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Think tank backs hydrogen for transport


12 June 2020

The Government should embrace hydrogen as a fuel for heavy forms of transport, such as buses, lorries and trains, says a new report by the right of centre think tank the Centre for Policy Studies.  

“While the Government is right to focus on batteries as a key part of the solution, they cannot be depended on to fully decarbonise the transport sector,” says report author Eamonn Ives, a researcher at the think tank and member of the advisory panel for the House of Commons’ Climate Assembly UK. “Another solution will be needed for heavier forms of transport. And the most obvious contender – indeed, the only realistic one – is hydrogen.” 

The report has been prepared with funding from Ryse Hydrogen, a company with ambitions to produce and supply hydrogen to the transport sector. Ryse’s executive chairman is Jo Bamford, who owns Northern Ireland bus manufacturer Wrightbus. He recently called on the Government to support a programme to build 3,000 hydrogen buses (LTT 01 May).

Ives says hydrogen fuel cells are typically lighter than equivalently-sized battery powertrains, and have much shorter refuelling times. “This makes fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) ideally suited to decarbonising HGVs, buses, shipping, trains (in the absence of full electrification), and potentially some parts of aviation.”

Hydrogen also has advantages over battery electric vehicles in cold weather. “Anyone who has used a mobile phone in a cold climate will know that lower temperatures can impede battery performance. BEVs are no exception to this phenomenon – their battery packs perform less well in low temperatures, with one paper showing that a drop in temperature from 5°C to -5°C can shave nearly 50 kilometres of range off one of the best-selling BEVs, the Renault ZOE. Hydrogen-powered FCEVs are not impacted in the same way.”

Echoing Bamford’s argument that the UK could become a world leader in hydrogen fuel. “Battery technology is now dominated by China,” says Ives. Hydrogen “is relatively unclaimed economic terrain” and the UK is “blessed with favourable conditions to make truly sustainable hydrogen”. “Few other countries can rely on sites like the North Sea, which is not only very windy but is also relatively shallow. This makes it easy to install the turbines, which will eventually generate the electricity needed to electrolyse water into useful hydrogen.” 

The heavy vehicle end of the transport sector can serve as a  ‘bridgehead’ for a hydrogen rollout across the wider economy, he says. “Buses and HGVs, for instance, could do a lot of the heavy lifting involved in bringing costs down.” In 2019, Wrightbus sold 15 hydrogen-powered double decker buses at around £500,000 apiece to First Aberdeen. “New cost figures which we have seen indicate they could now sell similar buses for around ten per cent less, and less still with additional volume.”

The report recommends that the Government sets a target for a zero-emission bus fleet by 2038. To kickstart the market for hydrogen buses, Ives says the Government should reform Bus Service Operators Grant (BSOG) from a ‘fuel used’ model to a ‘distance travelled’ one, with incentives tilted towards low- or zero-carbon buses. 

The Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation should also be amended to better support the production of hydrogen fuel. 

‘Electric buses trump hydrogen’

A company specialising in battery storage and electric bus funding has criticised claims that hydrogen is the best power source for the bus industry. 

“Electric buses are presently the clear leader when it comes to environmental sustainability, especially for inner-city routes,” says Zenobe Energy director Steve Meersman in this week’s Viewpoint column.

He warns that a debate about the best technology could lead to greater uncertainty, even prompting operators to invest in more diesel buses. 

In London, bus operator Abellio has just received the first five electric buses from an order of 34. Zenobe will own and operate the batteries on the buses, run and maintain the charging infrastructure in the depot, and fund the buses, manufactured by Portuguese company CaetanoBus.

The vehicles will be used on the C10 (Canada Water to Victoria Station) and P5 (Patmore Estate to Elephant and Castle).

Zenobe’s first charging project brought nine electric buses to Guildford, in partnership with Surrey County Council and Stagecoach. It has also delivered electric buses to Newport and will launch electric buses in Leeds in the coming months. l Viewpoint – page 26

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