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Hydrogen: Playing the long game

Date: 23 May 2017   |   Author: Debbie Wood

The negative press surrounding diesel and the constant pressure to meet air quality targets has thrust alternatively fuelled vehicles into the limelight over recent years.

We've talked a lot about electric cars over previous issues and they're becoming a more frequent sight on company car fleets now too. Being fit for purpose is absolutely essential when it comes to EV adoption and there's still a great deal of work to be done when it comes to infrastructure, but most are coming round to the idea and considering the technology as a viable alternative to petrol and diesel.

So what about hydrogen?

Although the technology has been around for a number of years now, fuel-cell vehicles are still relatively unknown to many. The process of converting hydrogen into electric power and emitting water from a car's tailpipe sounds like something only seen in a Harry Potter movie, but actually, with the right infrastructure in place, hydrogen can offer a sustainable and practical solution for UK transport.

Hydrogen's biggest issue is around awareness. Not enough people know about the technology or the benefits it can bring. In this article we attempt to break it down and explore how fleets could use hydrogen in the future and how they compare to EVs.

How is hydrogen produced?

One of the key benefits to hydrogen technology is the fact that it can be produced and stored en masse. In fact, according to Toyota, there's already enough hydrogen produced annually to fuel 250 million vehicles.

Hydrogen is generally created as part of an industrial by-product from burning fossil fuels or natural gas reforming - so it's not exactly green, which is a key criticism for the technology. It can also be produced using electricity through electrolysis of water, a much cleaner option, but the process is currently very expensive to do over using fossil fuels.

Although the production of hydrogen isn't necessarily 'green', it can be locally made and stored and produces zero emissions once on the road. The refuelling process for the driver is not so different to that of a petrol or diesel car - you use a pump to fill the car with hydrogen, pay and then go. It takes only a couple of minutes longer than refilling a combustion engine.

What happens inside the car is a little trickier to explain. In a nutshell, once fuelled, a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen takes place, assisted by a membrane that only allows the hydrogen protons to travel through to reach the oxygen. The meeting of these two elements creates electric power that is in turn stored in a battery and thus powers the car. Water is the by-product of this chemical reaction and the car disposes of it through its tailpipe.

Infrastructure issues

If electric technology is criticised for a lack of infrastructure, then hydrogen is in deep water here, with just nine public refuelling stations currently installed around the UK. However, this is set to grow as the UK Government has just launched a £23m fund to build hydrogen fuel stations that will kick-start this summer, with providers able to bid for funding to help build new sites.

As well as the Government support, a hydrogen consortium has been created that consists of 13 leading energy, transport and industry companies including big names like Shell, BMW, Toyota, Mercedes-Benz, Alstom, Total and Engie, which are investing £9bn globally into hydrogen technology in transport areas like shipping, freight, buses and cars.

Electric cars don't have as much of an issue when it comes to infrastructure. Although slow, getting access to a domestic power socket to recharge is fairly easy for most and the availability of public charging is growing almost daily, with increasing numbers of rapid chargers being installed to help EVs become more fit for purpose.

Although plug-in vehicles are a more practical solution for now in terms of availability and infrastructure, there are currently big question marks around whether or not the grid would be able to cope with recharging if sales were to increase. A recent report from Green Alliance claims that the UK's power infrastructure isn't ready and even if just a handful charge their car on one street, it would cause electricity imbalances and 'brownouts', which in turn could damage powerlines.

The report predicts that these reinforcement costs could reach as high as £36bn by 2050 if uptake continues.

To prevent this a mixture of different powertrain solutions is needed for the future. Although viewed by many as competitors, hydrogen and electric vehicles could, and should, work alongside one another.

Range concerns

Putting cost to one side for a moment, range is probably the biggest issue for many fleets looking to adopt electric vehicles. Although technology is improving, for long-distance journeys they're still not quite suitable.

The latest Renault Zoe offers one of the best ranges around - 250 miles per charge officially. However, there are certain things that significantly impact the car's range. Driving style and the type of roads you travel on is a big one, especially if you drive on the motorway often, which can halve the car's range because the battery has to work harder.

This is the same for fuel cell vehicles because it's electricity which powers the car.
Weather is another contributing factor, with winter significantly denting an EV's range. Hydrogen has the advantage here, as fuel cells aren't affected by the cold like batteries.
Fuel cell vehicles don't have the same range limitations as battery-powered vehicles either because they can simply store more hydrogen fuel.

Current cars can travel up to 400 miles per fill-up and the speed of refuelling versus charging an electric battery means drivers won't need to wait around to continue their journey either.

The first Toyota Mirai hydrogen cars delivered to Green Tomato, a private car hire service in London, completed 30,000 miles in 18 months, which shows even with limited infrastructure hydrogen has the practicality edge over EVs.

Now comes cost

Electric vehicles are far from cheap to buy compared with petrol and diesel cars, although the savings achieved by charging one on a daily basis versus petrol or diesel helps to justify the initial outlay. The cost of running an electric car could be as little as 2p per mile according to experts, if plugged in during off-peak times.

The same cannot be said for hydrogen.You could currently buy two Renault Zoes (one of the cheapest electric cars currently on sale) for the price of a Toyota Mirai and still have change in your pocket.

Prices will undoubtedly go down as uptake increases, but it will certainly be a key stumbling block for sales in the short term. Refuelling costs a little more than petrol and diesel too. The station we visited recently cost £9.99 per kg of hydrogen (the Toyota Mirai can hold 5kg of hydrogen), but these prices will inevitably go down as demand and uptake increases.

The future

With over 30 plug-in models available, fleet managers and drivers are not short of options when it comes to choosing an electric car, and this figure is going to continue to rise over the coming years.

According to recent AA research, it is expected that there will be more than 500,000 electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles in use by 2020, a significant jump on the approximate 95,000 currently registered today.

Hydrogen is very much an emerging technology. There are currently only three cars available to buy in different markets - the Toyota Mirai, Hyundai ix35 and Honda Clarity, although the latter will not come to the UK until around 2020.

Battery-powered electric vehicles may have a head start on fuel cell vehicles but technology is advancing rapidly. Both suffer infrastructure issues and range is something that will continue to hinder EV take-up for many years yet.

While hydrogen isn't quite ready to be adopted here in the UK, it's one to watch and could be more fit for purpose for fleets in the future.

With so much change and technological advancement happening in the world of automotive, it's hard to say what the company car park will look like in five years' time. What is clear is that both hydrogen and electric power will have a key role to play.