A role for hydrogen in the push for net zero? 

November, 2022 - Shoosmiths LLP

While originally opened to great fanfare between 2017 and 2019, over the course of 2022 Shell has discreetly closed down all of its UK hydrogen filling stations, citing that "the prototype technology had reached the end of its life".

This decision is perhaps not surprising, given the low volume of domestic fuel-cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) on UK roads. Currently, only two domestic FCEVs are commonly available in the UK - the Toyota Mirai and Hyundai Nexo - with sales of both in steady decline. To compound this, Det Norske Veritas predicts that, by 2050, only 0.01% of the world’s cars will run on hydrogen and so, at least in a domestic sense, this trend looks set to continue! Furthermore, by way of a comparison with battery electric vehicles (BEVs), there are now only 11 hydrogen pumps in the UK, compared to more than 57,000 public electric-vehicle charging points.

So, while BEVs appear to be leading the way for future mobility in the domestic automotive sector, a number of questions arise when scaling-up this technology for heavy-duty, commercial use, namely:

  • can battery technology continue to make improvements to improve the power-to-weight ratio, where space and weight are more pressing concerns than in the domestic market;
  • can electricity generation and the electricity grid cope with charging (and, possibly, fast-charging) multiple battery trucks at the same time; and
  • could the existing charging infrastructure be updated and extended to cope with battery trucks?

Shell’s decision is by no means an admission of defeat and, in fact, signals a desire to refocus and explore opportunities to build “multi-modal hubs for heavy-duty trucks” in the UK, utilising the learnings from its experience with domestic hydrogen filling stations and applying them to its future network and infrastructure. Indeed, there are good reasons to be looking at hydrogen as a viable option for these applications with hydrogen seen as having potential advantages over BEV equivalents, such as:

  • faster refuelling times; and
  • greater range without needing to give more space over to batteries.

Furthermore, this refocussing comes at a time when hydrogen continues to make major in-roads in the mobility sector across Europe with ongoing projects such as: (i) H2Haul aiming to deploy zero-emission fuel cell trucks in multiple countries, alongside new high-capacity refuelling stations; and (ii) JIVE seeking to deploy over 100 zero-emission fuel cell buses across multiple countries. In addition:

  • JCB is actively exploring hydrogen as a viable alternative to internal combustion and electrification;
  • British electric truck manufacturer Tevva recently unveiled a new long-range hydrogen fuel heavy goods vehicle; and
  • British commercial vehicle start-up Hydrogen Vehicle Systems this week revealed plans to "disrupt the haulage industry" with the launch of a zero-emission hydrogen-electric truck.

From 2025, heavy-duty vehicles will be subject to stricter limitations on their CO2 emissions, meaning that hydrogen may actually come into its own as a viable (and, in fact, preferable) carbon-free alternative for long-range mobility, finally realising its significant potential, both economically (quicker refuelling times leading to less vehicle ‘downtime’) and environmentally.

 



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