Green Car Shopping: Electric Vs. Fuel Cell Vehicles


Green classic car at gas station

Already considering “going green” for your next car? Fist bump to you, friend. Now comes the part where you have to choose the alternative energy-powered vehicle that’s right for you. It can be daunting, but as environmental issues garner broader attention and more new “green car” models are released, resources are produced to help you understand and evaluate your options and to navigate a culture of sustainable driving.

Battery-Powered Electric Vehicles (BEVs) and Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles (FCVs) are the two most produced types of completely gasoline-free energy. And even though they’re both definitively better for the environment than fossil fuel-powered vehicles, it’s important to go beyond “better” and carefully consider the differences between the two. A recent study by Brandon Schoettle and Michael Sivak at the University of Michigan examined such differences, and offered some insight. Guidelines for your green car shopping experience below:

Battery-Powered Electric Vehicles (BEVs)

Pros:

  • For model year 2016, there are 13 unique electric car models available.
  • You can charge at home, with a regular 120-volt outlet (or upgrade to 240-volt for faster charging) and minimal set-up costs.
  • BEVs produce zero tailpipe emissions (total overall emissions depends on the type of power grid you charge from, though).

Cons:

  • Depending on the vehicle and volt capacity of the outlet, charging can take anywhere from four to 20 hours.
  • Most BEVs on the market can’t travel more than 70 miles without a recharge (and some can’t go more than 40). But keep your eye out: many manufacturers promise upwards of 200 miles soon.
Electric car charging
Smart Car electric coupe at a charging station.

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles (FCVs)

Pros:

  • They charge in three to seven minutes, total.
  • They have better efficiency than BEVs, which translates to longer driving range.

Cons:

Toyota Mirai fuel cell car at fuel station.
Toyota Mirai fuel cell car at hydrogen station

Refueling

The regional existence of fueling stations (or gas pumps, for fossil-fuel powered vehicles) are an important consideration for potential owners. Green Car Congress reports the University of Michigan’s comparison of gasoline stations, BEV charging stations, and FCV charging stations:

  • Gasoline: 114,000 gas stations exist in the 50 states and Washington D.C. New stations cost $1 to $2 million to build.
  • BEVs: 12,695 recharging stations (and 31,752 public charging outlets) exist in the U.S. It costs about $1,000 for home-based charger installation and between $10,000 and $100,000 to build a new public station.
  • FCVs: 23 refueling stations exist in the U.S., 20 of which are in California, and new ones cost between $3 and $5 million to build.

A state-by-state guide to refueling and recharging stations for alternative-energy powered vehicles can be found here.

Average refueling costs by energy type are also an important consideration:

  • BEVs: $0.04 per mile, but that can triple with peak charging rates and seasonal price changes, and the price can be five times higher for commercial charging stations. Tesla owners charging at a SuperCharger station, on the other hand, pay nothing.
  • FCVs: $0.09 per mile.
  • Gasoline-powered: $0.10 (using an average 23.3 mpg and $2.35 per gallon).
Gasoline pumps green and yellow
On its way out?

Rethinking Transportation

While the researchers from the University of Michigan note that BEVs have less driving range (overall, and not including Tesla’s in the average) than both FCVs and gas-powered vehicles, and BEVs take longer to charge than FCVs (several hours compared with just a few minutes), considering the real needs of average American drivers can offer green car shoppers a more complete picture of what’s available and what they might need.

For instance, 78 percent of American drivers travel fewer than 40 miles a day, and 90 percent driver fewer than 50 miles a day—that means one overnight charge of a BEV will provide more than enough energy for the vast majority of Americans to go about their daily business, and charging ports for BEVs can be easily set up in residential garages.

When shopping, consider your particular everyday needs. If you’re only driving relatively short distances and can charge at home overnight, the “cons” of BEVs might not be drawbacks at all. However, if you’re a one-vehicle family who occasionally needs to travel long distances, you’ll need to consider the range of each option. And if you don’t live close to one of the few FCV refueling stations, you’ll need a different type of vehicle, for now.