April 2020 was a historic month for more reasons than one. Oil consumption fell by record amounts, driven by lockdowns across the globe, with prices plunging into negative territory as producers scrambled to shift supply that they simply didn’t have capacity to store. By comparison, renewable technologies outperformed other generation technologies in powering our homes, due to their tendency to have grid preference as a result of how cheaply they produce electricity, resulting in renewables taking the lion-share of the UK’s energy mix for a longer period than ever before.
Outside of our homes and places of work, the reduction in pollution following lockdown has not only reignited, but accelerated, the debate as to the role of fossil fuels in our transport systems.
Whilst lithium-ion battery technology continues to be the most developed of the technological solutions to the issue of vehicle emissions, investors and energy giants alike have been increasingly giving serious attention to a solution which for a long time seemed like it would forever be “the future of energy” – hydrogen.
There are a number of challenges to be overcome if the UK is to reach NetZero by 2050, and moving the transport industry away from fossil-fuels and onto clean technologies is right at the forefront. We are only at the beginning, however strides made by electric vehicles to date, and their rapidly increasing market share is hugely encouraging.
Although lithium-ion batteries have a head-start in the personal car market, hydrogen fuel cell technology is not as far behind as some may think, with Toyota having released the Mirai mid-sized hydrogen fuel cell car back in 2014. Meanwhile Transport for London is already operating hydrogen single decker buses, with plans to roll out hydrogen double decker buses, and it is in fleet deployment of this nature where hydrogen may have its biggest use-case yet.
One of the major concerns of commercial fleet operators is vehicle downtime. Whereas personal car users may be happy to leave their car charging whilst they go grab a coffee at the service station, or simply won’t commonly drive sufficient distances in a day to require re-charging in public locations, commercial fleet operators whose business depends on driving hundreds of miles a day to a tightly prescribed schedule have raised concerns that being unable to refuel in a matter of minutes will be massively detrimental to their operations. Taxi drivers, for example, need to maximise the number of passengers they can pick up per day, delivery drivers need to maximise the number of deliveries they make, and logistic operations depend on lorries being able to delivery their goods in a clockwork like manner. Every 30 minutes lost hits revenue for the company and, depending on the industry, the drivers themselves.
Here, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles may provide the answer. Fuel cell vehicles have a greater range than battery electric vehicles, with fuel cell buses typically being able to achieve between 300km to 450km before needing to refuel, with the typical refuelling time being 7 minutes, although work is underway to reduce this to 5 minutes.
Whilst hydrogen buses are already here, and many reading this article will have used one, hydrogen taxi fleets are also being trialled. In October 2019 private-hire firm Green Tomato Cars announced that its hydrogen fleet of taxis had covered over 1 million miles, with each vehicle saving four times its own weight in CO2 emissions. In the large transport sector, in 2019 Hyundai reported that 1,600 hydrogen fuel cell trucks had been ordered for use in Switzerland, to be delivered between 2020 and 2025. Meanwhile, in the aviation industry, ZeroAvia are due to carry out a demonstrative test flight of their hydrogen fuel cell powered small passenger aircraft this summer, which will see the aircraft travel the equivalent of London to Edinburgh.
Across a broad range of sectors, hydrogen technology is already here and amongst us, perhaps to a greater extent than many realise. However there are still a number of challenges to be overcome.
Significant investment in infrastructure will be needed to ensure the viability of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, not only for the convenience of refuelling, but also to bring green hydrogen (hydrogen produced using electricity from renewable sources) down to cost parity with grey hydrogen (hydrogen produced using fossil fuels), and even fossil fuels themselves.
As ever, where there are challenges, there are opportunities. Those who got on board early with Electric Vehicle technology and infrastructure are now ahead of a rapidly growing market and are reaping the benefits of that early investment. There will of course be ups and downs, and hydrogen is not the only technology vying for space in this market, but with Allied Market Research predicting growth from $651.9m in 2018, to $42.03bn in 2026, there is no doubt that hydrogen has significant potential.
This publication is intended for general guidance and represents our understanding of the relevant law and practice as at June 2020. Specific advice should be sought for specific cases. For more information see our terms & conditions
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