Matthew Tipper, vice-president for new fuels at Shell, explains why the company is harnessing hydrogen-powered technologies in the transport sector
"Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe – and one of the most useful. Practically anything that uses energy can be powered by it. It has the potential to play an important part in the transition to a low-carbon world."
Keeping cars moving
Hydrogen’s usefulness is probably most obvious in the transport sector. Electric vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells can cover long distances between fuel stops and refuel as quickly as petrol or diesel cars. When the fuel is produced at the refuelling stations using renewable power, it creates virtually no greenhouse gas emissions. The vehicles emit only water from their tailpipes. So, as with battery-electric vehicles, they can keep people and goods moving while reducing emissions and the pollution created by traffic in our towns and cities.
The benefits of hydrogen power are starting to be realised here in the UK. For example, London’s Metropolitan Police recently rolled out a fleet of hydrogenpowered cars and they are planning to buy more. The quick refuelling time and long range make them ideal zeroemission response vehicles. In line with the Mayor of London’s work to improve air quality in the capital, the Met is also trialling seven hydrogen-powered scooters, on loan from Suzuki.
But more needs to be done to establish hydrogen as a practical transport fuel. Collaboration between governments, vehicle manufacturers and energy companies is essential for developing the infrastructure to make any emerging fuel a viable alternative for motorists. Hydrogen is no exception. To fulfil its potential, both the vehicles and refuelling points must be available at the same time. It’s not a case of which comes first – we need the chicken and egg to emerge simultaneously. This is biologically impossible, but technically and commercially doable for hydrogen – if there’s a will.
Consistent, sustainable government policy is a key element for increasing hydrogen’s role in the economy. It was encouraging to hear, at the end of March, that the UK government will help fund a project we are involved in to increase the number of hydrogen refuelling stations and vehicles in Britain. The project – managed by low-carbon consultants Element Energy and combining the expertise of Shell, Toyota, Honda, Hyundai and hydrogen-specialists ITM Power – will enable hydrogen vehicles to travel around the country. The importance of working together across industries and across the world is also why Shell and other companies launched the Hydrogen Council in 2017. This global coalition of energy, technology and automotive company leaders seeks to accelerate the use of hydrogen in the transition to a lower-carbon world.
Getting the right energy mix
Although at Shell we see great longterm promise in hydrogen, we also believe that a range of technologies will be needed to help reduce carbon emissions while keeping the world economy moving. Doing so will require a variety of fuels, including petrol and diesel, depending on the needs of the traveller or freight to be transported.
In wealthier countries like the UK, battery-electric vehicles are increasingly popular, despite remaining relatively expensive to buy. We are working to meet the needs of a rising number of drivers who own them across Europe. Over time, we expect battery technologies to become more competitive with combustion engines and for their use to gather pace in parts of Europe, Asia and North America.
Shell began offering fast charging for battery-electric vehicles at some of its retail sites in the UK last year and plans to open more in 2018. We have also recently acquired NewMotion, one of Europe’s largest providers of electric vehicle charging points, and we are working with high-powered charging network developer IONITY to offer super-fast chargers across Europe.
Building the future of hydrogen
But back to the future of hydrogen, and our efforts to build that future. We opened our first UK hydrogen filling station in partnership with ITM Power at the Cobham service station on the M25 in 2017, opened one in Beaconsfield in early 2018, and plan to open another at our Gatwick Airport retail site soon.
Hydrogen-electric energy initiatives are emerging in other parts of the world, too, where government support allows. For example, the German government is supporting the growth of a national network of around 400 hydrogen fuelling stations across the country by 2023. This is an ambitious project, and we’re working on it with partners in a joint venture. We now have 11 hydrogen filling stations at our retail sites in Germany, with more on the way.
We have another two hydrogen stations in Los Angeles, USA, and are working with Honda and Toyota – with the support of the California state government – to build seven hydrogen fuelling stations in Northern California.
Hydrogen cars offered by Toyota, Honda, Hyundai and Daimler provide a glimpse of the future of personal transport. But the commercial vehicle sector may offer the greatest promise for reducing emissions through hydrogen power. For example, buses and trucks are a major source of emissions and their numbers will increase significantly over the next few decades in line with the rise in world population and growth of trade in goods.
The high energy density of hydrogen makes it particularly suitable for carrying heavy goods over long distances. In contrast, it would be hugely technically and economically challenging for batterypowered trucks to do this because of the size and weight of the batteries needed. This is why Shell plans to build a dedicated hydrogen station for trucks in southern California. If supported by the California Energy Commission, we will use it to supply Toyota’s fuel-cell truck fleet at the Port of Long Beach, one of the world’s largest freight hubs.
The hydrogen for this project will be produced nearby using biogas from agricultural waste. But it can also be captured from industrial processes or by using renewable electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen.
For Shell, hydrogen has exciting potential. But its full benefits will only be harnessed, in the UK and across the world, through strong and sustained co-operation between businesses and governments. In the Detroit motor industry of the 1980s they said: “Hydrogen is the fuel of the future – and it always will be.” But perhaps now, if we all work together, hydrogen’s time really will come, and soon.
Article originally appeared in the 15th June edition of the New Statesman.