The cynicism is unjustified – Hydrogen is the key to a clean transport future

The world’s largest free trade deal fundamentally re-shaped the future of Transportation – and no one noticed.

In December of 2017, the EU and Japan announced that they had agreed the terms of a vast international free trade deal. The deal, still subject to final approvals in the EU and from the Japanese diet, will create a combined economic free trade area of 600mn people worth 30% of GDP. But while the focus has been on the changes to agriculture, sustainability and regulatory alignment, a key provision has slipped almost unnoticed from the public eye. A regulatory drawbridge for hydrogen vehicles has been created.

In one of the most startling changes, barely noticed by the press, the EU have been allowed to sell hydrogen cars straight into the Japanese market, bypassing stringent legislation for Japanese specialist steel and labelling standards. In addition, the EU has agreed that “Furthermore, EU manufacturers that are not yet as far advanced in the development of this technology of the future can, thanks to the specific and much lighter conditions, import hydrogen fueled cars for testing and validation purposes and use the Japanese infrastructure of hydrogen filling stations to fine-tune their cars.”

Why does this matter? It matters because (arguably) the world’s most technologically advanced nation has bet big that the future of transportation will be Hydrogen and it is now luring all the world’s largest automakers to build out their R&D and manufacturing within Japan.

Hydrogen cars:

In 2020, Japan will host the Olympic games and the vehicles of those games will be hydrogen fueled. The aim is to put 40,000 hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (HFCVs) onto the roads by 2020, including over 160 charging spots. However global current sales of HFCVs are low, with only 1,600 sold in H1 of 2017. In part this is because the vehicle selection remains limited and the cheapest versions…are not that cheap. As a result, there are no shortage of critics. Elon Musk is famous for deriding the chances of hydrogen vehicles, a view widely shared amongst the lithium battery bulls.  However, with its ability to re-charge a car in under 5 minutes and its exceptional long range, the battle for vehicle dominance is far from over.

In only 5 years’ the global electric vehicle fleet has risen from ~50k cars to over 2mn worldwide, driven by government subsidies and falling costs as production increased. Analysts believe those same drivers could transform the hydrogen market too. In early 2017, Honda and GM announced targets for mass production of HFCVs by 2020, while Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, BMW and Daimler have committed $10.7 billion into research and development of hydrogen-based products over the next five years. There are now even a range of apps that can show you all the planned and current Hydrogen re-fueling points, like this one.

Granted, I am a confessed Hydrogen fan and have been so for a while. So in the interests of fairness, I also leave an attached rebuttal of the case for Hydrogen cars here, though it is a little dated. But regardless of whether Hydrogen will transform the light vehicle car market, there are plenty of other sectors where Hydrogen technology is likely to transform our transportation system.

De-carbonizing transport:

Depending on the source, transportation accounts for between 14% and 23% of global greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). This sector is also growing rapidly, as aspiring middle class citizens seek to travel more and to own their own forms of transport. Ride-sharing, urbanization and automated driving all offer potential avenues in the longer term, however poor urban planning, under-educated regulators and significant cost challenges will ensure that these solutions are unable to meaningfully reduce emissions until 2040 if not later. Moreover, they only deal with the simplest solution of all, light duty vehicles.

Using IEA estimates from the Global Tracking framework, a joint World Bank and IEA publication, global renewable transport numbers remain a significant concern for efforts to de-carbonise the global energy system. According to the IEA, Electric vehicles must reach 160mn by 2030 to meet the 2 degrees target set at Paris and over 200mn to reach the below 2 degrees target. In other words, the world has to manufacture and sell at least 158mn EVs in 13 years globally, mostly fueled by clean electricity and with sufficient grid infrastructure to handle re-charging.

Achieving the Paris commitments for light duty electric vehicles alone should put pause to the idea that we can electrify shipping, aviation, rail and heavy freight with batteries as well meeting the Paris commitments for electric light duty vehicles. The only credible alternatives are hydrogen, LNG or CNG.

Compare and contrast: the new Tesla truck with the Nikola Two. The Tesla truck will have a maximum range of 300-500 miles and will require 30 minutes of full charge to add 400miles. It will also require the equivalent demand from the grid of 3,000 – 4,000 UK homes when it is charging. That is per truck…In contrast, the Nikola Two can cover 800 – 1,200 miles with a 15 minute re-fuel time. The bigger brother of the Nikola Two, the Nikola One, has similar statistics but has received $2.3bn in pre-orders, totaling over 8k. Nikola isn’t the only company in the field either. Toyota has its own project, called “Project portal”, while Kenworth is examining HFCV options as well.

Looking at the aviation space, Hydrogen fuel cell planes have already been developed and successfully tested, including the HY4 passenger craft. The plane already has a range of 1,500 kilometers and expansions for a 19 passenger plane are underway. By contrast, experts from WIRED estimated that electric batteries will take until 2045 to have a commercially viable battery plane available. Even in the smaller plane segment, the current record distance set for an EV plane is 300 miles in a two seater plane, largely modelled on a glider technology.

In freight, Alstrom and Hydrogenics already have tested Hydrogen on trains in Germany, while Ontario is looking at Hydrogen trains to replace the current rolling stock on the GO rail network. Aside from promoting local businesses, the trains are almost silent and emit none of the harmful particles associated with diesel or other fuel sources. There clearly will remain a role for electrification of urbanized rail, but even in a small landmass like the UK, the costs of electrifying entire train lines have forced planners to move towards mixed fuel and electrification trains. In this regard, Hydrogen is likely to compliment electrification for long distance commuter trains. The UK is already considering this option.

Then we have shipping. The maritime industry is one of the worst sources of pollution in coastal cities, with cities like Hong Kong calculating that 50% of all locally produced air pollution comes from the maritime industry. In Norway, parts of Canada and the USA, various attempts to introduce LNG bunkering have produced significant results in reducing maritime emissions, with Vice estimating 20% less CO2 emissions per ship, but hydrogen is likely to be the next major frontier. So far both Viking Cruises and Royal Caribbean have committed to procuring hydrogen powered ships, while Norway’s Fiskerstrand Holding AS is building a hydrogen ferry and the Port of San Francisco is mulling a $5mn investment in a Hydrogen fueling station. They are unlikely to be the last movers.

But perhaps the most surprising thing about Hydrogen now is its wider application in more niche services. For Amazon, hydrogen fuel cells have allowed the firm to revolutionize its warehousing forklifts, so much so that the company invested $70mn into a fuel cell company called Plug Power, while Walmart reacted with its own investment of $80mn in the same firm. Why? Well according the leading US body NREL, hydrogen fuel cell forklifts are at least 10% cheaper than alternatives over a 10 year investment. But the effect is not limited to forklifts. Amazon now uses Hydrogen powered drones in its warehouses to monitor inventory. With a flight time of two hours, compared to 30 minutes for a comparable electric powered drone, Pincs aerial drones offer savings of up to 5% of the total inventory stock.

Final comments:

On our current global trajectory there is almost zero chance of the world reaching its Paris climate commitments, let alone the wider level of agreement needed to reduce CO2 emissions below the two degrees limit by the middle of the century.

Our energy system is going through the most rapid transformation in its history. It is going to be messy, complicated and littered with failures. It is going to cost more than it may have done had we guessed everything right at the start, and for decades there will be debates around this subject. But one thing is clear. Without hydrogen in transportation, there is no clear evidence that we can save our planet.

In 2003 to 2004, the UK government overwhelmingly backed the idea that Hydrogen would be a key fuel of the future. Like most new ideas, the hype came early and failed to deliver. In product innovation this is often the case. The boom was preceded by the explosion of the internet almost a decade later, with the worlds largest companies all being tech stocks. Electric vehicles themselves were considered the car of the future….in the 1900’s!! Yet it took over 100 years to become the new focus of policymakers hopes for a clean transportation future.

Hydrogen has had a lot of bad press, some of its deserved. But if we are serious about climate change, investors need to drop the cynicism and engage with the technology.


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