Hydrogen is the answer to decarbonising transport. This alternative environmentally friendly fuel can be rolled out across the UK without government subsidies and at no cost to the taxpayer – confining petrol and diesel to the dark pages of history.
Twenty four years ago, Toyota unveiled the world’s first mass market hybrid electric car, but it was another 16 years before Tesla launched the Model S, the world’s first truly viable electric car.
It may be unfashionable to bring up the inherent weakness of Electric Vehicles (EV) as a means of mass transportation, but the infrastructure required to keep Britain plugged in and on the road is just not there. In the UK there are currently only 25,000 public charging points in operation, only 10 per cent of which are in Scotland.
Estimates of the numbers of charging points required by 2030 to service 31 million passenger vehicles on UK roads range from 400,000 to 2.3 million. In other words, for consumers to be able to make the shift to zero emission vehicles, 200-700 need to be opened per day until the end of the decade.
Outside Scotland’s central belt, where larger distances through rural areas need to be travelled, the problem is even more acute, and subsidies will be required to convince operators to install charging points in areas of low density populations.
A major concern is not just the sheer quantity of infrastructure required and the associated cost in decarbonising passenger vehicles. In addition to the cost of the chargers, are the potentially millions of necessary permits for grid connections, street works and planning permissions – which the taxpayer could be forced to subsidise.
Currently, just 8,300 petrol stations service the needs of UK travellers and transit operators, with only a few minutes needed to fill up with petrol or diesel. The time required to charge a battery at a charging point is much longer, requiring extensive infrastructure.
Hydrogen refuelling stations require the same level of infrastructure as petrol stations, and in many cases can be co-located on existing forecourts, therefore hydrogen can be seen as a far more economical method of fuelling vehicles when compared with EVs.
However, decarbonising passenger vehicles would only reduce 65 per cent of transport-generated greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The other 35 per cent comes from HGV, LGVs and buses – and these can be eliminated without costing the taxpayer a penny.
Because the size and recharging times of electric batteries scale with the size of the vehicle, batteries are uneconomic for vehicles larger than SUVs – which already require almost a tonne of extra batteries. This is an even bigger issue for haulage operators running fleets of HGVs who want to keep their vehicles on the road but to carry as much freight as possible.
A recent report by the Hydrogen All Party Parliamentary Group recommends “a UK wide hydrogen network to support the transport sector … including a larger-scale implementation of hydrogen refuelling stations”.
While the EV charging infrastructure is still dependent on government support, private companies like Element 2 are rolling out hydrogen refuelling stations, and will have a network of more than 800 by 2027 and 2,000 by 2030. Within a decade, this network could serve every hydrogen powered vehicle in the country and remove 35 per cent of HGV emissions, at zero cost to the UK taxpayer.
In July, we announced plans to open our first hydrogen refuelling station in Scotland as part of a £2 million investment on a site in Bridge of Don, Aberdeen, and we are working with a specialist commercial property company to identify potential sites and to secure planning approvals for a further 250 pumps in Scotland over the next six years.
However, if the UK chooses to use blue hydrogen, the environmental gains in ditching petrol and diesel will be severely diminished. Critics argue that producing blue hydrogen (created from fossil fuels) while capturing emissions elsewhere, will prolong the extraction of fossil fuels by decades, and simply reward the energy companies that contributed to climate change with more government subsidies. Blue hydrogen has been described in government as a “bridge” by the Committee on Climate Change, but in the case of transport it should be a very short and temporary bridge, if it is required at all.
Element 2 has opted to exclusively utilise green hydrogen or hydrogen from sustainable sources and is confident that it can source sufficient supplies for the entire UK heavy transport sector. As the cost of hydrogen, made from renewable sources like wind, solar or even waste food, continues to plummet, cost parity with diesel based on a cost per mile will be achieved within the next two to three years.
Cost parity with diesel, combined with uncertainty over the future of diesel for haulage, will see an increasing number of HGVs and LGVs switched over to hydrogen. But unlike EVs, lack of refuelling infrastructure will not be a barrier, and Element 2 plans to be at the forefront of this energy transition revolution.