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Charging a battery in a plug-in hybrid would be around three to four times more energy efficient than going through the intermediate steps required to make hydrogen fuel from water, using a process called electrolysis, according to Ulf Bossel, organizer of the European Fuel Cell Forum.

But GM argues that such hybrid cars are only an interim solution, not a long-term alternative to the internal-combustion engine. To replace the internal-combustion engine, says Jon Bereisa, director of GM’s fuel-cell program, automakers will need to produce all-electric vehicles that feature “no compromises” with gasoline-powered vehicles, if enough people are going to buy them to make a difference. He says that battery packs for delivering the driving range people expect will be too big, complicated, and, most importantly, take too long to recharge to make them appealing. Fuel-cell vehicles, he says, “might not be the most efficient,” but they can be refilled in a matter of minutes, and consumers won’t have to give up cargo space.

Still, even advocates of fuel cells admit that the technology cannot yet compete with alternatives such as hybrids. “With hybrids, we can go on a smooth technology development path. We’ve already got hybrids that are in place,” says James Sweeney, professor of management science and engineering at Stanford. “We can now move to plug-in hybrids. They’re more costly right now, but you add maybe $5,000 to $10,000. You’re not adding more than $100,000 to it,” as would likely be the case with a fuel-cell vehicle, he says. “The bottom-line economics right now are so much more attractive than the hydrogen economics.”

Sweeney thinks that if GM starts ramping up from its initial 100 fuel-cell-vehicle fleet, it will be a “terrible strategy,” at least until fuel cells don’t depend heavily on expensive precious metals such as platinum as catalysts, as they do now, and better ways of storing hydrogen fuel onboard are found. “If you only have 100 of them, and they’re uneconomical, you can subsidize it. If you have a million of them, who’s going to subsidize it?” he asks.

Sweeney notes that, in any case, it’s likely that neither fuel-cell cars nor plug-in hybrids will mean a clean break from fossil fuels, since the cheapest hydrogen will come from reforming fossil fuels, and the electricity for increasing numbers of plug-in hybrids will likely be provided by cheap coal plants.

Others, such as former DOE official Romm, are even more critical of the fuel-cell option. He says money for research and development of fuel-cell vehicles and their related infrastructure is going to waste and the GM approach is “insane.” He adds: “Hydrogen is the last thing you would do, only if everything else has failed.”

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