Toyota has released a new YouTube video in which it claims a fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV) like its Toyota Mirai has a lower carbon footprint than a battery electric vehicle (BEV). For electric car advocates, that’s a tough claim to swallow.
Statistics can land a person in trouble pretty fast. The old adage that “Figures lie and liars figure” is often true, especially if politicians are the ones doing the figuring. And make no mistake about it – the future of transportation is largely a political battle, as gigantic multinational companies like Toyota try to convince governments to fund the enormous costs associated with building the infrastructure needed for the cars of tomorrow. At present, the cost of a hydrogen refueling station is put at $1.2 million and hundreds of them will have to be built before the hydrogen economy becomes a reality.
One way to skew things in Toyota’s favor is to assume that the hydrogen that its FCEVs will use comes from clean solar power, but the electricity needed to recharge a BEV comes from a pollution spewing coal fired plant. And that’s pretty much what Toyota does in this controversial video. Here’s the line in the video that has EV advocates up in arms:
“Never satisfied though, Toyota engineers were simultaneously working on a brand new technology that met all the driver’s needs with an even smaller carbon footprint, one that took its lead from nature itself.”
Says Transport Evolved writer Paul Scott to Autoblog Green:
“Toyota claims the FCV has a smaller carbon footprint than their EV, but every paper I’ve read indicates the FCV uses 3-4 times as much energy to travel a given distance as an EV. If they are making this claim, let’s call them out to prove it. Show us the math!” Adds staffer Chelsea Sexton, “Assuming appropriate comparisons in energy feedstocks, basic science doesn’t support the notion that the footprint of an FCV is smaller than that of an EV.”
Toyota responds that it only meant FCEVs have a smaller carbon footprint than convention fossil fuel powered cars. But if that’s what it meant, that’s what it should have said. As Transport Evolved points out in its analysis, under ideal conditions, a hydrogen fuel cell car powered and refueled from a solar-powered hydrolysis station and an electric car powered by power from a photovoltaic array nearby would have equally low emissions.
But in the real world, it’s more complicated then that. Most hydrogen for commercial use today is derived from natural gas produced by fracking. Then it has to be stored, pumped and transported, a process which uses energy and, if we assume the conventional fossil-fueled tanker method, adds its own carbon footprint to the mix. Meanwhile, BEV supporters need to tread lightly as well. As a recent study from the University of Minnesota points out, charging an EV with electricity made from coal offers little if any environmental benefits over driving a conventional fossil fuel powered car.
Perhaps Toyota is a little to sunny in its claims for its fuel cell technology. And maybe electric car advocates are a little too willing to dismiss the environmental impact of making electricity from coal. From the point of view of being kind to the earth, we have a long way yet to go.