The battle to arrest the effects of climate change, as well as wider ‘green’ and clean lifestyle changes such as tackling our plastics pollution, comprises perhaps the single biggest and unifying movement I can remember. This will likely be the case for many of us.
We are living in a time when mankind is learning most about the effects of its actions on the planet, when a war is being waged on emissions and the unnecessary products of our existence, and sustainability is the word of a generation, globally.
Plastic waste aside, one of the most obvious examples of this is in the current stimulus for a hydrogen economy – the conviction and momentum for which extends across so many countries worldwide, and growing.
Yet I can’t help thinking there’s more to be achieved in terms of the rhetoric, and the public perception of hydrogen energy. If a war is being waged on emissions, then we might also argue that there’s something of a PR battle to be won in truly realising the potential of hydrogen in the clean energies transition.
Some have long harboured concerns that hydrogen was losing out in the alternative energies PR war, particularly where battery-electric mobility is concerned. I have been chief among them.
The battery-electric vehicle movement has clearly garnered much momentum and support, and has high-profile pioneers and entrepreneurs as adoring advocates. And I only have to step into my diesel-powered car, tune into a commercial radio station, and the chances are that I will hear an advert for an electric vehicle to lease or buy. At various turns in my day-to-day life, I see electric charging stations; these are still sporadic, admittedly, but they are there. Ask Joe Public if he knows what an electric car is, and he will probably be able to hold a conversation with you about it.
We are still some way from that when it comes to hydrogen, which is why it feels as though the PR war has to date been lost.
“Some have long harboured concerns that hydrogen was losing out in the alternative energies PR war, particularly where battery-electric mobility is concerned. I have been chief among them”
For all this talk of ‘battles’ and ‘wars’ it’s worth saying first and foremost, it’s not about one solution or the other. We will only succeed in meeting our climate change goals and transitioning to a new clean energies mix if it is exactly that – a mix. There is no silver bullet or single panacea to our future energy requirements. Battery-electric, hydrogen power, LNG and even biogas fuel technologies will all need to co-exist in a far more diversified energy portfolio.
But what I do think we need to make clear is the fundamental role that hydrogen has to play in this – and the need to get that message across throughout society and industry alike. So let’s look at the ever-compelling case for hydrogen mobility…
A proliferation in fuelling stations in recent years has put fuel cell-enabled light duty passenger vehicles firmly back in the spotlight. This has been allied with the increasing commitment of some of the world’s largest automotive companies in continuing to develop and launch hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.
By my humble estimations, there are now more than 370 hydrogen stations worldwide; of these, over 275 are publicly accessible and can be used like any conventional petrol/diesel stations. The others are run for closed user groups supplying buses or fleet customers.
More than 150 of these hydrogen stations are currently in operation in Europe and if we look at a country like Germany, where in July 2016 there were just 20 stations in operation, there are now more than 71 across the country and that figure will number 100 by the end of the year. Another regional leader is Japan. Of the approx. 140 hydrogen stations in Asia today, around 100 of these are in Japan, the most of any single country around the world. South Korea is also very active in this area, while China is fast asserting itself and building out its own infrastructure.
“For the Tokyo Olympics alone, Japan aspires to have 100 fuel cell buses deployed in Tokyo and 40,000 hydrogen vehicles on the road…”
In North America and particularly the US, which is perhaps where many people think of when it comes to future mobility innovation, there are over 80 stations in operation. With upwards of 40 stations, the US West Coast is the hotbed of activity in this region – and over 7,000 fuel cell cars have been sold and leased in the state of California.
Japan has just over 3,000 hydrogen-powered vehicles on the roads, but is aiming for around 200,000 on the road by March 2026, for which it hopes to have more than 300 stations active. For the Tokyo Olympics alone, Japan aspires to have 100 fuel cell buses deployed in Tokyo and 40,000 hydrogen vehicles on the road.
Such figures will do little to appease the hydrogen economy’s hardened doubters, and I had for some time been very mindful myself of the uphill challenge we face in converting or replacing the 8,000 conventional fossil fuel forecourts in the UK alone, for example. Clearly, there is much work still to be done in creating the infrastructure required and rolling out the vehicles to use it – but the circular chicken and egg scenario that once dogged hydrogen mobility has now been partially broken.
What hydrogen does have in its locker compared to other fuels, however, is a far more favourable outlook when it comes to fuel range.
Range anxiety – the fear that a vehicle has insufficient fuel range to reach its destination – is recognised as one of the biggest challenges facing the uptake of clean energy-fuelled vehicles, and especially so in the case of electric vehicles.
Many of us will seldom allow our conventional fuel tanks to fall below a certain level, always factoring in an added tolerance of at least 30-40 miles worth of fuel to reach the next filling station, regardless of our car’s stated range. It’s an inherent insecurity, despite the glut of petrol and diesel fuel stations available and the impressive range of today’s generation of vehicles.
What alternative vehicles present is an added layer of insecurity. Fuelling or charging infrastructure is currently sparse at best, enforcing that sense of range anxiety. With many electric vehicles currently struggling to get beyond a stated range of 150-200 miles, and many more questioning what lengths an individual might have to go to in order to actually achieve such ranges, range anxiety is a very real problem for electric vehicles.
This is where hydrogen-fuelled vehicles clearly have more energy in the tank. The fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) currently in use or being prepared for commercialisation have a stated driving range comparable to petrol and diesel vehicles, typically between 400-500 miles on a full tank.
“This is where hydrogen-fuelled vehicles clearly have more energy in the tank. The FCEVs currently in use or being prepared for commercialisation have a stated driving range comparable to petrol and diesel vehicles, typically between 400-500 miles on a full tank”
Hydrogen fuel is typically stored on-board in high pressure tanks and used to generate electricity in a chemical reaction with oxygen in a fuel cell stack. The energy produced is used to drive the car, with the only tailpipe emissions being water vapour. Refuelling from empty takes between just 3-5 minutes and is otherwise just the same as the petrol or diesel experience that we are so used to. I can testify to this, because I have done it. In fact, the whole driving and refuelling experience became so brilliantly ‘normal’ that I very quickly forgot that I was actually handling a hydrogen-powered car. In a very back-handed way, that’s probably one of the biggest complements I could give hydrogen mobility.
Hydrogen is clearly not the answer to all public transport needs within our towns and cities, and there is still work to do in ensuring it is readily available for all, but it will undoubtedly play an important part in a greener future.
It’s time to ensure that message is heard. It’s time to make the hydrogen case fought and won in the public, and deliver the funding to make it happen. There appear to be clear and well communicated plans in place for electric vehicles, for example, and we need at least the same in place for hydrogen mobility if we are to really secure our energy future.
After all, the hydrogen economy is nothing new – it has been invested in and debated for 20 years or more – but it is changing and advancing at a great rate and it is one of the most exciting opportunities open to us.