Mark Griffin 16 January 2020

Hydrogen for transport

Hydrogen for transport image

The Government’s ‘Road to Zero Strategy’ is driving the transition to zero emissions across all vehicle types for public and private transport. Forward-looking councils and fleet operators are taking action to provide clean public transport alternatives, including buses.

There are currently only two options for zero-emission public transport: the pure battery electric vehicle (EV) or the hydrogen fuel cell EV.

Hydrogen comes into its own for buses and other large vehicles that do hundreds of miles per day and require frequent, fast refuelling. It takes just 10 minutes to refuel a bus and five minutes to refuel a car, delivering ranges of around 350km and 500km respectively.

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. It is produced in a number of ways, which vary in efficiency, carbon intensity and cost. The most common production method today is steam methane reformation (SMR), which can be a low-carbon process when used with carbon capture or a biomass feedstock.

Green hydrogen can be produced from electrolysis – a process that extracts hydrogen from water with no emissions. This is how hydrogen is produced at Europe’s largest hydrogen bus refuelling station, Kittybrewster in Aberdeen. Once generated, the hydrogen is compressed to store it efficiently. For refuelling, a dispenser is required to pump it into the vehicle, which is similar to a traditional petrol or diesel fuel pump.

The hydrogen economy

New infrastructure for hydrogen refuelling requires capital investment in the same way as electric vehicle charging infrastructure does. BOC works with councils to help them understand the economics around the lifetime cost of ownership, vehicle and hydrogen fuel costs. Some operators want cost parity with diesel at the pump, while others recognise the significant cost-benefit associated with reducing air pollution and carbon emissions.

Factors that affect the cost of operating a hydrogen refuelling station include the volume of hydrogen produced (higher volumes reduce cost) and the cost of electricity for electrolysis.

Producing hydrogen using SMR, while not as green, can be cheaper and still provides a pathway to green hydrogen in the future. With any new project, BOC works with the infrastructure owner/operator at the outset to align the costs with their objectives and identify potential sources of funding.

Element Energy, a specialist low carbon energy consultancy, reports that by the mid-2020s fuel cell buses will cost less than £350k, even at small production volumes. With expansion in the global supply of key components, Element Energy expects prices to reduce to below £300k by the end of the decade.

As the price of hydrogen at high-volume refuelling stations falls, the total cost of ownership of a fuel cell vehicle can beat even the best-case battery electric options. Fuel cell buses can be a major part of achieving the zero-emission political ambition.

A blueprint for success

Councils that want to reproduce Aberdeen’s success with Kittybrewster should look to replicate its three-way partnership model. This comprises a council or city region to drive the process; a cluster of vehicle users, and an infrastructure provider to design, install and operate the refuelling station.

Clear dissemination of information is critical to increase demand, which improves the economic viability of hydrogen. Talking about the benefits that hydrogen brings to transport, and the vehicle types that can run on hydrogen, helps to boost the business case. The Aberdeen facility, which started life refuelling single-decker buses, is now refuelling double-decker buses, vans, refuse lorries and is also open to the public.

Mark Griffin is hydrogen market development manager at BOC

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