This is the Hydrogen Future Shell Oil is Betting On


Shell Oil seems to have acknowledged that the car of tomorrow will be powered by an electric motor, but the source of the electrons that power those motors is still a question mark. Shell thinks that the public’s familiarity with “filling up”, coupled to the “range anxiety” being expressed by the hundreds of thousands of car-buyers who chose a Nissan Versa over a Nissan Leaf over the past few years, will make hydrogen fuel cells an easier sell than a pure EV.

To welcome all those car of tomorrow driving- er- futurists, Shell and BMW have partnered up to design the slick-looking gas station you see here.


Shell Hydrogen Fuel Cell Fueling Station

Shell Hydrogen Fuel Cell

It’s hard to say whether or not hydrogen fuel cells will be as big as BMW and Shell are hoping they’ll be- but there are other big players involved who are thinking along the same lines. Players like Honda, Toyota, General Motors, and even some of the major players in the convenience store space are betting big on hydrogen and biofuel.

What do you guys think? Are you ready for the big H, or do you find yourself agreeing with the Cleantechnica consensus that hydrogen could create more problems than it solved? Think it through, then let us know what you think in the comments section at the bottom of the page.


Source | Images: Shell, via Motorpasion.

About the Author

I've been in the auto industry 1997, and write for a number of blogs in the IM network. You can also find me on Twitter, at my Volvo fansite, or chasing my kids around Oak Park, IL.
  • James Rowland

    Already obsolete.

  • Disqusor

    Same old story, same old shit. With an EV in your garage YOU are your own master 🙂 Combine this with solar powered home, u r completely terminated from the grid ! The scent of panic is in the air…….

    • Steve Hanley

      The only reason Shell is doing this is so it can convert some of its natural gas reserves into hydrogen when the market for gasoline goes into the toilet, The fossil fuel industry is sitting on $27 trillion worth of carbon based fuel assets. They are scared witless that some or all of that value will evaporate as the world transitions away from strangling itself on its own waste products.

      • Epicurus


      • Don’t forget its real estate holdings and franchisees, who pay the company billions. They need to have a roadmap for those people- however “Real” or “Unreal” it is.

        • Epicurus

          There are very few oil company owned gas stations in the U.S. They divested those they had left in the 80’s to avoid liability for leaking tanks in the older stations–which were lawsuits waiting to happen. Plaintiffs’ lawyers were getting multi-million dollar judgments against them (I recall a $10-20 million judgment against Texaco in the 80s over one station in a small town). The resellers aren’t franchisees like hamburger chains. Haven’t you seen the signs change on a gas station? When push comes to shove, the oil companies won’t care what happens to the resellers.

  • Epicurus

    Are the gas stations in Europe owned by oil companies? If so, they have the money to build these slick hydrogen stations, but the small business owners of the gas stations in the U.S, cannot afford to gamble on them. They have to sell beer now just to turn a profit. In addition, people love plugging in at night and waking up to a fully fueled car, and batteries are getting smaller and cheaper all the time. Game over.

    • Vijay Kamat

      Hope they make craft beers. Ha Ha Ha. Individual tastes rather same run off the mill suds.

  • Ed Thomas

    The problem with Battery EVs actually stems from the infrastructure on a local level. In the UK and many other parts of the world the local distribution networks are not designed for the large scale uptake of battery EVs (something Elon Musk has conveniently forgotten about). Your local substation will be designed to allow between 1-3kW per house. Yes, your house fuse is 60-100 Amps, but that doesn’t mean you and every neighbour would be able to use that all at the same time. In the UK the design assumes that there will be staggered use of the available capacity but can use up to 160% of the capacity for a short time only, and once everyone is in bed, the transformer will begin to cool down. If you now apply mass charging of cars between 3-11kW over night, you’re going to slowly but surely cause havoc. The other problem with Battery EVs is the fact that not everybody can gain access to a charging point and many can’t park anywhere near their homes, the only option would be for expensive on street charging. In any case, the likelihood of battery trucks and buses is very small, and with Toyota’s recent FC truck, you can bet that prices for hydrogen will drop, and then we could even look towards Africa and other sunny climes to start solar powered hydrogen production for distribution around the world. There are already good inroads to hydrogen storage which doesn’t use high compression or cryogenics, once that is mainstream, you can probably kiss goodbye to Battery EVs. And this is probably why Elon Musk hates the idea of the Hydrogen economy.

    • Vijay Kamat

      Your point about grid around the world is absolutely right.

      So to quickly charge my Nissan Leaf, I have to have Tesla Powerpack in my backyard right ? If it is possible with Elon.

      Electrified public transport is the way to go, they can easily deploy high capacity chargers.

      • Ed Thomas

        Unless you’ve got a two power walls (13.5kWh) charged by a plethora solar panels your Nissan Twig is still going to rely on grid based electricity, albeit at a reduced rate, but you still have to put the infrastructure in for your car, and if you go on to a higher capacity vehicle you’re back to square one.

    • skierpage

      Power companies are perfectly able to improve local networks to handle home EV charging, it’s no different than a new business setting up. And plug-in cars provide a fantastic means to smooth power demand by pricing electricity.

      Theoretically hydrogen is better suited for large vehicles. But right now you can buy electric trucks and electric buses, while hydrogen fuel cell goods vehicles are on the drawing board.

      Maybe there’s a window for hydrogen vehicles for all those plug-less European and Japanese drivers. But you’re being silly to pretend that solving hydrogen production and storage will somehow lessen the appeal of getting in a fully- and cheaply charged car every day for everyone who does have a plug at home or work. The car companies have invested in all those 2020 BEVs because they foresee a market in USA and Europe, while except for the Japanese and Hyundai their equivalent investments in HFCVs are going down, not up.

      If hydrogen produced renewably works for regional/seasonal energy production & storage that’s great, the grid will use it to provide electricity to plug-in car owners

      • Ed Thomas

        I’m afraid you’re wrong about power companies perfectly able to improve local networks. If you’re in the US then their shambolic distribution system would cost billions to improve, as would pretty much every other network. You see, there are areas where the infrastructure isn’t able to be improved without renewing, all the cables to and from the transformer, the transformer itself and the switchgear associated with it and upgrading the networks feeding the smaller networks. The larger National Grid won’t have any problems, but the local networks are not in a strong position.
        You do mention that Battery EVs are best for those with charging points and that is obviously the other side of the coin, I don’t have the facility as I don’t have private parking, so what other option would I have other than say a biofuel powered car, if hydrogen isn’t mainstream and fossil fuels are banned? In any case, there are plenty of people who see an overnight charge as a step back in time rather than a step forward, after all, electric cars predated petrol cars.

    • James Rowland

      Any argument that BEV charging is unviable because of electricity demands is also a three times stronger argument against distributed hydrogen production, since that’s around how much less efficient electrolysis of water can be versus battery storage.

      Centralised production can more affordably have its own power supply infrastructure, but this isn’t a terribly good option either given what a royal pain hydrogen is to store, move and work with in general. There’d be many more tankers rolling because of the low density, or pipes which would leak and/or embrittle if made from affordable materials.

      The other scalable way of getting hydrogen – steam reforming hydrocarbons – isn’t clean. There’s no point in doing that at all.

      In any case, while sustained versus peak power limits and synchronised loads are real issues for the grid, your numbers are an exaggeration.

      A typical UK kitchen probably has more than 10kW of loads installed: Kettle, 3kW. Fan oven, 3kW. Hob, 3kW. Combi oven, 1-2kW. Toaster, 1kW. Water heaters in showers and hot water tanks are multiple kW too. The grid doesn’t fail in the evenings when everyone starts using most of this at around the same time, so thermal limits in local infrastructure can’t be as low as you say.

      Storage heating systems draw multiple kW overnight, and pricing structures like Economy 7 were introduced to encourage their use. They aren’t so popular nowadays, but the capacity to support them still exists.

      So no, given that an overnight charge is useful even at 3-6kW, it isn’t implausible to support at least some electric cars without any upgrades to the grid.

      There’s also the opportunity for battery chargers to be dispatched loads, turning on at the utility’s convenience. Teslas, for example, are one OTA-deployed firmware update from being able to do this already; it’s not going to take a huge engineering effort to implement.

      Hydrogen, on the other hand, is a giant engineering headache. You don’t touch it unless you have to, and we don’t have to.

      • Ed Thomas

        Shell are looking at electrolysis using renewables installed on site so the inefficiencies are somewhat moot once the infrastructure begins to pay for itself – also the whole idea of a hydrogen economy is to step away from any carbon based fuel, so there is no point in reforming hydrogen from methane etc. as you say you may as well burn it directly in an engine! They have also put forward the option of using the stored hydrogen on site to power FCs and feed into the grid over night (yes I know about the inefficiencies!), but it is again another energy mix into the system

        There are already moves to produce hydrogen from water and waste products using a variety of sources including catalysts and reactions directly from the sun without using the more expensive and less efficient electrolysis, in any case there are also moves to increase the efficiency of electrolysis. Plus there are moves by the likes of Air Products to store hydrogen in liquids (not cryogenic), or in hydrides or carbon nanotubes, so at some point the problem of storage and embrittlement is likely to be solved

        Countries like Africa have huge resources of solar energy and by using the hydrogen economy they could actually export that energy in the storage means I’ve described above, after all, you can’t export electricity across the globe with ease!

        For the point about loadings, I work in the electricity industry and we use a method called After Diversity Maximum Demand and it is a method of determining the correct sizing of a local transformer based upon the size of the house/premises it’s supposed use residential/commercial/industrial and its likely heating/cooking needs.

        For instance, in the Western Power Distribution area in the UK, a gas heated home has an ADMD (day) of 0.5kW +0.25 per bedroom. So my house is a gas heated three bed house with a ADMD of 1.25kW, it is halved overnight. Therefore the transformer feeding the estate of 200 homes is around 200kVA. The idea is simple, the rating and design of the transformer is such that it is able to take an overload during peak usage when you’re using your showers, washing machines, microwaves etc. it also assumes that not everyone will take that load at the same time. Here’s the problem; it has to be allowed to cool down hence the lower ADMD during the night. If you had a economy 7 boiler of say 19kW the basic over night rating is 26kW per house (big transformers!). If however, you and your neighbours now all charge your cars at a constant 3-11kW per night, there is a risk that the transformer will not get chance to cool and it will be damaged (usually in a fiery mess) plus the cables feeding your homes won’t like it too much either. Hence why the distribution companies are currently looking into smart charging, but smart charging is not ideal as it has the risk of leaving some people without adequate charge. The cost to update the protection, switchgear, transformers, and the cable for an estate of houses would be collosal, it would be even worse if you still had electric heating!

        Yes you are correct in saying that moderate Battery EV uptake won’t be a problem (it’s not going to be a problem for the National Grid in any case), but we’re not far from a significant movement towards large scale uptake. There are also those like myself who can’t get a charging point fitted and would have to rely on street charging points, so a Battery EV is pointless for me. At the moment, we don’t have to venture into hydrogen, but in the future, we will, and this is what the investment is about.

        • James Rowland

          Well, given that an average daily drive is around 35 miles and 300Wh/mile is readily achievable, a typical electric car is going to demand somewhere around 10kWh per day (barring a sudden change in car usage patterns.) So no, the chargers aren’t all going to be running through the whole night.

          I don’t doubt that widespread adoption of BEVs under today’s distribution model would require infrastructure upgrades. However, would it be more traumatic than, say, the appearance of cheap air conditioning was for the US utilities? That was a hot mess for a while, but the long-term effect was capacity investment being amortized by selling a whole lot more product in the decades since then.

          The availability (and charging of) affordable large batteries does poes a strategic risk for utilities, though: selling a whole lot less energy, when people can charge them up economically without the grid. We aren’t there yet, but it’s probably closer than hydrogen ever making economic sense.

          • This “average drive” statistic is the dumbest thing to come out of the mouths of EV proponents. Yes, that’s average- but for every dude driving 5 miles to work each day (lots) there’s another driving 40 or 70. That’s how averages work. So, what’s your answer for those people? They don’t exist because they don’t fall into the statistic most favorable to your argument? Come on, guys. We are better than that. 🙂

          • James Rowland

            In the context of provisioning enough electricity for large groups of EVs, average demand per car is precisely what is most relevant.

            There’s a dumb comment here, Jo, and it isn’t mine.

          • dogphlap dogphlap

            What are you talking about. It is the average that counts. So one night Mr Smith needs 60kWh so what, Mr Jones, Mr Brown and Mr White may only need 3kWh so the infrastructure will cope just fine. And that is the same infrastructure that coped adequately during the day when most of those folks were running heating or air-conditioning, cooking and water heating. This is just another scare story that does not bare close examination.

          • Ed Thomas

            No, the infrastructure will not cope. A report which was created by the DNOs in the UK came to the conclusion that an uptake of just 40% of Battery EVs poses a risk to a third of the electrical networks, and more so as the percentage rises. What you’re forgetting is that the design of the system does not allow the continuous consumption at the overload condition, which is what may happen when large scale battery EV uptake happens. Please don’t say it isn’t a problem as I work in the industry!

          • Ed Thomas

            I wish my daily drive was 35 miles! At present the current uptake won’t require any upgrading of the infrastructure, but there is a worry that just a 40% uptake of Battery EVs would endanger a third of the distribution networks – hence why the networks are looking at smart charging, it may mean that smart charging is the way forward but it’ll remain to be seen. We’ll have to wait and see what happens, but it will certainly make for an interesting future.

    • dogphlap dogphlap

      The electric utility is in business to sell electricity, of course they can provide 11kW for a couple of hours a night per household and welcome the chance to bill the householder for the juice. Distribution infrastructure may have to be improved in places, that happens all the time as use patterns change. From the electric utilities point of view charging electric cars at night is their idea load case, helping to balance the load throughout the 24 hours, and they get paid for it. Win win all the way to the bank.

      • Ed Thomas

        They don’t routinely change the infrastructure, and it will take a while, if ever it does, as the costs involved and the amount of work involved is colossal. They don’t sell electricity only provide the means to transport it, they are not allowed to sell the energy! If you had to upgrade a single transformer for an increase in load capacity, you would need to renew all the switchgear, fusing, LV and HV cables and the transformer itself, if you have no idea of the cost and implications of that kind of work, you won’t appreciate the problem, a new 300kVA 11kV -415V transformer would cost around £80k (Transformer, RMU, installation), not including the cables from the transformer and perhaps new 11kV breakers further down the line. This would have to be done hundreds if not thousands of times, so unless the distribution company needs to replace the transformer due to age, it is unlikely to do it before then.

  • Ed

    Any state, national or continental strategy that depends on the fossil fuel industry to change its stripes is doomed. This is no history of similar industries managing such a huge transition, Full stop.

    • Except when the fossil fuel industry switched from whale oil to petroleum, then from that to ethanol at the turn of the last century, then to gasoline (which had been a waste product that was dumped in rivers), then to unleaded gas, then to E blend, then to … I dunno? Hydrogen? Just sayin’.

      • Ed

        Pretty sure that Standard Oil was always based on oil from the ground. Almost 150 years, so far, of drilling and refining and delivering oil-based fuels. Change is hard!

        • Epicurus

          Yes, but the oil industry really began when Col. Drake drilled the first well in Titusville, PA in 1858.

        • Standard Oil wasn’t the only company in the energy business. The *INDUSTRY* changed.

      • Epicurus

        Whale oil and petroleum were always separate industries. The former died out and was supplanted by the latter.

        Yes, the petroleum industry wants fuel cell vehicles to succeed because they want natural gas to be the main source of the hydrogen. More drilling and fracking for them.

        • Yes- I guess that’s a fair point. Still, there is a lot more to the discussion. Shell (and other oil companies) make billions through franchisees, convenience store royalties, and real estate holdings. They already have an established infrastructure for the distribution of fuels. If there are more profitable ways to get hydrogen than fracking (which- I mean, high efficiency catalysts are happening) they’ll be primed to take advantage of a shift to a fast-fill EV world.

          • Epicurus

            I don’t think the American oil industry will give a damn about hydrogen if it is not made from natural gas. At one time oil companies had a lot of company-owned stations. I don’t think that is the case any longer. I think most American gas stations are owned by small business people. Small businesses own the land and the buildings. They buy the product under an agreement with a particular producer/refiner and resell it, and they do get some help with signage, pumps and other costs. The relationship between the big oil companies and these independent businesses is arms-length. Gas station owners often switch suppliers, and the signs on the stations change, say from Texaco to ExxonMobil. The situation with Shell, a European company, and other companies in Europe, may be different.

  • Sandra Allen

    I drive my Mirai every day (I have 26,000 miles on it). My other car is a battery EV and I would never go back to a battery from fuel cell. There is nothing more awesome than a ZEV that performs in everyry way exactly like an. iCE.

    • There are a lot of plug-only acolytes here who don’t understand (or don’t want to validate) the flexibility that a fill up type ZEV offers over a conventional plug-in/battery EV.

    • Epicurus

      And the hydrogen comes from where? Most likely natural gas. If so you are supporting oil and gas industry.

  • joewilder

    Hydrogen is going to have to get a lot cheaper to compete with the electricity used in battery EVs. And electricity is getting cheaper all the time. The difference is so great, the question shouldn’t even be asked again until perhaps 2030.

    • Ed Thomas

      The price might be dropping in the US but the price is increasing in the UK, our dependence on coal has dwindled and we now rely on a huge amount of imported gas! At present it’s around 11p/kWh.

  • Wow- this quickie/throwaway article is really blowing up! Who knew you guys cared about Hydrogen so much??

  • Knut Erik Ballestad

    A large number of H2-fueled vehicles emitting *water* during wintertime sounds quite dangerous to me.
    A thin layer/film of frozen, extremely slippery ice on top of the asphalt sounds like reason enough to ban H2 cars in countries with below-zero winter roads.