As the world races towards achieving net-zero ambitions, the role of hydrogen as a clean and flexible energy source has become a focal point in recent discussions. Much of this focuses on hydrogen’s allure as a clean and flexible energy source, especially in the context of heavy-duty transport. While battery electric vehicles (BEVs) dominate much of the conversation, it is the challenge of the unique requirements of heavy-duty vehicles (HDV) that hydrogen proponents come to the fore. Here we explore the potential of hydrogen to reshape the road to sustainable transport, focusing on its application in HDVs.
The decarbonisation challenge looms large in the medium- and heavy-duty vehicle sector. Despite constituting only 2% of the EU’s fleet, these vehicles contribute a staggering 28% of CO2 emissions from road freight. With road freight underpinning global supply chains, addressing this challenge becomes paramount. In this context, hydrogen emerges as a key contender due to its potential capacity to meet the energy requirements of HDVs, characterised by extended range, heavy payload capability, and high-power demands. In the current market, diesel remains the predominant fuel choice for HDVs, with electric vehicles representing only a fraction of operational global vehicles.
As battery electric vehicles (BEVs) continue to dominate the light-duty vehicle sector, the heavy-duty sector faces unique challenges. The weight, power, and range requirements of HDVs demand a fuel that is dense in energy and globally accessible. Diesel, currently constituting 96.3% of all HDV fuel use, falls short in meeting modern sustainability standards. Hydrogen, with its ability to offer fast refuelling, extended range, and flexibility as an energy carrier, using existing fuelling infrastructure, emerges as a potential game-changer.
Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles (FCEVs) utilise fuel cell stacks to convert hydrogen and oxygen into power, emitting only heat and water as byproducts. As a fuel source, hydrogen boasts an impressive list of benefits:
These attributes render FCEVs particularly attractive in scenarios prioritising fast refuelling, high energy density and remote locations. Many governments and corporations across Europe have recognised these merits, incorporating hydrogen into their sustainability strategies.
Hydrogen’s potential as an emissions free energy source for transport is undeniable, but its present reality involves a complex web of challenges. While “green hydrogen” embodies the sustainability ideal, produced through electrolysis powered by renewable energy sources, it remains a niche player due to current production costs and infrastructure challenges.
Currently, 99% of hydrogen produced globally is ‘grey hydrogen’, which is hydrogen made using fossil fuels. Any assessment on the environmental impact of hydrogen then hinges on its production methods.
For “green hydrogen” to be become economically feasible, significant efforts and investment is required to scale up production. Understanding this balance and hydrogen’s different classifications is essential for hydrogen to be part of the renewable energy future.
While hydrogen’s potential is undeniable, there are still significant challenges before it will be widely adopted.
Critics have raised concerns about its true viability, with the requisite technology required to make the wide-scale use of hydrogen feasible many years away. They argue that the focus on hydrogen therefore comes at the cost of investing and developing other electric solutions that may be more readily available and practical in the short-term. Using the rationale that the technology required to transition onto hydrogen at sufficient scale is indeed still decades away, some critics have even accused fossil fuel companies of promoting hydrogen to preserve their relevance in the short-term, through the continued use of oil imports and CO2 emissions for years to come.
Additionally, the transition to hydrogen faces both technological and infrastructural challenges, potentially delaying widespread adoption. Establishing hydrogen infrastructure poses a substantial challenge, requiring specialised facilities instead of utilising existing electricity infrastructure.
Concerns about the commercial scalability of hydrogen technology also persist. One specific challenge is the difficulty of producing electrolysers at scale that are durable and efficient enough to make mass production economically viable.
Other hurdles include energy losses during generation, transportation, and conversion, and uncertainties about hydrogen’s effectiveness for when compared to battery electric vehicles.
Amidst fervent discussion, hydrogen stands as a serious contender in the race towards a sustainable future. Ultimately, a balanced evaluation acknowledges hydrogen’s potential while understanding the intricacies and uncertainties surrounding its widespread adoption. Hydrogen’s role in the future of transport will become clearer as technology continues to evolve, but for the moment hydrogen looks likely to remains a pivotal player in the ongoing efforts to decarbonise the transportation sector.
Author: James Byrne