorporated more deeply into renewable power systems to mitigate those factors.

Intelligent energy makes a variety of cool products, some of which were on display. I was most interested in the fuel cells they’ve incorporated into a black cabs in London. Black cabs are iconic symbols of Britain. Outfitting them with fuel cells - without any performance loss- most importantly shows that traditional gasoline powered engines are on the way out.