The future of hydrogen in the transport energy mix

Monday 26th February 2024

Headshot of Jon Lawes - Managing Director at Novuna Vehicle Solutions

Q&A with Jon Lawes, Managing Director at MHC Mobility.

Europe’s quest for a sustainable future has made the search for alternative fuels more critical than ever with electric vehicles central to the continent’s transition plans. It is increasingly clear that hydrogen will also have an important role to play as Europe’s fleet operators move away from highly polluting diesel-powered vehicles to reduce their carbon footprint and transition towards cleaner transportation.

Jon Lawes, Managing Director at MHC Mobility, sits down for a fireside chat on the future of hydrogen in the transport mix.

There is growing momentum around hydrogen fuel cell vehicles potential, but can this surpass battery technology?

“EVs are leading the way in the transition of cars and LCVs as Europe looks to decarbonise its fleet, but fuel cell hydrogen vehicles will be central to the future for the heavy transport sector which has been left behind in the road to net zero fleets.

“Hydrogen is less energy efficient than electricity in some settings, which makes EVs a preferred option in an urban, multi-drop operation for lower mileage fleets. Yet, the weight of EV batteries is prohibitive for the heavy transport sector which makes hydrogen more suitable for transforming HGVs to cleaner alternative fuels.

“The higher energy storage density of hydrogen compared to battery electric vehicles presents distinct commercial and operational advantages for long-haul transportation where fleets are typically covering longer distances and carrying heavy payloads requiring a lot of power. Comparable to a diesel vehicle, hydrogen can also deliver an extended range as well as a faster refuelling time for HGVs."

What are some of the key challenges facing the growth of hydrogen in Europe?

“There is significant potential to deploy fuel cell HGVs across Europe but there are key obstacles to overcome in order to realise the commercial viability of hydrogen led mobility.

”Crucially, supporting infrastructure for operating fuel-cell hydrogen vehicles  remains  in its infancy. There are only 178 hydrogen filling stations across the continent, more than half of which are in just one country - Germany.

“Establishing a comprehensive hydrogen infrastructure network will require significant investment and coordination among stakeholders, most of which are primarily focusing efforts on electrification. In the UK, for example, there are only nine hydrogen refuelling stations compared with 8,300 petrol stations and over 30,000 public charging locations.

“The high relative cost of large-scale green hydrogen production also remains a barrier. Producing a single kilogram of green hydrogen has been shown at times to cost up to 15 times more than producing the equivalent amount of hydrogen using natural gas.”

What policies and regulations are currently in place to foster a clean hydrogen industry?

“The Alternative Fuel Infrastructure Regulation (AFIR) introduced last year could be key. This sets deployment targets for hydrogen refuelling stations in all urban nodes and every 200km along the TEN-T core network, as well as criteria for making user payments accessible.

“In late 2023, the European Parliament and Council also reached provisional agreement on new rules to aid the uptake of hydrogen. And research framework programmes, namely Horizon 2020 and Horizon Europe, have allocated over €1 billion towards hydrogen-related projects in the last decade.

“It is encouraging to see policymakers taking steps to nurture the clean hydrogen industry in Europe, although more could always be done. With AFIR in particular, the hydrogen targets are less ambitious compared with the timeline on EV infrastructure.”

Can existing gas pipelines handle hydrogen transport?

“Research conducted by the European gas industry suggests that existing pipeline networks can be effectively repurposed for hydrogen transport. This therefore has the potential to significantly reduce investment costs.

“There are still concerns, though. For instance, a US study into the blending of hydrogen with natural gas and various materials notes that hydrogen can permeate solid metals, making pipeline steel more prone to cracking. More research is needed to build confidence around such solutions.”

Looking ahead, what is the future of hydrogen in Europe’s transport mix?

“In 2023, diesel continued to dominate the European truck market, accounting for 95.7% of new registrations. So, whilst the mass-market roll-out of hydrogen powered vehicles remains some way further down the road, they are certainly going to be key to zero emission mobility for the heavy transport sector longer term without compromising on performance or range.

“Led by the bigger heavy transport fleets as the early adopters in response to zero emissions targets, technological advancements as more OEMs build hydrogen cell vehicles will see the TCO for using hydrogen fuel cell vehicles become more competitive over time.

“Regardless, the increased capital value of cleaner vehicles, as well as uncertainty around residual values associated with emerging technologies compared to traditional diesel equivalents means the majority of heavy duty fleets now are now looking to fund or lease their assets.

“As hydrogen emerges as the go to for fleets transitioning away from diesel fleets we expect to see our order bank for HGVs to reflect this changing landscape towards alternative fuels.

“Collaborative initiatives between governments, researchers and industry stakeholders will be essential to overcoming existing barriers and helping to realise the commercial viability of hydrogen at scale, and in turn decarbonising Europe’s fleet.”