Angeli Mehta reports on the Hydrogen Council’s ambitious roadmap to power 15 million cars and 500,000 trucks by 2030

Cities across the planet are focusing on electric vehicles as they make commitments to phase out the most polluting vehicles, but that’s putting a lot of eggs in one basket. Nationwide roll-outs will require investment in expensive grid infrastructure and smart-charging technology, while battery technology remains inefficient for heavy vehicles covering long distances.

There is, however, another fuel capable of sharing the load: hydrogen. According to the Hydrogen Council, a CEO-led coalition of companies from across the hydrogen value chain – co-chaired by Toyota and Air Liquide – the fuel could power 10-15 million cars and 500,000 trucks by 2030.

But transport is only one of hydrogen’s uses. A roadmap for scaling up the use of hydrogen unveiled at last year’s UN climate summit in Bonn said the fuel could abate as much as a fifth of emissions needed to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius by performing seven roles in the energy transition, including providing power to buildings and industry processes, and storing excess energy from renewables that would otherwise be curtailed.

Fuel cell electric vehicles take minutes to fill, and currently have a range of more than 250 miles

Hydrogen can be transported as a pressurized gas, or used to make other compounds such as ammonia, that can be reliably shipped around the world, before being reconstituted where it’s required.

As a transport fuel, one of hydrogen’s advantages is that fuel cell electric vehicles take minutes to fill, and currently have a range of more than 250 miles.

Battery electric and fuel cell vehicles both rely on electric motors, but a fuel cell vehicle gets its power when hydrogen – stored at pressure in tanks – is combined with oxygen from the atmosphere in a fuel cell stack (with water as the byproduct). It’s more than twice as efficient as the combustion engine.

Credit: The Hydrogen Council

The UK government’s Road to Zero Strategy, which envisages that at least 50% of new car sales will be low emission vehicles by 2040, says the UK is “well-placed to be a global leader in hydrogen and fuel-cell powered transportation”.

But the refueling infrastructure and vehicle numbers are far behind battery electric: with perhaps 250 vehicles on the roads by the end of the year. There are 15 hydrogen filling stations, mostly in the south of England, while a £14m government funded competition for another 10 – together with associated fleets of cars and vans – will close this autumn.

The Hydrogen Council estimates that building sufficient hydrogen refueling infrastructure to decarbonize the transport sector would request investment of the same order of magnitude as for battery electric vehicles – around £1,200-1,500 per vehicle until 2030. Indeed, it points to a German study that suggests that once grid investments are taken into account, the total cost for fuel cell vehicles may actually be less than for battery electric vehicles.

Once grid investments are taken into account, the total cost for fuel cell vehicles may be less than for battery EVs

Earlier this year the Metropolitan police and taxi firm Green Tomato Cars began road-testing Toyota’s hydrogen cars in London. The project partnership will analyze how the fleets perform under heavy mileage conditions – and crucially help create much-needed demand for hydrogen.

Aside from cars, UK and European cities are expanding their bus networks thanks to the EU’s Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking, an umbrella for a series of collaborative projects aimed at making hydrogen buses commercially viable without subsidies. (See, Creating a hydrogen economy in Aberdeen)

Japan has raced ahead with the technology, aiming to showcase hydrogen at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. It anticipates having thousands of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, a network of refueling stations, and a hydrogen-powered athletes’ village. Carmaker Toyota plans a factory to make the fuel cells stacks for its vehicles.

UK and European cities are expanding their hydrogen bus networks. (Credit: Pajor Pawel/Shutterstock)

California’s cities too, are embracing hydrogen, with almost 5,000 vehicles on the roads, supported by 35 filling stations, with another 29 in development. The programme is underpinned by an extensive partnership between industry players and the state government, which has legislated for action to put at least five million zero emission vehicles on the roads by 2030. (See,California looks to boost market for EVs through shared purchasing power). 

Today, carmakers cover California motorists’ fuel, as hydrogen cannot compete with rock bottom US petrol prices. Keith Malone, public affairs manager for the California Fuel Cells Partnership, describes a symbiotic relationship. "You need the stations to build the confidence of drivers; and the plans and long-term funding that says to consumers, hydrogen producers and stations that there is a commitment to making it happen.”

A similar partnership in Germany envisages a network of 400 filling stations by 2023: 56 were operational by the end of 2017, and 100 are anticipated by 2019. Recently China has embarked on a hydrogen programme, which will no doubt drive volume.

Hydrogen may be the most abundant element but it doesn’t exist on its own freely. So while there are no greenhouse gas emissions at the tailpipe, how much is avoided all depends on how the hydrogen is made. The most widespread process today is steam reforming of methane, but this produces carbon dioxide, which must be captured, and preferably used. A cleaner, but less efficient, process is to use energy to split hydrogen from its partner in water - oxygen.

Even if the hydrogen is produced from natural gas the associated carbon emissions of the Rasa will be 40g/km, the lowest for any vehicle 

Sheffield-based ITM Power makes electrolyzers for this purpose, and is providing many of the refueling systems across the country, including one that opened on Shell’s Beaconsfield service station on the M40 earlier this year, the first hydrogen pump to sit on a forecourt alongside petrol and diesel.

Welsh hydrogen fuel cell carmaker Riversimple thinks there might be greater traction if fueling stations were in the towns and cities where most people fill their cars at present.

Riversimple has produced a lightweight two-seater, called the Rasa, that has a range of up to 300 miles on 1.5kg of hydrogen. Business development director Fiona Clancy points out that even if the hydrogen is produced from natural gas, the associated carbon emissions of the Rasa will be 40 grams per kilometer, the lowest carbon emissions for any vehicle well-to-wheel on the market today.

Germany envisages a network of 400 filling stations by 2023. (Credit: Shell)

“We’re all agreed green hydrogen must be the end game. But green electricity displaces more coal if it’s put into the grid, rather than replacing petrol, so there’s less CO2 overall,” Clancy says.

With the help of crowdfunding and €2m in EU funding, the company is currently building 20 of its two-seaters at its Monmouthshire factory with a view to beginning a rolling programme of beta testing from October, and going into commercial production in 2020-21. It had hundreds of applications from members of the public keen to get behind the wheel of the sports car.

“Our plan,” says Clancy, “is seeing the cars used in everyday tasks by everyday people – essentially an operational dry run before we come to market with mass-produced cars, to ensure the service is viable.”

It’s as much about the service as the cars themselves – almost more so

Indeed, Riversimple’s greatest innovation may be in its mobility-as-a-service business model: its customers won’t own their cars but lease them on an all-inclusive basis – covering insurance, fuel, tyres, repairs and pre-emptive maintenance. Telematics will monitor every aspect of a car’s performance to enable Riversimple to keep them in the best shape. “It’s as much about the service as the cars themselves – almost more so,” Clancy says.

The company also wants to explore taking its sale-of-service model upstream to its suppliers. If Riversimple was to pay for the use of components such as fuel cells, rather than buy them, that would mark a fundamental change in relationships, suggests Clancy. “Because both parties want the car or equipment to last as long and work as well as possible ... It’s a good test case for pushing the envelope on circular economy thinking.”

Such innovation in business models, and joined up thinking and collaboration between policy makers, companies across the value chain, and investors, will all be required if the Hydrogen Council’s bold vision is to be fulfilled.

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

Main picture credit: Anthony Dawton


This article is part of the in-depth Urban Transport briefing. See also:

Are autonomous vehicles the answer to cities’ transport woes?

California looks to boost market for EVs through shared purchasing power

Bumps in the UK’s road to zero emission vehicles

How Oslo became the world’s electric vehicle capital

Creating a hydrogen economy in Aberdeen

Hydrogen Council  hydrogen vehicles  ITM Power  2020 Olympics  clean energy transition  Shell  California Fuel Cell Partnership  Riversimple  circular economy 

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