Anyone who believes battery-electric or hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles don’t have a future greatly underestimates the bullheadedness of Californians. This special breed of American lives in a state wracked by drought, choked with traffic, and bisected by a fault zone. Yet Californians think there’s no better place to be.
For further proof of Californians’ obstinate nature, note that the small but growing market for zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs) there has been 24 years in the making. After spinning its wheels in the GM EV1 era, the California Air Resources Board (CARB), which regulates state air quality, has finally found the traction to effect a major automotive and cultural shift with its ZEV mandate. So excuse us for skipping over the question of whether battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) or hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles (FCVs) will still be around in 2025; CARB will make sure of that.
The question is, which one of these technologies will win in the long run?
BEVs were first out of the gate, but hydrogen fuel cells are just now starting to close the gap. Honda, Toyota, and Hyundai will offer FCVs to private individuals in Southern California by the end of 2015. Hydrogen’s recent surge is more than a happy accident, though. While CARB claims its policies are technology-neutral, the regulations that influence what automakers build, combined with state incentives, will soon give hydrogen some ammo in its war with batteries.
To give both BEVs and FCVs a fighting chance against gasoline, California’s ZEV mandate attempts to do what free-market forces cannot: coerce manufacturers to build expensive and unproven cars. That is, without an established supply base, before the refueling infrastructure is in place, with no economies of scale, and with no guarantee of turning a profit. It’s a grand social-engineering experiment, but policymakers also see it as necessary. Passenger cars and light-duty trucks are responsible for roughly half of the petroleum consumed and 17 percent of the greenhouse gases emitted in the United States. California’s regulators believe we can’t address climate change without cleaning up the car.
More on ZEVs
California manages the ZEV mandate using its own version of Monopoly money known as ZEV credits. Automakers earn different types of credits for the different types of automobiles they sell in the state, including ZEVs, plug-ins, hybrids, and low-emission internal-combustion cars. Through 2017, the largest automakers—Fiat Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Nissan, and Toyota—must earn ZEV credits equal to 3 percent of their California sales, with requirements for plug-ins, hybrids, and low-emission vehicles equal to another 11 percent of sales. ZEV credits become real money when CARB starts its annual accounting of credits and manufacturer obligations. To make up for a shortfall or to cash in on an abundance of credits, carmakers can buy or sell them from and to each other. If they fail to come up with the necessary credits, they face a $5000 penalty for every one they’re short. So far, no company has paid a penalty.
These deterrents reach beyond the borders of the Golden State. By law, California is the only state in the union permitted to create its own emissions regulations that supersede federal requirements. Other states, however, are allowed to adopt the rules California creates. To date, the ZEV mandate has been co-opted by Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont.
Selling BEVs and FCVs is a game of strategy centered on maximizing credits while minimizing cost. Automakers must reconcile massive research-and-development expenses with meager sales for at least the first generation of alternative-fuel cars. They end up subsidizing the purchase of thousands of vehicles to the tune of thousands of dollars per sale, and they must balance their costs against consumer demand and ZEV-credit requirements. Which is why, at present, no carmaker (other than Tesla) wants to sell one more electric than it absolutely has to.
The industry’s current offerings suggest that the intersection of technology, cost, consumer acceptance, and ZEV-credit generation is a compact BEV with roughly 75 miles of real-world range. These cars—such as the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, the Nissan Leaf, and electric variants of the Chevrolet Spark, the Fiat 500, the Ford Focus, and the Honda Fit—earn their manufacturers three credits per vehicle sold.
Tesla’s Model S, with its longer range, qualifies for four credits in both 85-kWh guise and with the lower-capacity 60-kWh battery pack. But in 2012 and 2013, Tesla earned additional credits for every Model S sold through a loophole that rewarded the “capability” to perform a battery swap. Never mind that owners have never had the opportunity to exchange batteries other than at a dealership. Even before Tesla hosted a highly publicized battery-swapping soiree last summer in Hawthorne, California, CARB staff observed a Model S battery swap done within the required 15 minutes entirely by manual labor. Under the laws it wrote, CARB had to grant Tesla the credits, and high-capacity 85-kWh models were bumped to seven credits while Tesla’s 60-kWh cars earned five.
Even if battery-swap stations become abundant, fast-swapping as a source of revenue for Tesla may never be more profitable than the theoretical fast-swapping was when it earned Tesla many highly lucrative ZEV credits. Since Tesla only builds ZEVs, it has no need for the ZEV credits it earns. Instead, it sells them to other automakers that are either out of compliance or hedging against stricter regulations coming in the future. In 2013, Tesla reported revenue of $129.8 million from its sale of ZEV credits. Without that money, the company wouldn’t have turned a profit.
But CARB has since closed the fast-refueling loophole, and Tesla will have to document that its customers are actually using fast-swapping stations before the company can claim the extra credits. Analisa Bevan, chief of sustainable transportation technology at CARB, anticipates that Tesla will follow through with its swapping scheme even though the credit incentive for fast refueling disappears altogether three years from now.
California’s rules are changing, and with them, the prospects for fuel cells. In 2018, a vehicle’s electric range becomes the only factor in determining the number of credits it earns, a boon to the hydrogen FCVs that are just now appearing on the market [see “Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell”]. The current crop of 75-mile BEVs will earn about one to one and a half credits under the 2018 rules, but adding range to that type of vehicle is likely to be prohibitively expensive. Doubling the energy capacity of a lithium-ion battery requires twice as many expensive cells and additional equipment to support them. Meanwhile, carrying more hydrogen in an FCV only means a larger carbon-fiber fuel tank, which adds minimal additional cost. FCVs should easily earn the maximum of four credits for 350 miles of range.
Under the 2018 credit scheme, Hyundai, which sells about 67,000 vehicles in California every year, will need to sell fewer than 500 Tucson FCVs annually, or just 0.6 percent of its volume, to be in compliance with the ZEV portion of the law. California incentivizes FCVs by doubling the battery-electric tax credit for them. With the feds chipping in up to $8000, a hydrogen vehicle in California gets a total incentive as high as $13,000, versus $10,000 for a BEV.
Further boosting hydrogen technology’s fortunes are changes to the rules regarding credits originating from FCVs. Starting in 2018, they can be transferred among any of the eight states that are partaking in the ZEV requirement. There is no equivalent provision for BEVs. This flexibility makes it easier for manufacturers to meet their ZEV obligations in various states, especially since FCVs will have a harder road outside of California, the only state with a practical, growing hydrogen-fueling network. The state government is investing $50 million in 28 new hydrogen filling stations, raising the total in California to 54. Other states are far behind.
The sudden fashionableness of fuel cells among government regulators has got to get under Elon Musk’s skin [see “Musk’s Waterloo?”]. The Tesla CEO invested millions of his company’s money to build his own Supercharger network—with no payback in ZEV credits—and has publicly decried fuel-cell technology as “bullshit.” Yet most everyone in the trade acknowledges that no automaker would build hydrogen vehicles if the government wasn’t making the investment in infrastructure.
“It’s preferable to write regulations that are technology-neutral and then allow the manufacturers to innovate,” says David Greene, senior fellow at the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy. “It’s not really possible to do that if you want to introduce a new vehicle with a new fuel under these circumstances. You can’t sell the fuel without the vehicles, and you can’t sell the vehicles without the fuel. Once you’ve said, ‘I’m going to make sure hydrogen is available,’ you’ve sort of picked a winner, and I don’t see any way around that.”
CARB, for its part, says the regulations aren’t intended to favor one technology over another, and it envisions a future where both BEV and FCV technologies exist. Maybe, but for Musk and his investors, it must be hard to see how the latest regulatory changes are a good thing.
The ZEV mandate isn’t overbearing. Yet. As a whole, the industry creates more credits than it needs, and as mentioned, no company has ever paid a $5000 penalty for missing its credit obligation.
CARB’s Bevan acknowledges that the exchange market is oversaturated at the moment. Credits are currently trading at a discounted price of about $4000 each and are primarily purchased by automakers to pad their accounts for the future.
That’s because the regulations are about to get stricter. Starting in 2018, the credit requirements escalate every year so that by 2025, large automakers will need to produce zero-emission credits equal to 16 percent of their sales in the state, with another 6 percent for plug-in hybrids.
Incidentally, CARB’s long-term goal, according to Bevan, is to eliminate the ZEV requirements altogether. In their place, CARB would establish a single fleet-averaged emissions standard so low that it could only be met by selling a substantial proportion of zero-emission cars. The real end goal goes unspoken: CARB wants to see electric-drive vehicles make gas obsolete.
What replaces gasoline on a national scale is anybody’s guess. CARB’s upcoming regulations give the nod to hydrogen, but it takes a healthy imagination to envision the necessary infrastructure spreading across the country anytime soon. Meanwhile, every home in America is already equipped to recharge a BEV if the technology can mature enough to provide longer range and faster recharging. Of the two technologies, we’d place our money on BEVs. Then again, if California’s role in American history and culture is any indicator, it may get its way after all. —Эрик Тингволл
Fifty Shades of Green
Neither battery-electric nor fuel-cell vehicles (BEVs and FCVs) produce tailpipe emissions. But which is cleaner and more energy efficient? Argonne National Laboratory has studied the energy consumption and emissions produced by conventional and advanced-tech vehicles since 1996. Their Greenhouse gases, Regulated Emissions, and Energy use in Transportation (GREET) model, last updated in 2013, looks at energy production, distribution, and consumption during driving and all of the emissions associated with these activities. It is a so-called well-to-wheel analysis, and a thorough one at that.
GREET reveals that what matters most is how the electricity and hydrogen needed to power advanced vehicles are sourced. Using today’s electrical infrastructure, BEVs generate only 39 percent of the emissions produced by FCVs when hydrogen is separated from water using home electrolysis. Using the cleaner electrical grids already in place in California, BEVs win again by producing only 27 percent of the FCV’s greenhouse-gas emissions. Centralized mass production of hydrogen by steam reformation of natural gas helps FCVs, but they would still produce nearly twice the BEV’s emissions and consume about 50 percent more energy.
To achieve parity, major infrastructure improvements are required. The hope is that by 2050, renewable energy sources will provide the electricity to recharge BEVs and to produce FCV hydrogen via electrolysis for less environmental impact. —Steven Z. Sherman
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