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Scotland’s oil capital is creating the blueprint for hydrogen-powered transport

Mark Griffin is hydrogen market development manager for clean fuels, BOC.

Mark Griffin
06 December 2019

Hydrogen has become a hot topic – again, and for good reason as net zero legislation means we have to adopt low carbon transport solutions. While battery electric vehicles (EVs) are a viable technology for cars and vans, bigger vehicles require bigger batteries. This typically increases vehicle weight and charging times while reducing range. 

Hydrogen, however, is an attractive, zero-emission fuel offering fast refuelling and good range even for large vehicles. 

To encourage adoption, hydrogen faces similar issues to battery EVs – the need for infrastructure and volume manufacture of vehicles to reduce costs. Battery EVs need charging points and sometimes grid reinforcement, hydrogen vehicles need refuelling stations.

The Government’s Road to Zero Strategy is driving the transition to zero emissions across all vehicle types for public and private transport. Councils and fleet operators are taking action to provide clean transport alternatives, from delivery vans to refuse trucks and bus fleets.

Of all the technologies currently deployed, only hydrogen fuel cell and pure battery electric vehicles deliver zero emission transport. Both battery and fuel-cell vehicles use electricity to drive electric motors, while renewable energy sources can produce hydrogen and electricity for charging batteries.

There is an effective pathway to move from brown hydrogen to 100 per cent green, sustainable hydrogen.

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. Methods include steam methane reformation (SMR) and as a by-product from the chemicals industry. It is also possible to produce green hydrogen from electrolysis – a process that extracts hydrogen from water with no emissions. With flexible options available to generate hydrogen, there is an effective pathway to move from brown hydrogen to 100 per cent green, sustainable hydrogen.

Hydrogen provides a solution for net zero transport initiatives. It offers huge benefits to councils looking to improve air quality, reduce emissions and reach net zero targets as the only emission from vehicle tailpipes is water.

Hydrogen is stored as a compressed gas at the refuelling station until it’s needed, when it is pumped into the vehicle under pressure. Refuelling is a fast and familiar process, similar to refuelling a diesel vehicle and delivers a range comparable to many petrol or diesel vehicles and in excess of the majority of electric vehicles. Refuelling takes around ten minutes for a bus, which can cover a range of around 350km (219 miles), and five minutes for a car, giving a range of 500km (312 miles).

Hydrogen for transport is already in daily use worldwide with a broad range of applications for cars, buses, lorries, service vehicles, forklift trucks and trains. BOC launched the first open access hydrogen refuelling station in Swindon, in 2011. In 2014 the site was further developed to include an on-site electrolysis unit producing green hydrogen powered by solar. Since then, BOC has been working with partners to develop a UK hydrogen public refuelling network, including the first UK hydrogen station on a public fuel forecourt at Shell’s Cobham service station on the M25. 

In Scotland, BOC worked with Aberdeen City Council to install a tailored, state-of-the-art hydrogen refuelling station at the Kittybrewster bus depot. It has been successfully refuelling single deck buses since 2015 and now also refuels service vehicles and public cars. In 2019, it was further upgraded and can now accommodate double deck buses as well. 

The facility produces green hydrogen from electrolysis on-site – a process that extracts hydrogen from water using electricity generated from renewables. Hydrogen is stored as a compressed gas until it is needed and then pumped into vehicles, much like refuelling a petrol or diesel vehicle. 

Producing 360kg of hydrogen daily is enough to fuel ten 42-seat buses, with each bus able to travel up to 350km between refuelling. By using a modular design, however, it is possible to scale up hydrogen production to match the needs of a growing fleet.

Over a four-year period, a small fleet of just ten buses saved over 1,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide compared to running the latest Euro VI diesel engines. With an expanding fleet of hydrogen buses and other vehicles, the city is reaping the rewards of hydrogen as a transport fuel. With potential to provide energy storage and grid balancing services in the future, there are opportunities to develop the role of hydrogen even further.

Kittybrewster is Europe’s highest performing hydrogen refuelling station. It is accessible to all hydrogen-fuelled vehicles and has attracted more than £20m of investment into Aberdeen. With a reliability rate of 99.5 per cent and no failed refuels since opening, the Kittybrewster station serves as a blueprint for rolling out hydrogen technology across towns and cities in the UK. 

For councils looking to introduce hydrogen fuelled buses, a strong partnership with an experienced owner/operator of hydrogen infrastructure is essential in order to understand the options, meet all objectives and deliver a robust refuelling project. Cost is also always a key consideration. 

Element Energy, a specialist low carbon energy consultancy, reports that by the mid-2020s bus manufacturers expect it will be possible to purchase a fuel cell bus for less than £350k. This cost assumes relatively low production volumes – a few hundred per year. With expansion in the global supply of the key components of fuel cell systems and hydrogen tanks, it is reasonable to expect prices to reduce to below £300k by the end of the decade.

 At these bus prices, the total cost of ownership of a fuel cell bus can fall below even the best-case battery electric options (when coupled with the price of hydrogen that will be available at high-volume refuelling stations). Element Energy concludes that, as cities regulate to require zero emission buses during the 2020s, the fuel cell bus has the potential to be a major part of achieving this political ambition. 

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