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    Is Hydrogen an affordable fuel of the future?

    There is a global imperative to decarbonise our roads and every industry by 2050 by phasing out fossil fuels. But what is the likely replacement for heavy goods transport? Current internal combustion engines running on petrol or diesel will be phased out by 2035, dictated by European regulations and as discussed in our whitepaper, and replaced by motors powered by electricity or hydrogen. Electric cars are already becoming mainstream. But hydrogen may be a better alternative for heavy industrial long-distance travel, and especially freight.

    Two technology options are available: adapting the design of internal combustion engines to use hydrogen; or using hydrogen fuel cells to power electric engines.


    Fuel cells only emit oxygen and water. Many think the zero-emission fuel cells will ultimately become the engine of choice because the hydrogen combustion engines release nitrous oxide (NOx), a greenhouse gas as potent as CO2. But the NOx emissions can be treated in a similar way to tailpipe catalytic converters used on petrol vehicles today or can be limited using carbon capture technology during the production of hydrogen from sources such as methane.


    Both hydrogen fuel technologies have two significant advantages over re-charging electric vehicles – especially heavy-duty vehicles such as HGVs; the time taken to refuel and the strain on national power grids. Hydrogen refuelling today takes as little time as petrol or diesel, avoiding lost time and revenue for road freight carriers when re-charging with electricity.  Refuelling with hydrogen also avoids a strain on national power grids, which is an increasing risk as more industry turns from diesel to electricity.


    The hydrogen-fuelled internal combustion engine was first developed over 200 years ago. At the beginning of the 20th Century, they were more popular than petrol cars because they were quieter, easier to drive and less polluting. They fell out of favour because of their limited range and an abundance of cheap crude oil. Now fossil fuels have themselves fallen out of favour, and we are looking again at hydrogen as an alternative.


    In 2020, Europe's estimated number of fuel cell electric vehicles was 2,533 .  Power Systems Research (2021) predicts that by 2027 around 0.3% of new heavy commercial vehicles will be hydrogen-powered by 2027. Ten European cities now have hydrogen-powered buses. But progress toward hydrogen-fuelled commercial and industrial vehicles has been slower than the consumer switch to electric cars.


    The problem is the cost of producing renewable (green) hydrogen. The production itself is a costly process because of the high energy requirements, and fossil fuel prices are much cheaper than renewable energy.


    Companies are exploring ways to reduce the cost of hydrogen production, including partnerships and new materials. New methods for hydrolysis – splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen using electrolysis – are being explored along with more efficient production process.


    Is Clean Hydrogen Affordable?

    According to the IEA’s 2021 Global Hydrogen Review, using renewable energy sources – solar, wind and hydro - hydrogen cost between €3 to €8 per kilogram compared to €0.4

    to € 1.7 per kilogram using fossil fuels.  But then, in October 2021, it was reported that a combination of high-cost natural gas and a record EU carbon price of €60 per tonne of CO2 meant in Europe renewable hydrogen became competitively priced. Renewable hydrogen would cost only €4.18 per kilogram versus €6.57 to €6.22 per kilogram, that’s up to one-third less than fossil-fuel produced hydrogen. (RECHARGE 2021).  


    Currently, in the UK (based on current pump prices for a car), to travel 100km would cost €14.22 using hydrogen, €8.43 using Petrol and €6.89 using diesel. Although prices vary across Europe, producing a green hydrogen fuel that will support our roads' decarbonisation still requires a drastic drop in hydrogen production prices to be competitive.  


    Making it Cheaper

    MIT Energy Initiative research scientists say the plunging costs of wind and solar energy resulting from economies of scale are cutting the costs of green hydrogen production. Energy consumption during production is the most significant variable cost of all company electrolysers' capital and operating expenses.


    During hydrogen production, the electrodes used to create that current are coated in metal which must be kept in a molten or liquid state. Because metals have very high melting points, this requires significant amounts of energy, making the process expensive and uncompetitive to petrol and diesel as a fuel for vehicles. To overcome this, hydrogen manufacturers are replacing the metal electrodes with proton exchange membrane electrolysers which require far less energy.


    Design improvements of electrolysers are increasing the efficient use of materials and the electrolysers themselves. Economies of scale, automation and continuous manufacturing processes are also contributing to reducing costs. 


    Nel ASA, a Norwegian electrolyser-maker, announced in January 2021 its goal of $1.50 per kilogram by 2025 – more than half IEA's (International Energy Authority’s) current price estimates of between €3 to €8 per kilogram.  Malaysian oil and gas producer Petronas also announced it will use hydropower and solar to produce hydrogen for €1 to €2 per kilogram.


    New technologies will enable green hydrogen to be priced consistently cheaper than fossil fuel hydrogen production and not so dependent on fluctuating market conditions.


    What can the industry do to support lower-cost hydrogen?

    But, once the cost problem has been resolved, the next problem is distribution. Currently, there is no adequate infrastructure to support hydrogen refuelling. In the UK, one of the geographically smaller European countries, the infrastructure has been developing for a decade. Yet there are only 15 hydrogen refuelling stations. The largest is Metroline in Perivale, which has a daily capacity of 1,500 kilograms of hydrogen. The second-largest refuelling station is at Tyseley Energy Park in Birmingham, with 1,200 kilograms of hydrogen per day. More are being developed.


    Building hydrogen fuel infrastructure should be much easier than building the electric vehicle charging infrastructure. Hydrogen does not need to be linked to an existing network, nor does the flow of hydrogen need to be monitored and controlled like the flow of electricity across national electricity grids. The current network of 92,000 petrol and diesel stations across Europe could be repurposed for hydrogen fuel, although the conversion is likely to cost €32m per station, slightly more than a new EV charging station, as outlined in our recent research. That would require significant government funding. Many of those sites are owned by large petrochemical companies hoping to enter the hydrogen fuel market. But the risk is that these companies are as likely to adopt the use of traditional fossil fuel hydrogen production combined with carbon capture technologies. That hydrogen is cleaner than that currently produced but not as clean as using renewable-energy-produced hydrogen. 


    The ICCT (International Council on Clean Transportation) suggests hydrogen can be supplied in a similar way to petrol and diesel.  It can be transported from a large production site to hydrogen refuelling stations or produced on-site with ‘at the pump’ electrolysis. Onsite renewable electrolysis avoids hydrogen transport costs, and those savings can be passed on to customers.  In April, First Hydrogen announced it would create on-site hydrogen production at four new industrial sites across the UK for refuelling light, medium and heavy commercial vehicles.


    Logistics sites across the country can similarly use the at-pump hydrolysis model. These independent hydrogen refuelling stations would be highly convenient for the hundreds of heavy commercial trucks entering or leaving our ports and airports daily. They can also guarantee green hydrogen if powered by on-site solar or wind energy or use only renewable energy sources during production. That would be an attractive proposition for early adopters of the technology and provide revenue to the ports.


    Currently, hydrogen is not affordable, or convenient as an alternative to diesel-driven freight transport. But that is about to change. With new hydrogen production technologies and the falling price of renewable energy sources, and global political will, hydrogen prices are becoming more competitive than fossil-based fuels. Installing at the pump, on-site hydrogen production at ports, warehouses and other freight sites would ease the lack re-fuelling infrastructure and enable the logistics industry to help drive the transition to cleaner transport and the decarbonisation of our roads by 2050.


    We discuss all these issues and review how alternative drivetrains will shape an industry in our on-highway whitepaper. Get inside the debate and download your copy today by clicking the link below.

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