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Electric Vehicles or Hydrogen Vehicles – Which is Better for the Environment?


Electric vehicle speeding past a forest

If you’ve stepped outside anytime in the past decade, you will probably have noticed some fairly extreme weather around the place. From intense snowstorms with temperatures rivaling those on Mars, to record-breaking heat waves making us sweat more than ever before, there’s no denying that the Earth is experiencing “climate weirding”. One of the most widely recognized causes for this wild weather is the rise in greenhouse gases in our atmosphere due to human industrial activity. With over 99% of climate scientists now agreeing on this cause, many of the world’s governments and industries are looking at ways to curb their dependence on greenhouse-gas-heavy fossil fuels to try and avoid weather catastrophes in the coming decades.

One of the brightest success stories out of this eco-revolution has been the rise of electric vehicles (EVs), with companies such as Tesla and Chevrolet bringing commercially viable EVs to the masses. Electric car sales grew 68% in Canada alone last year, leading to a total of over 50,000 EVs throughout the country. Another technology that has emerged as a potential saviour from our petroleum addiction is hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, which use hydrogen and air to power a car. As technology and industry marches onward, future car owners are asking themselves: which tech should I throw my support behind? Let’s do a deeper dive on these two potential auto industry game changers so you can get a sense of where things are headed.

The Difference Between All Electric and Hydrogen Fuel Cell

Don’t be scared by the scientific sounding names; electric vehicles are actually fairly straight forward. An EV is any car that uses an electric motor to move instead of a more traditional internal combustion motor. As the name suggests, an electric motor is powered by electricity, whereas an internal combustion engine is powered by petrol or natural gas. The main reason consumers, governments, and corporations have been looking towards electric vehicles for the future is their significantly reduced carbon footprint when compared to traditional vehicles. As EVs run on electricity, they do not produce any emissions whilst in use, and the only emissions that are linked to their use will depend on the source of the electricity they use to recharge. The two types of technology we are discussing are electric vehicles powered by an onboard battery that has been charged up with electricity, and a hydrogen fuel cell car, which generates electricity through the chemical interaction of hydrogen with oxygen. Technically, both battery powered vehicles and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are electric vehicles as they both run on an electrical current, so for the purposes of this article we’ll call them “all electric” and “hydrogen fuel cell” cars for clarity.

EVs are Eco-Friendly

First up, let’s look at the pros of owning any electric vehicle, whether its an all electric or hydrogen fuel cell car. The most obvious benefit of going with an EV in any form is its decreased impact on the environment. As they run on electricity, they do not release any gases like normal internal combustion engines do, and are only as “bad” for the environment as the source of the electricity they use to power up. In the case of all electric cars, this will be based on their local energy grid, and for hydrogen fuel cells, this is zero emission hydrogen. Either way, they are substantially less harmful to the Earth’s atmosphere than your typical gas guzzler, so you can feel good about doing your bit to save the planet.

Red Tesla electric vehicle charging station

EVs are Much Quieter

Electric vehicles are also much quieter than normal cars as they do not have a constant stream of mini explosions happening under the hood. This means they reduce noise pollution and won’t wake up your neighbours when you have to leave at the crack of dawn for a flight or work, which can only be a good thing.

If you’ve Got the Need for Speed, Go with an EV

For those who place emphasis on speed, EVs have internal combustion engines beat when it comes to torque and acceleration. Due to the instantaneous nature of energy transmission within an electric engine, 100% of an EV’s torque is available at 0rpm, compared to less than 35% torque available in a traditional engine. This means that electric vehicles can accelerate much faster than combustion engine cars, and handle a lot “zippier”.

Save Money Whilst you Save the Planet

On a more pragmatic note, EVs are also better for your wallet too. An electric motor has substantially fewer moving parts than an internal combustion engine, and fewer moving things means less can go wrong and need fixing. This means EV maintenance is a lot cheaper and required less frequently than a regular car, which is all good news for your pocket. Looking further into the future, making the switch to electric will save you a heap more money as gas prices continue to skyrocket. Fossil fuel supplies are already starting to dwindle, and with decreased supply comes increased prices. Renewable energy sources are infinite and becoming ever more economically viable, so as petrol prices climb, green energy prices will continue to fall. All this means that by investing in an electric vehicle now, you’ll not only be saving the environment but also your money in the long run.

The Benefits on an All Electric Vehicle

Let’s look at all electrical vehicles first. The darling child of the eco-revolution has a significant head start on hydrogen fuel cell cars and has been widely adopted by many leading auto manufacturers. With this wide adoption and maturing technology, these cars are also getting cheaper and more advanced every year, leading to more and more consumers making the jump. This has also led to a greater increase in charging networks globally, with 150 stations in Canada and many more across Europe. Seeing as easy access to electricity is key to competing with traditional cars, you can expect to see these networks being built out on an ever increasing scale in years to come.

All Electric Vehicles are Green… Depending on Where you Live

Importantly, the relative eco-friendliness of an all electric vehicle is directly tied to the sources of electricity it uses to recharge. In Canada, 80% of electricity generated by non-greenhouse-gas producing means such as hydro, wind, nuclear and solar, makes charging an electric car relatively green. However, in countries such as Australia, India and China, the majority of the generated electricity is still produced by traditional means such as coal and natural gas. This means that owning an EV in these countries would be substantially less eco-friendly than owning one in Canada or Europe, as the energy you’re using to power your electric vehicle is itself releasing greenhouse gases. Ultimately, the environmental benefits of using an all electric vehicle will depend on where you live and what kind of energy sources are primarily used in your area.

A Note on Batteries

Something else to consider when contemplating the environmental impacts of all electric vehicles is the nature of the batteries they use. Commercially available EVs utilize lithium ion batteries, as they are the most cost effective and can maintain the highest energy density of commercially viable batteries. Problematically, lithium ion batteries have been shown to have significant detrimental impacts on the environment, both in their production and again in their disposal when no longer needed. In addition, these battery types are inherently volatile and there have been cases of these batteries exploding during collisions. All this said, the environmental impacts of manufacturing and disposing of lithium ion batteries compared to the continued burning of fossil fuels are relatively minor, so an all electric vehicle is still definitely the more eco-friendly option. As battery tech improves, these negative side effects of lithium ion batteries will disappear, making EVs an even more attractive option.

White and green electric vehicle being recharged

The Pros of Going with a Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicle

Once more seen in the realm of science fiction, hydrogen fuel cells have begun to make it into consumer level products over the past decade. The main process that allows the fuel cell to function is the creation of electrical energy from the chemical reaction of compression hydrogen fuel mixing with oxygen (usually in the form of regular air) in the fuel cell stack, which is then fed to an electrical motor to produce motion. After decades of working out the kinks in making these fuel cells portable and stable enough to put into cars, several manufacturers have released small batches of hydrogen fuel cell cars to gauge their attractiveness to consumers.

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars are Completely Clean

The main environmental benefit of hydrogen fuel cells is a near limitless fuel source that is 100% clean and emissions free, and only produces pure water as a byproduct of using the car. Hydrogen is the third most abundant element on Earth, being found in many different compounds, and many industrial processes produce hydrogen gas during their regular operations. This means that the fuel for the cells is readily available, already being produced by hundreds of different industries, and has zero net impact on the environment. Hydrogen fuel cell cars can also be recharged in under 5 minutes and have an effective range of up to 300 miles, absolutely smashing the normal for high end all electrical vehicles, which take a minimum of 30 minutes to charge to 80% capacity, and have ranges much lower than 300 miles.

Hydrogen: a Double-Edged Sword

Unfortunately, hydrogen isn’t the miracle fuel source we’ve all been waiting for, at least not yet. Despite being totally non-toxic and not harmful to humans, hydrogen gas is extremely flammable (anyone remember the Hindenburg?), which makes it very hard to transport and store safely. Coupled with the millions of things that can go wrong when you put highly dangerous chemicals in the hands of everyday consumers and you’ve got a significant problem on your hands. This has led to the much slower adoption of fuel cell cars, as companies do not want to risk creating many hydrogen refueling stations when consumers and car manufacturers are still wary of the technology. There are only a handful of hydrogen charging stations globally, none of which are in Canada despite fuel cell technology being invented in B.C. So whilst hydrogen fuel effectively is more environmentally friendly than all electric vehicles, as most energy grids still utilize some fossil fuels, they are not currently commercially viable or practical without significant advances in technology and positive consumer sentiment.

So What’s the Best Eco-Friendly Car of the Future?

Ultimately, t is likely that both types of EVs will exist in some capacity in the future in our march towards becoming a carbon neutral society. As fossil fuels continue to dry up and renewable energy sources become the norm, green electricity will continue to become cheaper whilst natural gas and petrol will skyrocket in price. Eventually, 100% of the energy grid will be powered by non-greenhouse-gas producing sources, meaning that driving an all electric vehicle would be completely carbon neutral.

Likewise, hydrogen technology is likely to advance in the coming years to such a point that fuel cells become a viable alternative. Fuel cells are of significant interest to many different industries, not just the automotive industry, so an advance in any of those fields will benefit everyone. Eventually, hydrogen fuel cells will likely become as ubiquitous as all electric vehicles are today, as their several key benefits of the all EVs sways consumers to their side.

It All Depends on your Circumstances

Which type of electric vehicle will come down to how long term you want to look. EV technology is infinitely better for the environment than internal combustion engines, but in the shorter term, all electric vehicles make more financial and practical sense due to their established network and manufacturer support, especially if you live in a country with a high ratio of green energy already on the grid. If you are completely committed to becoming 100% zero emissions today, then hydrogen fuel cell cars are your best bet. However, you should be ready to pay a lot for the warm fuzzies you will get from knowing you’re doing your bit for the environment.

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