• Are Hydrogen Vans Better Than Electric? What You Should Know
  • Are Hydrogen Vans Better Than Electric? What You Should Know

Are Hydrogen Vans Better Than Electric? What You Should Know

We compare hydrogen-fuelled vehicles with electric power to see which comes out on top

As the UK continues pushing towards a future of zero-emission vehicles, many fleet managers find themselves deciding between two futures - battery-powered electric vans or hydrogen fuel cell variants. Both technologies promise to drastically reduce the environmental impact of commercial vehicles compared to traditional diesel and petrol models. But, are hydrogen vans really better than electric vehicles? 

In this article, we’ll compare the two green alternatives by establishing the differences, analyse the pros and cons of each, and highlight which is more cost-effective to run. Read on to find out more… 

What is a hydrogen van?

A hydrogen van is one that is powered by a hydrogen fuel cell instead of a traditional internal combustion engine using petrol or diesel. It uses a fuel cell stack that generates electricity from compressed hydrogen which is stored in tanks to power electric motors that drive the wheels. It is an eco-friendly alternative proven to produce zero harmful tailpipe emissions and instead emits nothing but water vapour into the atmosphere.

Unlike petrol or diesel variants, a hydrogen van is fuelled with pressurised hydrogen gas that is pumped into an onboard storage tank (this can take between 5-15 minutes in total). As such, access to hydrogen refueling stations is still limited in the UK.

What is the difference between a hydrogen van and an electric van?

The main differences between a hydrogen van and an electric van are in their power sources and emissions - we explain the key differences below:

Power Source

Hydrogen van: Runs on hydrogen fuel stored in tanks. The hydrogen is fed into a fuel cell which generates electricity to power an electric motor that drives the wheels.

Electric van: Runs exclusively on a large onboard battery that powers an electric motor to drive the wheels. The battery must be plugged in to recharge, and there may be an element of regenerative power involved.

Emissions

Hydrogen van: When hydrogen is converted to electricity in the fuel cell, the only emission produced is water vapour which makes it a zero-emissions vehicle.

Electric van: Also produces no emissions from the tailpipe since it does not burn any fuel. However, looking at the infrastructure as a whole, emissions are produced at the power plant if the electricity used to charge it comes from non-renewable sources. 

Refueling and Recharging

Hydrogen van: Can be refueled with pressurised hydrogen gas much faster than electric vehicles, but access to hydrogen refuelling facilities are less common which proves problematic in terms of the infrastructure needed to make it a commercially viable choice. 

Electric van: Will take several hours to recharge to full charge, depending on the charging station and the van's battery capacity. Private and public charging stations are more commonly available though.

What should I know about hydrogen vans?

Get the lowdown on what you should know about hydrogen vans - to help, we’ve listed 7 key things to know about hydrogen fuel cell vans in comparison to electric alternatives:

1. Zero-Emissions - Hydrogen vans emit only water vapour from the tailpipe and produce no greenhouse gases while driving. 

2. Impressive Driving Range - Hydrogen technology enables ranges between 200-400 miles on one tank of compressed hydrogen. 

3. Fast Refueling - Hydrogen tanks can be completely refilled in just 5-15 minutes, which is much faster than recharging an electric van.

4. Quiet and Smooth Performance - With no combustion engine or complex drive trains to worry about, Hydrogen vans provide a quieter, smoother ride.

 5. High Upfront Cost - Purchase prices remain expensive compared to diesel vans. This is due to the cost of tanks, fuel cells, and low manufacturing demand. 

6. Minimal Infrastructure - Hydrogen van adoption is limited by the lack of hydrogen stations available across the country. 

7. Skilled Maintenance Required - Only specially trained technicians should be allowed to maintain hydrogen vans when servicing and repairs are required.

What are the pros and cons of hydrogen-fueled vehicles?

While there are many advantages to driving a hydrogen van, there are of course disadvantages too. Below, we’ve outlined the main pros and cons: 

Pros:

  • Zero emissions from the tailpipe (the only byproduct is water vapor, making them very eco-friendly)
  • Quick refueling time compared to electric vehicles (around 5-15 minutes in total)
  • Long driving range (an average 300+ miles on a full tank)
  • Hydrogen fuel is available in abundance and can be produced renewably using solar or wind energy
  • Fuel cells are two to three times more efficient than petrol engines are
  • Quiet and smooth operation making for an altogether enjoyable on-the-road experience

Cons:

  • Very few hydrogen fueling stations are currently available in the UK
  • Hydrogen production requires a lot of energy, so fossil fuels are still a preferred source  
  • Fuel cell vehicles are expensive to build and run compared to patrol and diesel alternatives, or electric vehicles
  • Onboard hydrogen storage is bulky and can take up valuable storage space
  • Safety concerns are an issue as hydrogen is flammable, so any leaks from the tank could be disastrous 
  • Some manufacturing techniques for fuel cells use rare metals which is far from cost-effective to produce

What is the range of hydrogen vans?

Most hydrogen vans have driving ranges between 200-400 miles on a full tank of hydrogen. The adoption of hydrogen vans in the UK is still in its infancy and there are limited options currently available, but here is what you can expect from three of the leading models:

  1. Toyota Mirai Van - Around 300 miles
  2. Renault Master Van H2-TECH - Around 250 miles
  3. Vivaro-e HYDROGEN - up to 249 miles

The ranges for hydrogen vans can vary based on the size of the hydrogen fuel tanks installed, the efficiency of the fuel cells used, and the size and weight of the vans themselves. Most vehicles strive for a balance between cargo capacity, range, and cost for a more appealing purchase.

Current generation hydrogen vans can travel 200-400 miles before needing to refuel their hydrogen tanks, giving them an advantage over most battery electric vans available today in terms of range.

How long do hydrogen vehicles last?

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are still a relatively new technology, so definitive lifetime estimates are difficult to determine right now. However, initial durability testing and real-world use of early hydrogen vehicles show promising longevity. To give you a better understanding, we’ve highlighted what we know about possible lifespan predictions:

Hydrogen fuel cell stack lifespan

The fuel cell stack that converts hydrogen into electricity to power the vehicle is estimated to have a lifespan of around 5,000-10,000 hours based on recent testing. Normal vehicle usage is considered to be around 1,000 hours per year, which in turn suggests around 5-10 years before initial fuel cell degradation sets in.

Hydrogen van parts lifespan

Some other parts present in hydrogen vans like pumps, valves, and storage tanks may need replacing in the long term but are designed for maximum durability in the interim. As such, quality parts could last 10-15 years before needing an overhaul.

Overall lifespan of a hydrogen van

Drivetrain components like batteries and electric motors typically last 8-10 years or even longer in hybrids and electric vehicles. These components in hydrogen vans likely have comparable lifespans and benefit from the likes of regenerative braking solutions which reduces wear and tear on the brakes. 

While no current estimates extend beyond 15-20 years due to a lack of long-term data being readily available, with further investment and development, hydrogen vehicles could eventually last over 200,000 miles as standard throughout their lifetime. This potential longevity would certainly offset the hefty costs associated with hydrogen fuel cell technology. 

Is hydrogen cheaper than electric?

Despite spiralling electricity costs in the UK, hydrogen fuel is not cheaper than charging an electric vehicle at this point in time. In fact, on a pence per mile basis, hydrogen fuel is 2-3 times more expensive than electricity for vehicle power. This only adds to the fact that hydrogen vans are more expensive overall.

However, supporters argue hydrogen costs could reach parity with electric vehicles in the future. Of course, reaching cost competitiveness with diesel models and electric vehicles requires large subsidies and investments first.

What hydrogen vans are available in the UK?

Access to hydrogen vans is still pretty limited in the UK. At present, just one mainstream manufacturer - Vauxhall - has launched a hydrogen fuel cell option in this country. 

The Vauxhall Vivaro-e HYDROGEN model is an alternative to the brand’s fully electric option and has been praised for its performance and durability. Capable of driving distances up to 249 miles on a full tank, its key selling point is a refuel time of just 3 minutes. Vauxhall - which is owned by the parent company Stellantis - is hoping corporate fleets become early adopters of its flagship hydrogen model. 

Other manufacturers have pilot deployments and plans to launch hydrogen vans in the UK over the next few years, so we’ll be keeping a close eye on things. In terms of infrastructure, we now have over 10 open public hydrogen refueling stations to support future growth.

Will hydrogen vehicles take over electric ones?

It's unlikely that hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will fully take over and replace battery-electric vehicles (BEVs). However, hydrogen vehicles have some advantages and may gain significant market share in certain transportation segments in the long term, so should certainly not be dismissed… 

Reasons hydrogen vehicles are unlikely to take over:

  • Battery and charging technology for electric vehicles keep improving and subsequently, prices are rapidly falling
  • Expanding the electric vehicle infrastructure is easier and cheaper than building hydrogen stations across the country
  • Fuel cell costs are still higher than batteries are to make 
  • Hydrogen production must reach economies of scale to be in with a chance of competing

Areas hydrogen vehicles may capture market share in the future:

  • Trucking, shipping, and rail industries may benefit as longer-range capabilities and fast fuelling times suit heavy transport companies
  • Vehicles demanding longer driving ranges such as delivery vans, taxis, and emergency vehicles may look to favour this technology 
  • Those in the racing and performance car industries may prefer faster fill-ups and the appeal of longer driving distances

FAQs and Answers

We hope our article discussing whether hydrogen vans are better than electric vehicles has given you some food for thought. If you have any other questions, please refer to our FAQs below: 

How far will 1kg of hydrogen get you?

1kg of hydrogen is estimated to power a fuel-cell van for approximately 62.1 miles. This is based on a fuel cell vehicle's efficiency benchmark of roughly 1kg of hydrogen to 100 km of range.

What are the downsides to hydrogen vehicles?

Some of the main downsides and challenges currently facing hydrogen-fuelled vehicles include high costs, minimal available infrastructure, not being proven long-term, storage issues, overall safety, and questions surrounding efficiency. However, many manufacturers and energy companies are actively investing to scale up hydrogen infrastructure and bring down costs to help overcome these challenges in the coming decades.

Why are hydrogen cars not popular?

Hydrogen fuel cell cars are not yet popular or widely adopted because they are an expensive choice. In addition, there is a  lack of fuelling infrastructure teamed with technical uncertainties, as well as fierce competition from electric vehicles.

What is the MPG of hydrogen fuel?

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles do not have a directly comparable MPG (miles per gallon) as hydrogen is measured in kilograms rather than volumetric gallons. However, an approximate energy-equivalent MPG can still be calculated; most current hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles achieve an efficiency of 4-6 miles per kilogram of hydrogen (with newer technologies improving further). So we can estimate an average energy efficiency: of 5 miles per kg of hydrogen on average.

Are hydrogen vehicles worth it?

Whether hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are worth it depends on your priorities and how the pros and cons stack up for your needs: Given the advantages and disadvantages in this article, hydrogen vehicles make the most sense for cutting-edge early adopters able to afford the higher associated costs. 

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