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Is hydrogen a potential future fuel for vans?


In the decarbonisation of logistics debate, vans are frequently held up as the segment ripe for electrification. But is there a case that hydrogen could be a contender fuel for the lighter side of the UK’s commercial fleet?

At last week’s Van Policy Working Group (7 October 2021), William Darby, a Senior Consultant at Element Energy, (pictured above) argued that hydrogen does have the potential to power the UK’s van fleet.

A zero-carbon energy strategy consultancy, Element Energy is engaged in developing hydrogen markets. Having worked on bus and passenger car projects, it is now looking to develop projects with the truck and van markets.  

“Hydrogen vehicles can match the duty cycle of the fossil equivalent,” Darby said, “Particularly in the lighter duty range they have the same range as a fossil equivalent vehicle.”

LOW CARBON TECHNOLOGY

Hydrogen is an ultra-low carbon technology, which emits only water vapour from the tailpipe. Darby argued that if the hydrogen is produced in an ultra-low carbon way, either by renewable electrolysis or methane reformation with carbon capture, it is essentially a zero-carbon fuel. Hydrogen filters the air as it goes and has the capacity to improve local air quality over and above removing polluting diesel vehicles. Hydrogen vehicles also have the benefit of only taking between three and ten minutes to refuel.

“It has the potential to create a lot of UK economic growth,” Darby said, “that comes from on-shoring UK fuel production – hydrogen can be produced as a fuel here in the UK.”

The UK market is very much geared towards hydrogen fuel cell manufacturing, Darby argued, as it is a relatively low consumer of natural resources compared to battery electric, where the lithium is sourced from China and Chile. “In the UK we’re all about high-skilled labour,” Darby said, “and that’s what hydrogen fuel cell and electrolyser technology relies on.”

HYUNDAI PROJECT SPARKS EXCITEMENT IN THE MARKET

A few years ago, the Hyundai Hydrogen Mobility project in Switzerland caused some excitement in the hydrogen market. It is a world-leading project to deploy around 50 Xcient fuel cell trucks, which recently exceeded one million kilometres and its aim by 2025 is to have 1,600 of these fuel cell trucks deployed.

“These vehicles are performing very well, operating reliably and with zero emissions,” Darby said, “This technology push has sparked support from a number of governments around the world,” including in Germany and the UK, which have their own hydrogen strategies.

Darby maintains that there is a hydrogen production push coming globally too. There is an increase in appetite in hydrogen production, not just its transport element but as a useful way of decarbonising heating and industrial applications too.

“Transport fits into that picture very much as a potential go-first opportunity for those industry business cases,” Darby said.

THE UK AGGREGATED HYDROGEN FREIGHT CONSORTIUM

The Aggregated Hydrogen Freight Consortium is a demand-led project to accelerate the deployment of fuel cell trucks and vans in the UK.

It drew inspiration from the Hyundai Hydrogen Mobility project, which used aggregated purchasing to allow a number of large operators to make relatively small commitments, with a partnering OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) and hydrogen supplier involved. As operators will not commit to large volumes of vehicles if there is no refuelling structure and hydrogen suppliers do not want to build a station if there is no guarantee that there will be sufficient demand, the way to break this impasse is by allowing a number of stakeholders to act in concert and ramp up supply and demand.

As a consultancy Element Energy is being sponsored by large industry players to form operator groups and take the aggregated demand for vehicles to van operators around the world, engage with them and make proposals for the number of vehicles.

The last piece of the jigsaw puzzle is making sure there is a valid refuelling strategy. “We are very aware van operators will not commit to vehicles until they are confident about the refuelling,” Darby said, “We are in concert with Logistics UK to engage with government and make sure there is a valid strategy and a viable business case for the operators.”

With government funding, Element Energy’s aim is to create a viable business case that is roughly equal in terms of total cost of ownership to a diesel vehicle within the next few years.

HYDROGEN VEHICLE SUPPLY

Element Energy is currently in a fuel cell vehicle partnering exercise with OEMs. There are four major parties in this process: the van operators, the OEMs, the hydrogen suppliers and government support. The first step is to get operators and OEMs aligned behind a particular vehicle. The second is to cluster these vehicles, as clustered deployments create large local demand for hydrogen. Element Energy then asks government for the funding and support required to make the vehicles viable. “Our mission here is to pave the way over the next four or five years for a wider commercial rollout of these fuel cell technologies,” Darby explained.

Following its survey of fleet operators, Element Energy identified the larger panel vans and the chassis cab vans as suitable for hydrogen power, particularly when the vehicles are being used as a tool. Battery electric is expected to cover the lighter vans, but heavier vans with power take offs were strongly proposed as hydrogen candidates by operators.

There are two household name OEMs that are proposing to bring hydrogen fuel cell vans to the UK: a medium-panel Vauxhall Vivaro E type chassis and a large panel Renault Master, that also has a box cab chassis on the back. The Vauxhall is expected in 2024 in right hand drive, whereas the Renault Master is potentially coming to the UK in 2022.

On cost, Darby said: “We’ve learned that the first fuel cell van technologies are not going to come out and be cost competitive with the standard diesel van that you might go out and buy today.”

Estimating that a hydrogen van may initially cost around £40k more than a battery vehicle equivalent, he explained that the extra costs came from having to install a fuel cell and the hydrogen tanks.

“Those costs will come down and we’ve seen some pathway from our van OEMs about what that will look like over the next five to ten years,” he said, “That’s why we need that support from the government to start with but at scale these vehicles can be relatively cap ex competitive and get down to what we see today with a diesel.”

HYDROGEN REFUELLING INFRASTRUCTURE

In the UK there are 15 stations scattered roughly evenly up and down the country, with a focus in west London. In terms of capacity, however, most of those stations have a low capacity and were built as “proof of concept” demonstrators.

Darby argued that hydrogen stations need to be scaled up to around a tonne a day in order to make refuelling for hydrogen vehicles cost effective and reliable.

“You need to be looking at good daily utilisation to be able to offer a pump price of hydrogen which is cost-competitive with diesel,” Darby said, “Generally, the rule of thumb is somewhere between five and seven pounds per kilo of hydrogen will get you cost competitive with taxed diesel today.”

The other benefit of scaling these stations up is that smaller stations only have one compressor and dispenser. Therefore, if anything in that system goes wrong the entire station goes down, which leads to poor station availability. Larger bus-based stations that supply around a tonne a day have several compressor trains and dispensers. If there is a problem or scheduled maintenance, one dispenser in the station can remain open leading to very high station availabilities.

Darby argued that the industry solution is for hydrogen van deployment to be focussed on large or medium-sized cities where there is a relatively large demand for vans.

“Five years ago, the only hydrogen vehicle products you could buy off-the-shelf were passenger cars and some buses,” he said, “as the technology is maturing the umbrella of products you can buy off the shelf is starting to expand.”

Darby said the industry is now pushing a multimodal approach where fuel cell buses are deployed in tandem with smaller inner-city trucks, refuse collection vehicles, taxis and vans.

A project Element Energy has been working on with Manchester City Council, with the support of Cadent Gas, is looking at two high-capacity stations, meaning if one station goes down there is still the capacity to refuel. The aim is to encourage a number of operators to own and operate small fleets of hydrogen vehicles and therefore learn about the technology with a view to scaling up those commitments in future.

“Our view and the industry view is if you subsidise the vehicle’s capital cost to get it roughly in line with TCO parity with a diesel vehicle and therefore get operators happy to commit to those volumes, you can then get hydrogen refuellers who are happy and willing to build stations based on initial hydrogen demands of hundreds of kilos per day,” Darby said, “We’ve engaged with a number of infrastructure providers who have said they are very much willing to provide the infrastructure if we can get the funding secured for the vehicles.”

That project has gone into the Spending Review submission and Element Energy is hoping that it will secure £10m of funding to invest in that deployment.

“The cities that we’re targeting are either large industrial cities where there are large fleets of vans operating or trucks and all types of hydrogen transport, combined with city councils who have already stated a large appetite for hydrogen mobility,” Darby said.

NEXT STEPS

The first phase is to trial the Renault and Vauxhall vans, which could happen as early as 2022. This will consist of very small trials of vehicles in cities like London, Birmingham and Aberdeen that have existing hydrogen stations that are either large enough or numerous enough to refuel reliably. Phase two is to look to those cities that have expressed much more interest, including the Tees Valley and Manchester.

“I would say if you are a van operator who is interested in making use of hydrogen technology or trialling it, these locations are the ones that you probably want to be working towards,” Darby said.

While you can deploy hydrogen vehicles anywhere, the start-up costs where there is no existing hydrogen refuelling station is probably going to be prohibitively expensive.

Element Energy is now relatively happy with its OEM partners and their suppliers and has operators aligned behind some vehicles.

“We’re now very much engaging in the specifics of deployment location, so we’re developing links with cities that have funding,” Darby said, “We’re hoping to secure some of that funding over the next five, six months and then the reality is that building a hydrogen station takes at best about 18 months.

“Realistically, unless you’re prepared to use stations that are already being constructed at the moment or have already been built, it’s end of ’23 or probably more like ’24 before you can really start deploying large volumes of vehicles into infrastructure that we would be happy to put our name behind as reliable and useful.”

*www.element-energy.co.uk

Published On: 14/10/2021 16:00:33

 



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