Could UK renewable energy capacity cope with a hydrogen vehicle boom?


Will hydrogen ever be a viable option for the UK transport sector, or will the use of hydrogen fuel cells in trucks, buses and cars on a significant scale remain a viable option? vision of the future, a sort of escape dream?

The potential benefits of hydrogen are well documented. It can be produced relatively simply by electrolysis of water, or as a by-product of the production of fossil fuels or renewable energy, to generate electricity and heat. It is light, storable, energy dense – it carries three times more energy than gasoline, diesel or jet fuel – and does not produce direct emissions of pollutants or greenhouse gases.

Hydrogen fuel cell-powered passenger electric vehicles remain a distant target, with governments and industry pledged for the foreseeable future to deploy battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) on a large scale. A record 108,000 BEV was sold in the UK alone last year.

However, hydrogen holds great promise as a means of decarbonising transportation such as planes, trains, trucks and buses. In March, the government announced funding to develop the next generation of electric trucks and hydrogen buses. Three projects will receive more than £ 54million and could save 45million tonnes of carbon emissions, the total amount of 1.8million cars over their lifetimes.

“Governments and industry around the world recognize that hydrogen is the best decarbonization option for a range of heavy haul options,” says Celia Greaves Recent, Founder and CEO of the UK Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association. “Research has shown how hydrogen could become the most competitive low-carbon option by 2030 for rail, medium and heavy trucks, long-haul passenger cars and long-haul buses.

“Unlike electric vehicles in these applications, hydrogen fuel cell transportation offers the range users want and offers an experience comparable to current options; for example, with regard to refueling times and payload. As deployment increases and costs – both of the vehicles themselves and of infrastructure – decrease, this will open more doors for hydrogen in transportation.

Emissions declaration

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the world’s production of hydrogen, almost entirely from natural gas and coal, is responsible for around 830 million tonnes of CO2 per year, equivalent to the combined emissions of the United Kingdom and Indonesia. The transition to net zero will involve replacing this traditionally produced hydrogen with blue hydrogen, where CO2 is captured and stored, and large-scale hydrogen production from renewable sources.

The £ 54million funding announcement builds on the recent launch of the UK government’s national ‘Bus Back Better’ strategy and the Prime Minister’s 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution – but what an impact could this additional demand for hydrogen have on the capacity of renewable energies in the United Kingdom? ?

New analysis reported in New scientist suggests that the switch to hydrogen-powered trucks, buses and cars in the UK would require around 2,000 more coastal wind turbines than if battery-powered vehicles were given priority. The IEA also notes that the competitiveness of hydrogen cars depends on the costs of fuel cells and refueling stations, while for heavy goods vehicles (heavy goods vehicles) the priority is to reduce the delivery price of hydrogen.

Greaves cites recent research concluding that a hydrogen refueling infrastructure “will be cheaper than electric charging for heavy goods vehicles”, and says the UK government’s funding plans are a positive step.

“We welcome the support for the development and manufacture of low cost hydrogen fuel cell technology for buses and the creation of a hydrogen center of excellence with Wrightbus,” she said. . “Beyond that, the UK government must quickly step up its ambition and activities to ensure that hydrogen-powered transport can realize its potential by helping to achieve net zero.”

A head start: renewable hydrogen production in the UK

A report published on May 7 by the professional association Renewable notes that the country has a head start in the global race to increase renewable hydrogen production, with ongoing trials such as the Gigastack project in the Humber and world-class electrolyzer manufacturers like ITM Power.

“The UK already has world-class hydrogen production capacity which, with the right support, could become a key export opportunity,” Greaves acknowledges. “Exports of renewable hydrogen at sea from the UK could meet growing import demand from Europe, worth up to £ 48 billion by 2050, contributing to cumulative GVA [gross added value] £ 320 billion by 2050, mainly from global exports of electrolyzers. “

RenewableUK urges the government to set a minimum target of 5 GW of green hydrogen electrolyser capacity by 2030, which “will help provide clean fuel for sectors that have proven difficult to decarbonize so far, such as as maritime transport and heating for heavy industry. Some of the large amounts of electricity produced by offshore wind can be used to produce green hydrogen, which can be stored and used whenever needed, thus providing flexibility to our energy system ”.

Posted by the organization ahead of the UN climate change summit in Glasgow in November, ‘Raising the bar: key energy commitments the UK should make ahead of COP26“Recommends that the UK aim for onshore wind capacity of 30 GW by 2030, enough to power over 19.5 million homes.

“The development of onshore wind is critical to decarbonization in the UK and around the world and, as the cheapest form of new electricity generation, could lower energy bills, as well as support 31,000 jobs in the UK by 2035, ”RenewableUK said in a press release marking the release of the report. . “RenewableUK urges the newly elected governments of Scotland and Wales to lead the world by setting complementary onshore wind targets for 2030 to support an overall ambition of 30 GW for the UK.

Taking hydrogen to the next level

How does Greaves respond to critics who argue that the benefits of hydrogen are matched or even outweighed by the emissions produced by its extraction from natural gas, for example, and that the complex fuel cells of the vehicles that use it to produce it? of energy require constant maintenance?

“Not only does a substantial and increasing amount (now up to 98%) of these emissions have to be captured by carbon capture and storage, but there is also an increasing emphasis on the production of hydrogen from renewable energies to meet demand, ”she said.

In addition, leading environmental voices such as the Committee on Climate Change, IEA and the World Energy Council have highlighted the key role that technology can play in achieving net zero, and a number of governments have established hydrogen strategies, goals and targets. funding.

“In energy intensive industries, hydrogen is the only practical option. With the right support, the costs of low and zero carbon are expected to fall below those of “ gray hydrogen ” [produced using fossil fuels such as natural gas] by 2030, and efficiency gains are gradually improving. One of the main advantages of a hydrogen fuel cell is that it has no moving parts, which reduces the need for maintenance. “

In conclusion, what needs to be done now in terms of government policy, R&D and infrastructure development to make hydrogen a viable option in the UK transport sector on a significant scale?

“We need ambition and scale for the production, distribution and use of hydrogen,” Greaves responds. “This extends not only to the development of the UK hydrogen supply and the deployment of hydrogen powered vehicles, but also the opportunity to develop the capacity of the UK and competitive businesses to l global scale.

“We need business models to strengthen the financial case for hydrogen. Other policy levers include a partial exemption for electrolysers from the user fees for the system that apply to the electricity sector, a ten-year moratorium on VAT and the financing of infrastructure by the Vehicle Office. zero emission.

“In transport, with similar support and a policy framework in place for fuel cells such as those developed for batteries, the UK could become a leader in the global market. Initiatives similar to those of the Faraday Institute and the UK Battery Innovation Center should be put in place to support and accelerate the manufacture of fuel cells. Unlike drums, there is still a lot to play in this space.

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