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One is the magic number: Hydrogen in Europe

Submitted by on 30 Nov 2010 – 16:31

Hydrogen is Europe’s solution to reducing the continent’s carbon emissions, argues Ian Williamson

Millions of vehicles cross European national borders every day, with road transport generating a staggering 20% of the EU’s CO2 emissions.  National governments are singularly enacting measures to decarbonise road transport, but there is a real need for a harmonised EU policy in this area.

An overarching strategy for the development of low carbon transport infrastructure across the entire EU will ensure co-ordination of the system, and longevity for millions of users.  There must be coordination from the centre, with all countries moving forward at a similar rate, towards the same goal.
The benefits of hydrogen
There are a range of low carbon transport options, including electric, hydrogen and hybrid vehicles.
Electric vehicles powered by a battery are repeatedly cited as the answer to Europe’s problems. Yet there are significant limitations to the technology; not least the lack of range offered by electric cars and the hours it takes to charge them. Hydrogen powered transport would address both of these issues. Hydrogen cars have a range comparable with conventionally fuelled vehicles and take just under four minutes to fuel; water is the only substance emitted from their exhaust pipes.
Support of hydrogen projects would go a long way to meeting the reduction in carbon emissions the EU desperately needs.  But hydrogen cars will need a hydrogen refuelling infrastructure, which requires the commitment of a range of suppliers including major energy companies, industrial gases companies, electrolyser suppliers, station fitters and providers; and this needs to be consistent across the EU.
What needs to be done?
Currently, there are excellent examples of local hydrogen transport infrastructures across Europe, and areas of best practice include the UK and Germany. To give one example, Air Products is working with Transport for London to provide a fleet of hydrogen buses for London’s roads. By November, there will be five buses travelling on the RV1 bus route.
Hydrogen powered public transport buses have the potential to be the most cost effective and environmentally friendly public transportation system, and commercialisation of the technology can play a significant role in providing economic benefits to a community, as well as encouraging the users to reduce their personal carbon footprint.  Recently the EU has proposed various financing support programmes to facilitate potential projects for the integration of fuel cell buses in public transport fleets.  Projects such as these are excellent starting points for a wider hydrogen infrastructure which crosses European national boundaries.
Although this is not the economic climate for large-scale government investment in research and development, EU governments do have the opportunity to work more effectively with public and private partnerships and small public transport projects are within our grasp.  We already have local hydrogen projects existing in Europe, but these need to be consistent in order to be linked to create regional hydrogen infrastructures.  In the US, Air Products is linking Texas and Louisiana with a new 180-mile hydrogen pipeline.

Best practice: Germany, and how manufacturers and industry can play a part

Germany’s coherent strategy for implementing a hydrogen infrastructure is one great example of a collaborative approach between government and industry.  Along with the automotive industry and energy companies, the German Government created a forum known as the Transport Energy Strategy which identified hydrogen as a fuel of the future; and a public-private partnership was created to collaborate on the next stage of development.
The projects emerging from their National Innovation Programme (NIP) are on a huge scale and with a clear strategy of supporting the market introduction of hydrogen fuel cell technology, through research and development as well as demonstration and market preparation projects. The NIP imagines the gradual build-up of infrastructure starting beginning in urban areas; the initial transportation of hydrogen by tanker and then eventually by pipelines; and the localised production of hydrogen from natural gas and or biomass. Last September, Daimler, Ford, GM, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Renault-Nissan, and Toyota jointly announced plans to introduce hydrogen-powered vehicles by 2015.
Just around the corner?
Whilst localised projects continue to be implemented by states across Europe, these would have so much more potential if they were co-ordinated at a European level.  Hydrogen power which is consumed across European borders by professional drivers, public transport and personal car users is within our reach.
With a little investment and co-operation, moving forward towards the same goals, we can ensure that the opportunity isn’t missed, and that the low carbon vehicles of the future have the range we require of them to travel these distances.  It is essential that we take consumers away from fossil fuels and towards a low carbon future.
Local projects provide a clear demonstration of how developments in hydrogen technology can be done in collaboration with governments and car manufacturers to bring low carbon vehicles to communities across Europe.  If we are going to see a low carbon future for Europe, our renewable transport infrastructure needs to be consistent and comprehensive across all states within the continent.

Ian Williamson is President of the European Hydrogen Association and Director of Air Products