4 June 2020

Driving change: how hydrogen can fuel a transport revolution


With factories dormant and roads relatively free from traffic, one of the few benefits of the national lockdown has been the short reprieve for the environment. Air quality is up, and greenhouse gas emissions are down. Globally, some estimates suggest the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere this year will be 8% lower than in 2019.

This temporary halt to productive economic activity, however, will do little to stave off the long-run effects of global warming. In many respects, it only underscores the fact that serious thinking is still required to address those sectors in which emissions are still stubbornly high.

At the top of the list is transport, which is now the number one contributing sector to domestic greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for 28% of the UK’s total. 

This may strike some as puzzling – haven’t we solved this one already? Won’t people simply substitute Toyota Priuses and Nissan Leafs in when their petrol and diesel motors expire, allowing us to transition to a low-carbon transport system?

While it’s true that hybrids and pure-electric vehicles are decarbonising some classes of transport, that progress has been overwhelmingly concentrated in the personal car market. Since 2010, licenses of ultra-low emission cars have increased by a staggering 14,656%. But among buses, for example, uptake of the cleanest models has risen at a comparatively unimpressive 513%.

There are several reasons for this curious inconsistency. Perhaps the most important is the fact that the electric batteries which power a typical climate-friendly car are not always suitable for bigger vehicles.

First, batteries are heavy. In a small car, where comparatively few are needed, their weight is not that much of a problem. But in something the size of a bus, the cumulative mass of the necessary number of batteries becomes far more noticeable. Batteries are also bulky, taking up space which might otherwise accommodate extra passengers.

Second is the perennial issue of range concerns and refuelling times. Most journeys made by car in England are only about eight miles long, and are therefore no problem for a battery-powered vehicle. Buses, however, will typically chug along for hours on end between refuelling stops. And when it does come to refuelling, this needs to be done in minutes, rather than the hours it takes with current battery technology.

Doubtless, batteries will improve in the years to come. But there is a risk in betting the house on those refinements emerging quickly enough, and to the necessary degree to clean up the heaviest types of vehicles. Even if we electrified all of Britain’s cars tomorrow, other modes of transport would still be emitting 56.2 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent – 45% of transport emissions, or fully 12% of total emissions.

As outlined in a new report published today by the Centre for Policy Studies, to guarantee the government has a truly watertight vision for decarbonising all modes of transport, it should consider how hydrogen can complement the electrification revolution.

Without getting carried away, hydrogen is a rather miraculous fuel. When made via electrolysis, it produces neither greenhouse gas emissions nor air pollution – and could even help with stabilising the grid as renewables generate ever more of our power. In practical terms, hydrogen can be pumped into vehicles just like petrol or diesel, and a bus’s fuel tank can be brimmed in under ten minutes. Finally, with a high energy density score, it doesn’t suffer from the weight-related constraints experienced with batteries.

Hydrogen’s main stumbling block to widespread adoption has so far been its relative expense. But this is now tumbling due to the technologies used in producing it get better and cheaper themselves, and as the hydrogen industry begins to benefit from economies of scale.

Even so, we identify various areas where changes to government policy would be prudent in ensuring that hydrogen doesn’t continue to suffer any arbitrary disadvantages compared to competitor fuels like diesel.

For example, each year the Government doles out around £250m to bus operators as part of the Bus Service Operators Grant (BSOG). This subsidy increases the amount of bus travel than what would happen under true market conditions.

But the way in which it allocates funding is not exactly a model of efficiency. BSOG payments are based upon the volume of fuel consumed by bus operators – paying them 34.57 pence per litre of diesel burnt. What the BSOG strictly incentivises, therefore, is fuel consumption, as opposed to distance travelled (which is surely the operative outcome which the Government actually wants to promote). 

Under current arrangements, a fuel-efficient bus could cover more distance – ferrying more people to more places – yet receive less subsidy than an inefficient model which guzzles fuel as it trundles along. Accordingly, we propose changing the funding mechanism to a ‘distance-based’ model, paid per kilometre of travel. 

As it happens, the BSOG does already have a distance-based element to it. This is for especially low-carbon buses, which get six pence per kilometre they travel. We believe there is a case for the Government reassessing how it divides the overall envelope of the BSOG funding – potentially seeing the share allocated for low-carbon buses increasing. This would incentivise bus operators to invest in cleaner models, such as those which are powered by hydrogen. 

In our brave new world of remote working and social distancing, it may seem like an odd time to be thinking about how to clean up the national bus fleet. As a matter of fact, there might not be a better moment to go back to the drawing board and scrutinise the existing policy landscape. The Government needs to both recognise the potential benefits of hydrogen in decarbonising heavy vehicles, and make sure its policies are not artificially suppressing its use in our transport system – if it can do those things, we will be much better equipped to tackle the twin challenges of toxic air and climate change when the Covid crisis is over.

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Eamonn Ives is a Researcher at the Centre for Policy Studies, which today publishes Driving Change: How Hydrogen Can Fuel a Transport Revolution.