Net-zero emissions targets in UK and France are helping to drive the regulations and incentives that will be needed to finally take this low-carbon transport technology to scale, reports Angeli Mehta
Hydrogen has long been viewed as critical to getting mass transportation on the road to zero emissions by a host of bodies, from the International Energy Agency to the European Commission and the UK government, which also point to its contribution to tackling air pollution.
But its development has been stymied by the need for investment in costly infrastructure from the get-go, in contrast to electric vehicles, whose growth has not faced the same barriers.
“Hydrogen works at scale – it’s completely the opposite of the battery electric vehicle. EVs are great – you plug your car in at home. But scale up, and significant new charging infrastructure and grid upgrades are needed,” says Ben Madden, director at consultancy the UK’s Element Energy.
Given the investment in a filling station, it needs more than one or two buses. It can’t be ‘build it and they will come'
“It’s the opposite for hydrogen. Supply and demand need to be together. Given the investment in a filling station, it needs more than one or two buses. It can’t be ‘build it and they will come’.”
So far there have been a series of demonstrator projects across Europe, backed by the Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking. Over the past 10 years, this public-private partnership has tackled every aspect of hydrogen infrastructure, from buses and taxis to fuel cell technology and hydrogen production. Its aim is to drive down prices and develop expertise and experience.
One example is Aberdeen’s hydrogen bus project. Since 2015, 10 hydrogen buses have helped the city avoid more than 1000 tonnes of CO2 and built public awareness of hydrogen, according to Mark Griffin, hydrogen market development manager at industrial gas group BOC.
Fuel costs for new vehicles are getting closer to parity with diesel. Moving from retrofitting buses, to having the whole bus designed to run on hydrogen, means “a lot of inefficiencies have been removed,” says Griffin. He estimates that whereas a single-decker bus used to require 10-11kg of hydrogen to travel 100km; now the same distance can be covered on 7kg by a higher-capacity double-decker.
Griffin points out that past funding has been directed at isolated projects – a 60kg-a-day station and a small number of vehicles.
Now city-regions are starting to work with infrastructure providers to build up demand and drive the price down, he says.
One of the most effective levers is emissions standards or fuel economy standards – that’s driven the development of battery electric
Next year, London will have 20 hydrogen double-deckers, made by Northern Ireland’s Wrightbus, which was rescued from administration last month by Bamford Bus Company. They’ll run alongside electric buses in a new ultra-low emission zone, which drivers of conventional vehicles will have to pay £100 a day to enter. Hydrogen fuel cells produce only water, so are an important tool in reducing city pollution.
But it’s time to go beyond demonstrator projects, says Madden.
Kobad Bhavnagri, head of special projects for Bloomberg New Energy Finance, says investors will back hydrogen once they see a viable business case, but this needs to be created by governments though regulation or subsidy. “One of the most effective levers is emissions standards or fuel economy standards – that’s driven the development of battery electric. Another [lever] is subsidy – both are needed.”
The zero-emission vehicle mandate in California, together with expanding refuelling infrastructure, is leading to more hydrogen vehicles on the roads. The US, Japan, Korea and China have all announced ambitious targets for fuel-cell electric vehicle deployment by 2030.
“The policy-making conversation is becoming a little more real, with net-zero economy-wide emissions targets [in UK and France]. That really focuses minds and sharpens the pencils.”
There are a couple of examples where supply and demand are lining up. Madden points to a partnership between Hyundai and Swiss company H2 Energy, which has found enough buyers for 1,600 HGVs and persuaded Hyundai to build them. The aim is a nationwide network by 2023. A 2 megawatt (MW) electrolysis system will be built at a hydropower plant, and the energy partners will develop the refuelling infrastructure to make the business case.
Fuel cell traction is … a quickly feasible alternative to expensive electrification
In Germany, rail operators are moving ahead with hydrogen trains. The world’s first two have been running on regional lines since last year. By the end of 2022 Germany should have more than 40 trains built by Alstom, with 27 of them replacing diesel engines in the Rhine-Ruhr industrial zone. The hydrogen supply is the by-product of other chemical processes from the region’s industry, and the trains will refuel at an industrial park, which is already used by trucks and buses.
“Fuel cell traction is … a quickly feasible alternative to expensive electrification,” said Tarek Al-Wazir, minister of transport for the state of Hesse, when the deal was announced in May. "In Hesse, transport is responsible for one third of greenhouse gas emissions. Steam instead of diesel soot is therefore an exciting approach.”
The fact that buses and trains refuel at depots means a guaranteed demand at a small number of locations, which will be crucial if hydrogen prices are to fall.
Griffin suggests hydrogen trains will not be far behind in the UK. “We definitely need to think about volume from the train perspective, and use it to encourage other markets to start to build momentum.”
Alstom and Eversholt Rail have been designing a train that could operate on UK tracks by re-engineering existing diesel stock. Meanwhile, a collaboration between Birmingham University and industrial partners have led to the development of the HydroFLEX, an existing train retrofitted with hydrogen fuel tanks, fuel cell and battery pack that will enable it to run independently, and on electrified routes. It’s been given the go-ahead for mainline testing.
Last year, the government announced diesel trains should be phased out by 2040, but it has balked at the costs of electrification. Hydrogen would have the advantage that no rail infrastructure changes are required, says Griffin.
They’ve made it hard for hydrogen to get access to RTFO certificates. This seems like a big missed opportunity to get hydrogen moving
In Paris, HysetCo, a collaboration between Air Liquide, Société du Taxi Électrique Parisien (STEP), energy infrastructure group Idex, and Toyota, plans to have a fleet of 600 hydrogen-powered taxis in the Ile de France region by the end of next year. Having 600 taxis will guarantee sufficient demand at a limited number of refuelling stations. The effort forms part of Paris’s aim to have zero emissions mobility for the 2024 Olympic games, following on from Tokyo’s efforts to promote hydrogen for next year’s games.
If increasing hydrogen demand depends on bringing costs down, then the other side of the coin is to be able to produce enough of the fuel cleanly. At the moment most hydrogen used in industry is produced by steam reformation of methane, which produces carbon dioxide. Carbon capture and storage would be needed to tackle those emissions. A cleaner, but so far less efficient, process is to use electricity from renewables to split water into its components of hydrogen and oxygen.
In the Netherlands, the gas infrastructure company Gasunie and Nouryon (formerly AkzoNobel’s fine chemicals division) are to expand their proposed green hydrogen plant by a factor of three after it won a contract to supply the hydrogen to SkyNRG, a company making sustainable aviation fuel (See The long haul to getting aviation biofuel off the ground).
In the UK, the Committee on Climate Change says that to produce enough green hydrogen for power and transport would mean “extremely challenging” build rates for low carbon electricity generation, and green hydrogen will still be more expensive than gas reforming. Globally, the International Energy Agency (IEA) expects the cost of producing hydrogen from renewables could fall 30% by 2030 and it wants to see trade in hydrogen encouraged.
The UK government has allowed hydrogen into the mix through inclusion in the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO). This places an obligation on transport fuel suppliers to ensure that 8.5% (in 2019) of their supply comes from renewable or sustainable sources.
“But it is concerned [that hydrogen] might mess up the biofuels policy, so they’ve made it hard for hydrogen to get access to RTFO certificates. This seems like a big missed opportunity to get hydrogen moving,” says Madden.
If hydrogen’s long-standing potential is to be reached, governments and companies need to be taking ambitious and real-world action now
The government contends that using existing renewable energy to power an electrolyser, is “robbing” the grid, so production is considered to have used high greenhouse gas intensity power. The only, but challenging, solution is to have a direct connection between a new windfarm and deployment of an electrolyser.
The IEA is urging governments to tackle the hurdles of infrastructure development, and regulation that limit the development of a clean hydrogen industry. ”If hydrogen’s long-standing potential is to be reached, it says, governments and companies need to be taking ambitious and real-world action now".
Angeli Mehta is a former BBC current affairs producer, with a research PhD. She now writes about science, and has a particular interest in the environment and sustainability. @AngeliMehta.
Explainer: How hydrogen fuel cells work
Like battery electric vehicles, fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) use electric motors to drive the wheels. However, they store energy onboard as compressed hydrogen, rather than just in a battery.
Hydrogen reacts with oxygen from the air in an onboard fuel cell to produce electricity. Water is the only by-product. No greenhouse gas or air pollutant emissions are produced, meaning FCEVs are zero-emission vehicles. Fuel cells are typically 40-60% efficient (comparing energy input to energy output) and since hydrogen occurs rarely in its pure form, energy is required to create it.
Overall greenhouse gas emissions from hydrogen as a transport fuel are therefore highly dependent on its production method. Hydrogen is primarily produced for chemical feedstock applications. Used in a fuel cell, hydrogen produced via steam methane reformation (SMR) – currently the typical hydrogen production pathway – delivers greenhouse gas savings of between 10% (compared with a diesel HGV) and 43% (compared with a petrol car). The addition of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology to the SMR production pathway could significantly increase greenhouse gas savings, but has yet to be demonstrated at a commercial scale in the UK.
Hydrogen can also be produced by electrolysis: using electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. Assessed using current electricity grid emissions, this pathway does not deliver significant greenhouse gas savings compared to conventional fuels. Using electricity to produce hydrogen creates an efficiency loss compared to the direct use of electricity in a battery electric vehicle. However, as the electricity grid decarbonises, this pathway has the potential to deliver larger greenhouse gas savings.
Information supplied by UK government in its Road to Zero strategy report.
This article is part of the in-depth Sustainable Transport briefing. See also:
The long haul to getting aviation biofuel off the ground
Flight shame movement and offsetting no match for rising passenger numbers
Two and three wheels good as India aims for electric mobility
How digital is easing the pain of public transport in Africa
IEA Aberdeen hydrogen bus project BOC BloombergNEF H2 Energy Alstom HydroFLEX HysetCo