8 November 2019

The hydrogen revolution is an easy win for the environment – and the economy

By Jo Bamford

The year is 2050 and Brexit is as distant a memory as the fall of the Berlin Wall. You’re sitting on your bike at a set of traffic lights behind a queue of buses as they pump their exhaust gases into the air around you. Yet you are inhaling nothing more than water vapour. Running to work in a busy town or city will be as healthy as jogging through a forest in the middle of nowhere. And it all became possible because the UK turned to hydrogen as a fuel source.

Back in 2019,  we have already taken great strides to tackle climate change and poor air quality. The UK was the first major economy to legislate for net zero carbon emissions by 2050, we have decarbonised faster than any country in the G20 and 35% of our electricity now comes from renewable sources. But almost a third of all our carbon emissions still come from transport and almost all of that comes from vehicles on our roads.

Last month a new Environment Bill was announced in the Queen’s Speech to combat, amongst other things, air pollution. The Government has also announced a Transport Decarbonisation Plan which will be finalised next year. Tackling transport emissions and poor air quality in towns and cities will improve the nation’s health, quality of life and address climate change so there is no excuse for not totally decarbonising the whole UK bus fleet.

As the Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, said last month, there is an “easy win” if we can get our entire transport sector switched to alternative fuels like hydrogen. That’s exactly why I set up Ryse Hydrogen.

Ryse produces and supplies green and affordable hydrogen for heavy-duty transport, and we’re starting with buses. In fact, we will be supplying TfL with the world’s first hydrogen double-decker buses next year, and ministers are beginning to listen too.

Mr Shapps said to the Commons Transport Committee that for trains and buses he is “really keen to expand and accelerate” hydrogen and that it “could play a very important part” in the future. For us, it’s easy to see why.

Hydrogen is the quickest and easiest way to decarbonise heavy transport. And we don’t need 30 years – it can be done within a decade. The UK could switch its entire bus fleet to hydrogen by 2030 by replacing old diesel buses when they come to the end of their natural economic life with hydrogen fuel cell buses. By deploying the technology at scale, the costs of hydrogen buses could be cheaper than diesel in just a few years.

The Transport Secretary was right when he said that “there are times when electrification is technically quite difficult to do”.  Bus depots would have to be uprooted and upgraded with grid connectors and charging points and we would need new power stations if thousands of buses had to be charged each night. You’d also need more buses on the road, as some stand idle charging.

Switching to hydrogen, on the other hand, can be done immediately without disrupting cities or the National Grid. Electrically charging a bus takes hours whereas fueling one with hydrogen takes minutes and would use a pump similar to the ones we use in petrol stations today. But moving to hydrogen wouldn’t just have fantastic environmental benefits, it would be a huge industrial opportunity for the UK too.

Asian economies have already spotted this and they are working fast to corner the world hydrogen market before we get there.

China has around two thousand times as many and accounted for 99% of electric bus use worldwide last year. The father of China’s electric-car movement, Wan Gang who is also vice-chair of China’s national policy advisory body, has recently outlined his vision to shift attention to building a “hydrogen society”. If we don’t act on hydrogen now, Britain will be left behind again as we were in the electric vehicle and battery manufacturing boom.

California is aiming for a million hydrogen-powered vehicles by 2030, Japan has set a target of 800,000 by 2030 and South Korea has its sights set on having 80,000 hydrogen-powered vehicles on its roads by 2022, 1,200 hydrogen refuelling stations by 2040 and an entire “H2 economy”. The UK must act fast to put itself at the forefront of the global hydrogen industry as well.

We could develop a world leading hydrogen economy and create boundless export opportunities for British businesses. As we leave the EU and start negotiating free trade deals with new partners around the world, hydrogen should be unleashed and must play a pivotal part in the future of British industry.

Leading manufacturers from around the world would be incentivised to locate here and the next generation of buses and trains could be made on UK soil for export around the world, creating hundreds of jobs in the process. Just as we lead the world in offshore wind, there’s no reason why, with a bit of vision, we can’t become a European hub for green hydrogen production as well, tapping into our world leading offshore wind resources to produce it.

We must free heavy-duty transport from its reliance on diesel within ten years, otherwise we won’t have any hope of achieving net zero emissions by 2050. A British hydrogen revolution is an “easy win” on air quality and a sure bet for British industry, jobs and our post-Brexit economy.

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Jo Bamford is Executive Chairman of Ryse Hydrogen.