Earlier this year, the UK Department for Transport issued a call for ideas for its low-carbon fuels strategy. The rallying cry invited feedback from stakeholders regarding the priorities that need to be considered in order to establish a long-term strategy, including areas to be addressed, approaches to be taken, and ideas relating to procedure and practice.
Over the last decade, low carbon fuels (LCFs), supported by policies such as the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation, have provided one of the main means of decarbonising the transport sector. LCFs include a range of liquid and gaseous fuels, such as ammonia, biofuels and renewable hydrogen, which deliver significant carbon savings when compared to fossil fuels.
Of all the LCFs currently available, Haskel believes that hydrogen is the most promising because it offers a refuelling experience that is comparable to existing methods and is becoming increasingly accepted around the world as a way to decarbonise vehicles such as HGVs and buses, in particular.
For example, we’ve supplied infrastructure for a 74-bus refuelling station in China for the Beijing Winter Olympics. In total, the event saw the creation of 30 hydrogen refuelling stations serving more than 800 fuel cell electric buses.
We’ve also worked with industrial gases specialist Coregas to install a AUS$1 million full refuelling system and dispenser for Australia’s first commercial, hydrogen-powered, heavy vehicle refuelling station at Coregas’s hydrogen production facility at Port Kembla, New South Wales.
Greater ambition required
If the UK is to develop a coherent low-carbon fuels strategy, messages from government will need to provide greater strategic clarity and show more ambition than we’ve seen until now. Although last year’s launch of the Hydrogen Strategy was welcome, the document contained little detail on plans for a network of hydrogen refuelling stations across the UK, something that will be fundamental to establishing low-carbon fuels as a credible alternative to petrol and diesel.
Contrast this approach with that of the New Zealand government, which has invested NZ$22 million to enable our partner Hiringa to roll out hydrogen refuelling infrastructure across the whole country over the next five years. We’re pleased to be supporting Hiringa as it installs eight refuelling stations across the north and south islands, with a further 16 stations due to be introduced from 2024.
Relatively small-scale investment
Because the UK and NZ are similar-sized countries, it’s interesting to compare their approaches to rolling out hydrogen refuelling infrastructure. We calculate that a maximum of 30 refuelling stations would be enough to cover the whole of the UK, banishing range anxiety and creating security of supply at a stroke.
The example of New Zealand’s rollout has demonstrated a working model, and we believe that similar benefits could be delivered more quickly in the UK if our government was more prescriptive.
While it’s imperative that the rollout of EV charging infrastructure is supercharged if we are serious about reducing transport-related carbon emissions, the scale of investment needed to install the necessary charge point infrastructure in the decade up to 2030 is estimated to cost at least £8 billion. By comparison, the cost of installing 30 hydrogen stations would be a relative drop in the ocean and represent a quick and easy win.
Start with HGVs and buses
Any low-carbon fuels strategy for the UK should begin by focusing on medium-to-large HGVs and then consider buses. Once refuelling stations for HGVs have been installed and commissioned, long-haul buses could also refuel at the same locations.
But in towns and cities, stations need to be located at buses’ stop and start points, which are usually depots out, or on the edge, of the urban area.
The issue of hydrogen supply
However, before we can start thinking in great detail about hydrogen refuelling infrastructure, we need to consider the issue of hydrogen supply. As things currently stand, we won’t need to get many fuel cell electric vehicles on the road before we’ll run out of available hydrogen. So that needs addressing as urgently, if not more urgently, than the availability of refuelling infrastructure. And, of course, that hydrogen needs to be green, otherwise we’re fooling ourselves in terms of decarbonisation.
Equally, new hydrogen transport infrastructure is desperately needed to get the hydrogen to where it needs to be. Such infrastructure does already exist, but it needs to be expanded and updated, which will require significant investment. Northern Gas Networks and others are investigating ways of using the existing gas network to transport hydrogen around the country.
Ultimately, the UK needs to show more urgency and ambition if we are to reap the benefits of a low-carbon fuels strategy in the necessary timeframe. The European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association recommends that “in order to facilitate the roll-out of hydrogen-powered vehicles, the relevant [Alternative Fuels Infrastructure Regulation] targets (and related requirements) should be set earlier than 2030.”
We suggest that a similar revision in targets needs to happen in the UK. In fact, the government hasn’t published any concrete targets for the rollout of hydrogen refuelling stations, so that would be a good place to start.