Hydrogen-based car drives are initially harmful to the climate

Parts of the auto industry are hoping for a combustion engine future with e-fuels. The Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research sees this approach as counterproductive for the time being

With hydrogen as fuel, the combustion car could come into stoppage time. The Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, however, favors the battery-electric e-car to achieve our climate goals.

As an energy carrier, hydrogen could play a central role in converting our energy industry towards climate neutrality. But the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) has come to the conclusion in a study that has now been published that it would be the wrong way, at least in the medium term, to use the gas and the e-fuels produced from it to drive cars. For an ecological turnaround in mobility, the scientists recommend the battery-electric e-car (BEV).

For some time now, hydrogen-based fuels and e-fuels have been increasingly traded as possible substitutes for fossil fuels for driving internal combustion cars. The new PIK study shows, however, that the use and production of such fuels is too inefficient, costly, and their availability too uncertain to be able to replace fossil fuels on a broad front in cars. Rather, direct use of electricity would make more economic and ecological sense in the coming years, especially in the passenger car sector. It is also criticized that new hydrogen-based fuels could keep combustion technology alive longer, which in turn would ensure continued dependence on fossil fuels and thus further greenhouse gas emissions and endanger the climate targets. 

Falko Ueckerdt from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), lead author of the study: “Such fuels as a universal climate solution are a bit of a false promise. While they are wonderfully versatile, they cannot be expected to replace fossil fuels on a large scale. This can only be achieved with direct electrification. Hydrogen-based fuels will likely be very scarce and uncompetitive for at least another decade. "

A central problem in the production of hydrogen-based fuels is therefore the high energy requirement. In any case, the use of electricity in battery electric cars is far more efficient than the detour via gas, the production of which consumes two to fourteen times the amount of electricity. Cars that run on e-fuels in particular would need five times the amount of electricity compared to BEVs. Since Germany is still a long way from obtaining electricity from 100 percent renewable sources, there is also a lack of excess electricity for the climate-neutral production of hydrogen. Especially since climate-neutral hydrogen is used more sensibly in other areas such as air traffic or shipping. 

Due to rising CO2 prices, the PIK researchers believe that hydrogen-based fuels could become cost-competitive by 2040. However, given the urgency of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in order to stabilize our climate, 2040 would be too late for all those sectors in which direct electrification is possible, warns the institute.

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