Traffic-related air pollution (TRAP) constitutes a significant cause of cardiopulmonary diseases, cancers, diabetes, and neurotoxicity. Although such evidence led to the adoption of increasingly stringent regulations, the economics of competing technology cores dictates the decision. Fortunately, emerging technology cores are showing possibilities for powering clean buses. To make the air clean, a wave of creative destruction has been on the rise in the transportation sector. There are two competing technologies–electric battery and hydrogen fuel cell. Both of them hold the potential to take the human race to a new height by causing destruction to the gasoline engine. But which one will likely win? Predicting it is crucial in deciding about the policy for facilitating the investment, particularly in developing the infrastructure.
To bring down air pollution, Governments and automakers worldwide are announcing the bid for clean buses. In the air quality ranking, South Asian cities are at the bottom. As reported by Reuters, Asia is a critical battlefield in the global fight to rein air pollution. Premature deaths due to dirty air each year have been registering at about 5 million. According to The World Health Organization (WHO), about 90 percent of related deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries, most of them in Southeast Asia and the Pacific.
A study by the WHO in 2016 found that more than two-thirds of Southeast Asian cities experienced Air pollution growth of more than 5 percent between 2008 and 2013. In the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Global Livability Ranking, bad air has pulled South Asian cities down. Dhaka has the lowest position in this ranking, 139th, just above Karachi. Other poor-performing South Asian cities are Delhi, Mumbai, Colombo, and Jakarta. One of the causes of city air pollution is the automobile.
Automobiles replacing horse carriages could not make cities clean
Major cities of the world struggling to cope with the pollution caused by the growing number of horse carriages welcomed the unfolding of the 2nd industrial revolution. In those days, 15 to 30 pounds of manure and about a quart of urine a day produced by a typical horse usually got distributed along its route. Flies, attracted by manure piles, were causing a severe health concern. An article published in Appleton Magazine in 1908 reported that each year 20,000 New Yorkers died from “maladies that fly in the dust, created mainly by horse manure.” Automobiles took over horse carriages in the early part of the 20th century to get rid of this mess. In NYC, the tipping point was 1908—the number of cars passing the number of horses for the first time and irrevocably.
Unfortunately, the rise of automobile density has been repeating history; due to transportation pollution city air is getting increasingly poisonous. But the uncertainty of two important competing technologies pushes the policy of powering clean buses into a dilemma. Historically, such uncertainty offers both treasures and traps. Hence, policymakers should carefully weigh alternatives.
Will electric batteries succeed over hydrogen for powering green buses?
Automobiles have been a significant cause of premature death in South Asian cities. Most South Asian cities have a large number of buses for public transport. The Indian government has voiced ambitions; the target is for 30 percent of all vehicles will run electrically by 2030; and it has introduced a significant incentive program to stem air pollution. The Indian Government is providing subsidies worth around 60 percent of costs to cities across India to purchase electric vehicles. A consultancy forecasts India’s electric bus market will grow at a compound annual rate of around 124 percent, surpassing $667 million by fiscal 2023.
On the other hand, the northern region of Denmark has ordered hydrogen fuel cell-powered buses. European Union’s funding for Hydrogen buses In Iceland also raises the question about the fuel to choose to power green buses. In 2019, while Hyundai signed a deal to sell 1,000 hydrogen-powered trucks in Switzerland, Indian automakers were gearing up electric bus production to tap into Government’s incentives.
On the other hand, China is in the lead with around 5300 hydrogen fuel cell buses (as of 2020). The City council’s decision to put in hydrogen filling stations has made Aberdeen a hydrogen hub– among the early adopters. Road sweepers, waste trucks, and buses running on hydrogen have been contributing to Aberdeen’s clean air.
It’s clear that electric battery has been dominating the sale of electric vehicles. For example, in contrast to 15,500 hydrogen fuel cell cars, in 2021, 6.5 million electric vehicles (EVs) were sold worldwide. But once the size increases reaching buses and trucks, the picture is not entirely so clear—creating uncertainty about policy options. Furthermore, the rebounding of the sale of fuel cell cars in the USA to a new record level of 3,341 in 2021 worsens the policy dilemma.
Gasoline won over electric batteries due to economics
Fueling buses with clean energy can reduce the intense air pollution to some extent. But which fuel to choose. There have been two alternate options—Electric battery and Hydrogen. Cities across the world have been selecting both of them. But we need to choose one—to minimize the cost of the infrastructure to support them. It seems that the future is not clear. We are somehow caught in the dilemma of choosing the fuel to power the next generation of clean buses, trucks, and cars. Ironically, during the last decade of the 19th century, the human race faced a similar dilemma: choosing gasoline or electric battery to power automobiles.
Electric vehicles are not new, though; they first appeared in the mid-19th century. Despite showing early promise, they lost their attractiveness to dirty gasoline due to economics. Due to poorer performance in critical indicators such as cost, top speed, and range compared to later internal combustion engine vehicles. Although electric propulsion has continued to be used in electric trains and other pockets of uses, Germany’s recent decision to use hydrogen over electric lines to power diesel trains has opened new possibilities.
Trade-off between range, charging time, and upfront cost will determine the winner in powering clean buses
The range of battery power has been a severe issue for electric vehicles to take over polluting gasoline-powered ones. For example, 100-120 kilowatt-hours battery-powered buses will take recharging after traveling every 50 km to 60 km; unfortunately, each charge takes about two to three hours. The suggestion could be to jack up battery power. But the cost escalates. According to a consultancy report, batteries account for almost 50 percent of the total cost of an electric vehicle. On the other hand, Tesla’s rival Nikola Motor’s hydrogen trucks are expected to be up with 500 or 1,000 horsepower; the range of 500 to 1,200 kilometers, depending on which option a customer picks, is quite remarkable.
Moreover, the limited lithium reserve to make electric batteries to power green buses calls for alternative supplies. But in order to get a higher range, we have to pay far more for hydrogen buses. For example, instead of an estimated price tag of almost $1 million each for a hydrogen bus, a standard Chinese electric bus costs about $500,000.
Although electric vehicles are taking off worldwide, the limited range is a significant barrier, particularly for buses and trucks. In contrast to the half-day effective usages of most electric buses used across, hydrogen buses can run a whole day before refueling. Hydrogen fuel has been in development for decades, and hydrogen buses were introduced long before. In early deployment, it was found that the hydrogen fuel cell technology was not robust enough at the time, and many projects of running city transport with buses were abandoned shortly after that. Hydrogen buses are now a more viable alternative with new improvements made to the technology in recent years.
Schumpeter’s’ creative destruction in powering clean buses is in action
There is no doubt that we must get rid of gasoline-powered buses to clean our air. To address this burning need, we need to cause disruption to gasoline buses—by applying the theory of Schumpeter’s creative destruction. Like many other industries, surface transportation is also going through the evolutionary process of continuous innovation and creative destruction. Almost after 100 years, a later disruption is about to reshape the automobile industry. But which technology, electric battery or hydrogen fuel cell, is going to win over gasoline-powered internal combustion engines? A recent MAN’s record of electric buses capable of 24 hours in service, no intermediate charging, 550.8 kilometre range, complicates decision making further.
Not subsidy, technology progression will determine the winner
We have two technology alternatives for powering green buses—electric battery and hydrogen. It seems that both of them have the potential to grow as solid substitutes for the gasoline engine. At this moment, both of them need subsidies. To create the pulling effect of the market economy, these technologies must progress further. Fortunately, it’s not uncommon in the early stage of the development of disruptive technologies. The history of disruptive technologies indicates that innovation around each of them initially entered the market in primitive form. Despite the need for subsidy, the ultimate success will stem from the progression of the underlying science and technology in improving the quality and reducing the cost.
Among electric batteries and hydrogen, which technology is going to keep growing faster over the next ten years will determine the success. It appears that an inadequate supply of cobalt is limiting the scale-up lithium-ion battery production. On the other hand, the hydrogen fuel cell has experienced notable progress in the recent past. Despite the recent success of electric vehicles, a far higher range of hydrogen-powered fuel cells still promises to power automobiles to make the air clean.
Furthermore, surplus electricity produced by the solar plants and windmills, operating at their peaks, creates the possibility of supplying green hydrogen. Hence, some experts’ opinion that hydrogen appears to be a better option for powering green buses may lead to making hydrogen a creative wave of destruction to both gasoline and electric battery. Such reality still makes policy matters in powering clean buses in an unclear zone. By the way, uncertainty in technology lifecycles has a history of wasteful investment.