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 meaningful scale remain a future vision, a sort of tailpipe dream?

The potential benefits of hydrogen are well-documented. It can be produced relatively simply through the electrolysis of water, or as a by-product from fossil fuel or renewable energy production, to produce electricity and heat. It is light, storable, energy-dense – it carries three times as much energy as petrol, diesel, or jet fuel – and produces no direct pollutant or greenhouse gas emissions.

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Passenger electric vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells remain a distant goal, with governments and industry committed for the foreseeable future to wide-scale deployment of battery-powered electric vehicles (BEVs). A record-breaking 108,000 BEVs were sold in the UK alone last year.

However, hydrogen holds considerable promise as a way to decarbonise transport such as aircraft, trains, trucks, and buses. In March, the government announced funding to develop the next generation of electric trucks and hydrogen-powered buses. Three projects will receive more than £54m and could save 45 million tonnes of carbon emissions, equal to the total amount from 1.8 million cars over their lifetimes.

“Governments and industry worldwide are recognising that hydrogen is the best decarbonisation option for a range of heavy transport options,” says Celia Greaves Recent, founder and CEO of the UK Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association. “Research has highlighted how hydrogen could become the most competitive low-carbon option by 2030 for rail, medium and heavy-duty trucks, long-distance passenger cars, and long-distance buses.

“Unlike electric vehicles in these applications, hydrogen-fuelled fuel cell transport provides the range that users are looking for, and offers an experience comparable with current options; for example, with regard to refuelling times and payload. As deployment scales up and costs – both of vehicles themselves and infrastructure – come down, this will open more doors for hydrogen in transport.”

Emissions statement

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), global hydrogen production, 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 UK and Indonesia. The transition to net-zero will involve the replacement of this traditionally produced hydrogen with ‘blue hydrogen’, where the CO2 is captured and stored, and the production of hydrogen at scale from renewable sources.

The £54m 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 impact might this additional demand for hydrogen have on renewables capacity in the UK?

New analysis reported in the New Scientist suggests that switching to hydrogen trucks, buses, and cars in the UK would require about 2,000 more coastal wind turbines than if battery-powered vehicles were prioritised. The IEA also notes that the competitiveness of hydrogen cars depends on fuel cell costs and refuelling stations, while for heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) the priority is to reduce the delivered price of hydrogen.

Greaves cites recent research concluding that a hydrogen refuelling infrastructure “will be cheaper than electric charging for HGVs”, and says that the UK Government’s funding plans are a positive move.

“We welcome the support targeting the development and manufacture of low-cost hydrogen fuel cell technology for buses and the creation of a hydrogen centre of excellence with Wrightbus,” she states. “Beyond that, the UK Government needs to rapidly scale up its ambition and activity to ensure that hydrogen-fuelled transport can achieve its potential in helping to deliver net-zero.”

A healthy head start: renewable hydrogen production in the UK

A report published on 7 May by trade association RenewableUK notes that the country has a head start in the global race to scale up the production of renewable hydrogen, with trials underway such as the Gigastack project in the Humber and world-class electrolyser manufacturers like ITM Power.

“The UK already has world-class hydrogen production capability which, with the right support, could become a key export opportunity,” agrees Greaves. “Exports of offshore renewable hydrogen from the UK could supply a growing import demand from Europe, with a value of up to £48bn by 2050, contributing to a cumulative GVA [gross added value] of £320bn by 2050, mainly from global electrolyser exports.”

RenewableUK is urging the government to establish a minimum target of 5GW of green hydrogen electrolyser capacity by 2030, which “will help to provide clean fuel for sectors that have proved difficult to decarbonise so far, such as shipping and heat for heavy industry. Some of the vast amounts of electricity produced by offshore wind can be used to generate green hydrogen, which can be stored and used whenever it is needed, providing flexibility to our energy system”.

Published by the organisation in the run-up to the UN climate change summit in Glasgow in November, ‘Raising the bar: the world-leading energy commitments the UK should make ahead of COP26’ recommends that the UK aims for 30GW of onshore wind capacity by 2030, enough to power more than 19.5 million homes.

“Onshore wind development is critical to UK and global decarbonisation and, as the cheapest form of new power generation, could reduce energy bills, as well as supporting 31,000 UK jobs by 2035,” said RenewableUK in a press release marking the release of the report. “RenewableUK is urging the newly elected governments in Scotland and Wales to set an example to the world by outlining complimentary 2030 onshore wind targets to support an overarching 30GW ambition for the UK.”

Transporting 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 that are produced by extracting it from natural gas, for example, and that the complex fuel cells in vehicles that use it to generate power require constant maintenance?

“Not only are a substantial and growing amount (now up to 98%) of these emissions to be captured through carbon capture and storage, there is also a growing focus on hydrogen production from renewables to meet demand,” she says.

“Furthermore, leading environmental voices such the Committee on Climate Change, the IEA, and the World Energy Council have highlighted the key role that the technology can play in achieving net-zero, and a range of governments have established hydrogen strategies, targets, and 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 ‘grey hydrogen’ [produced using fossil fuels such as natural gas] by 2030, and efficiencies are progressively improving. A key benefit of a hydrogen fuel cell is that it has no moving parts, thus reducing maintenance requirements.”

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

“We need ambition and scale across hydrogen production, distribution, and use,” Greaves responds. “This extends not only to the development of UK hydrogen supply and the deployment of hydrogen-fuelled vehicles, but also the opportunity to grow UK capability and globally competitive companies.

“We need business models to make the financial case for hydrogen stronger. Other policy levers include a partial exemption for electrolysers from the use-of-system fees that apply to the electricity sector, a ten-year moratorium on VAT, and infrastructure funding from the Office for Zero Emission Vehicles.

“In transport, with similar support and a policy framework in place for fuel cells such as have been developed for batteries, the UK could become amongst the leaders in the global market. Initiatives similar to the Faraday Institute and UK Battery Innovation Centre should be established to support and accelerate fuel cell manufacture. Unlike batteries, there is still plenty to play for in this space.”