The fuel of the 2020s? Why hydrogen could clean up Britain's transport network this decade

Toyota Mirai Mk1 at hydrogen refuelling pump
To the ordinary consumer, recharging a hydrogen car is similar to refuelling a petrol vehicle

Twenty years ago the Toyota Prius had already been around for a couple of years and people poked fun at it because it looked weird and was manufactured at a loss. Twenty years on, and the electrification of the automobile has become a standard, Toyota is the king of hybrids – and nobody is laughing at them now.

At the same time, hydrogen was also big news and manufacturers saw huge potential in it for powering clean electric cars by converting the gas to electricity using emissions-free hydrogen fuel cells. As a means of providing energy to propel vehicles, it was expected to take off in a big way. But it didn’t.

Instead, lithium-ion batteries came of age, Tesla arrived on the scene – startling traditional premium manufacturers with rocketing sales on the West Coast of the United States – and the world went electric car (EV) crazy.

Now, though, with the government ban on new petrol and diesel cars brought forward to 2030, could this be the decade when hydrogen emerges as the practical alternative to fossil fuels in the UK?

The Hydrogen Council was formed in 2017 at the World Economic Forum in Davros, to “invite policy makers, investors and civil society stakeholders to acknowledge the contribution and potential of hydrogen as a key element of the energy transition”. 

Tesla CEO Elon Musk helped make battery electric cars cool and they've never looked back Credit: Justin Pritchard/AP

One of the barriers to widespread introduction of hydrogen has been the cost of producing it, but according to a report by the Council in January, that could change dramatically in the next decade. The report, named “Path to Hydrogen Competitiveness”, predicts that the cost of hydrogen will fall by 50 per cent by 2030 for a wide range of applications.

The price drop will be due to an increase in production, distribution and the amount of equipment needed to dispense the fuel, and will make hydrogen competitive with other alternative fuels “and in some cases, even conventional ones”.

The prediction is based on information gathered from four major geographical regions, the US, Europe, Japan and Korea, and China. Among the many possible uses analysed, the report reveals that using hydrogen for heavy-duty transport and trains at a large scale is more cost-effective than fossil fuel.

Batteries are not generally thought realistic for larger vehicles such as trucks because of weight, size and cost. In the largest battery-electric cars, the battery can weigh over half a tonne so imagine then, the scale of battery pack needed for an articulated lorry. In contrast, a hydrogen fuel cell and electric motor (or motors) can replace an engine, and carbon-fibre tanks replace conventional fuel tanks. 

The fuel cell stack from the new Toyota Mirai

Fed with hydrogen and oxygen from the surrounding air, hydrogen fuel cells produce electricity with only pure water and heat as by-products. If the hydrogen is produced in a sustainable way, such as using electricity from wind, solar or hydroelectric power for example, the electricity produced by the fuel cell is virtually carbon neutral. Re-fuelling an Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle (FCEV) with hydrogen takes minutes and, for the consumer, handling a hydrogen pump on the forecourt is much the same as for petrol or diesel. 

Among the inconvenient fuel cell truths are the cost of the fuel cell system, which is still many times higher than that of a combustion engine and its associated paraphernalia, along with the lack of hydrogen filling stations. There are very few in the UK today, but the adoption of hydrogen for trucks and buses has always been seen as a way to grow the hydrogen filling station network on major routes. 

California has long been a world leader in tackling vehicle emissions and work on hydrogen and fuel cells has continued there, driven largely by the California Fuel Cell Partnership, founded in 1999. The organisation launched its ‘2030 Vision’ program in 2018 with State government legislative and financial backing, which aims to put 1,000,000 fuel cell electric vehicles on California’s roads by 2030, served by 1,000 hydrogen filling stations. 

According to a 2019 report by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) responsible for administering funding for the stations, the network is expanding according to plan and it expects the interim target of 200 stations by 2025 to be met. However, it’s expressed concerns at car makers’ predicted future numbers of FCEVs in the US. According to CARB, the industry is forecasting 26,900 by 2022 and 48,000 by 2025, which doesn’t bode well for 1,000,000 in 2030. That’s not good news because if the cost of hydrogen is to fall, stations must be running at high capacity. 

For hydrogen to become cheaper, refuelling sites such as this ITM Power hydrogen station, need to become more numerous

UK consultant firm Ricardo has collaborated with the CaFCP to analyse the cost and logistics of supplying hydrogen at the point of sale. Its number crunching as of July 2018 was based on just under 5,000 FCEVs in California served by 35 hydrogen filling stations. On that basis it estimated that stations would be running at only around 50 per cent with the average cost of hydrogen at around $15 (£11.60) per kilogram. If the 2030 target can be met, it’s anticipated hydrogen prices will fall to as little as $3 (£2.30) per kilogram. At that price, a Toyota Mirai FCEV could cover close to 400 miles for £12.

According to the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership, there are only 13 hydrogen filling stations in the UK with another two in the planning stages but hydrogen is slowly beginning to gather momentum as a zero carbon fuel across the board, and this could encourage its use as a road transport fuel.

The Ofgem-funded HyDepoly trial announced in January and led by gas suppliers Cadent and Northern Gas Networks will run for 10 months supplying the University of Keele campus with a blend of natural gas and 20 per cent hydrogen. Second and third phases will involve public networks in the north-east of England. The project partners say that if the blend were rolled out across the UK, it would save six million tonnes of CO2 a year, equivalent to removing 2.5 million conventional cars from the roads. 

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