The debate over the future of the UK’s transport system has been all but won. The need for low carbon vehicles on our roads to address the damage of carbon and other harmful emissions associated with conventional fuels, is accepted by all three major political parties.
What remains is a debate about what the transport mix will look like in the years to come. Up to now the UK Government has seemed to favour the option of electric vehicles powered by a battery. Yet there are significant problems with the technology; not least the lack of range offered by electric cars and the hours it takes to charge them. One alternative is hydrogen powered transport, which would address both of these issues. Hydrogen cars have a range comparable with conventionally fuelled vehicles and take under four minutes to fuel.
Although the UK is beginning to develop a ‘backbone’ of hydrogen refuelling facilities developed by companies such as Air Products, these stations are currently limited to demonstration and research projects. However, in other countries, such as Germany the hydrogen transport infrastructure is far more developed. Germany boasts many more fuelling stations and already has hydrogen buses running on its roads as well as hydrogen powered submarines. For example, Air Products is involved in a project that harnesses the hydrogen produced by chemical plants to power local transport in the city of Hürth. The other thing that Germany has is a clear strategy for delivering a hydrogen infrastructure into the future.
The German model
Germany’s substantial hydrogen infrastructure began to emerge in the early noughties when the German Government along with the automotive industry and energy companies created a forum known as the Transport Energy Strategy.
This forum identified hydrogen as a promising fuel for the future. Versions of the demonstration projects like those happening today in the UK were then set up by the Government with the goal of proving that hydrogen is a feasible fuel. The projects were a success, so in 2006 the German Transport Minister set up a public-private partnership to share the burden of the next phase of development.
Alongside this the German Government established a National Innovation Plan (NIP), seeking to outline how to progress hydrogen and set up a body, the National Innovation Programme for Hydrogen and Fuel Cells (NOW), tasked with implementation. The plan was also allocated funds; Euro 1.4 billion covering the period 2007–2016.
The projects emerging from NOW are on a huge scale and with a clear strategy of supporting the market introduction of hydrogen fuel cell technology, through research and development as well as demonstration and market preparation projects. The NIP sets out how hydrogen infrastructure is expected to develop: it imagines the gradual build-up of infrastructure beginning in urban areas; the initial transportation of hydrogen by tanker and then eventually by pipelines; the localised production of hydrogen from natural gas and or biomass.
From this it supports projects that would see these projections become a reality. For example, during 2008 NOW launched the Callux project; a country wide residential fuel cell heating test programme.
Thus the German Government has worked with industry partners to set out a clear path to a hydrogen transport infrastructure. This is not to say that they have ignored other forms of low carbon transport - at the very same time, they have also set up a National Electric Partnership to promote the development of electric vehicles.
Hydrogen in the UK
The contrast with the approach of the UK Government is considerable. Although there are Government funded projects in the UK, what is missing is a coherent or a clear plan of how these projects will take hydrogen transport forward. A good example is the planned creation of a low carbon area for hydrogen in South Wales that was announced in February of this year.
Although an encouraging step for the hydrogen industry unfortunately the announcement was not accompanied by a strategy document or credible plan for success and there is no evidence yet of the much vaunted M4 hydrogen highway. Moreover, the organisation tasked with making it a success, the Regional Development Agency, faces abolition by the current Conservative Administration.
Even where positive steps had been taken towards developing a significant infrastructure, as was the case in London, much of this has been scaled back – the initial plans were for ten buses and a whole range of other hydrogen vehicles have been cut to just five buses and no other vehicles.
This is not to say that there has been no progress in the UK. The establishment of a Midlands hydrogen ring, which benefited from Government money, is doing great work in trialling hydrogen vehicles and has led to a spin-off company that makes its own hydrogen vehicles. But, this has been driven by private companies such as Air Products and the innovation of academics at the Universities of Birmingham, Loughborough and Coventry. While the London Mayor has plans to build on the hydrogen infrastructure that will come with the hydrogen buses set to begin running in London from this year.
Few would argue that now is the time for immediate large scale UK Government investment. Clearly, the state of the deficit and the public sector cuts make investment in new transport infrastructure a difficult sell. But it is not just the hydrogen industry calling for hydrogen transport to be taken more seriously – in recent months Transport Minister Mike Penning MP, the UK parliament’s Energy and Climate Change Select Committee and the Deputy Mayor of London Kit Malthouse have warned that the UK is neglecting hydrogen transport at its peril.
The UK Government should learn from the German model and work more closely with industry to establish clear goals for how a hydrogen transport infrastructure will develop in the UK. The Government and industry can then work together on a strategy for how to deliver this infrastructure. Air Products has been looking to learn from the German experience and has recently taken on Frank Schnitzeler who has been part of the German hydrogen strategy team in the past five years with Shell.
Transport is changing and if the UK has any ambition for being anything other than just a consumer of hydrogen technology then it must make progress fast. Moreover, the Government must acknowledge that vehicles relying on a battery simply will not be able to cope with UK road transport needs and must set out a strategy for delivering the only viable alternative; hydrogen.