Where does hydrogen fit in a net zero future?

Apr 9, 2024Net Zero


hydrogen bubbles. Photo by Who’s Denilo ? on Unsplash

The UK is still seemingly committed to making strides towards a greener future, despite recently delaying the phasing out of internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles to 2035. There has been a growing buzz around hydrogen cars as a potential green solution for the automotive industry, and the greater use of hydrogen for other green power projects. But to succeed as an alternative fuel for a net zero future, there needs to be committed local and national investment.

The government has recognised the importance of hydrogen as part of its decarbonisation strategy and has allocated funding to support the development of hydrogen infrastructure, with initiatives such as the Hydrogen Transport and Storage Pathway Programme, the journey to a comprehensive hydrogen power network faces many challenges, ranging from technical feasibility to regulatory hurdles.

Hydrogen for heavy industry

Hydrogen unquestionably shows great promise in specific sectors, such as trains, buses, HGVs, aviation and in powering heavy industries, such as the steel industry. These areas often require high energy density and rapid refuelling and these vehicles travel fixed routes, making hydrogen a viable and attractive green tech option.

The current hydrogen infrastructure

The UK still only has a handful of hydrogen refuelling stations, primarily concentrated in urban centres such as London and Birmingham. While these stations serve as pilot projects to demonstrate the viability of hydrogen technology, they are far from enough to support widespread adoption.

As the UK continues to explore sustainable transportation solutions, the debate between hydrogen and electric vehicles has gathered momentum.

Challenges facing the hydrogen power network:

  1. Limited infrastructure: Scaling up hydrogen power will need substantial investment in infrastructure, including the construction of refuelling stations and the retrofitting of existing facilities. The high cost of building and maintaining hydrogen infrastructure presents a barrier to its widespread adoption, especially when compared to the relatively lower cost of electric vehicle charging infrastructures.
  2. Supply chain constraints: The production and distribution of hydrogen face supply chain challenges, including the availability of specialist production facilities and its safe transportation to refuelling stations. These constraints can affect the reliability and availability of hydrogen fuel, undermining its attractiveness as a mainstream transport fuel.
  3. Technology maturity: While hydrogen fuel cell technology has made significant advancements in recent years, it still lags behind electric vehicle technology in terms of maturity and scalability. Challenges such as limited fuel cell lifespan, safe storage and distribution and the efficiency of production processes need to be addressed, to enhance the viability of hydrogen vehicles. For large industries, there will be a business case for making the changes, but these are less feasible for the mass market, where EV technology is already flourishing.
  4. Regulatory framework: Establishing a regulatory framework for hydrogen infrastructure involves navigating complex safety standards, licensing requirements, and environmental regulations. Uncertainty surrounding regulatory compliance can deter private investment and slow down the expansion of the hydrogen power network. The IGEM (Institute of Gas Engineers & Managers) is doing a lot of work on building those standards and to ensure safe working practices with hydrogen.
  5. Cost considerations: The production and distribution of hydrogen come with significant costs. Electric cars and their technology are already in production. The infrastructure required for hydrogen refuelling stations adds to the upfront investment, further deterring businesses from adopting this technology outside of heavy industry.

Compare this to electric vehicles:

  1. Robust charging infrastructure: There is already a well-established charging network in the UK, with thousands of public charging points and growing coverage nationwide. While a major complaint is that charging is still slow, this is constantly improving. This gives EV owners the convenience and accessibility they need, for business and commercial vehicles.
  2. Cost-effectiveness: Electric vehicles are more cost-effective than hydrogen cars, both in terms of vehicle purchase price and ongoing operational costs. With lower maintenance expenses and the availability of government incentives, electric vehicles present a compelling economic case for businesses looking to reduce their carbon footprint and cheaper cars and greater choice available for private buyers.
  3. Environmental impact: While hydrogen cars produce zero emissions, the process of producing hydrogen often relies on fossil fuels, negating some of the environmental benefits. Electric vehicles, powered by increasingly renewable energy sources, offer a cleaner and more sustainable solution for mass adoption.
  4. Regulatory support: While it could and should be doing more, the UK government has given its support for electric vehicles, with incentives such as grants for EV purchases, tax breaks and funding for charging infrastructures. This gives people peace of mind when deciding which type of green vehicle is right for them. It remains to be seen what incentives will be offered to the hydrogen industry to encourage widespread adoption and when the technology will reach the mass market.

What does the future hold?

There’s no doubt that as we advance to the 2035 deadline, there will be greater choice in what type of vehicle we can choose from and how those are powered. Many of the current challenges that critics of EVs have, such as heavier vehicles, slower charging, battery lifespan and more will be reduced by the innovations already being developed.

While hydrogen technology is a great innovation for heavy industry, aviation and freight transport, its limitations make it unfeasible for widespread adoption in the domestic car market. Establishing a robust hydrogen power network in the UK will demand coordinated efforts from government, industry stakeholders and the wider community and is still very much in its infancy. There’s a long way to go before we can realise the full potential of hydrogen as a clean and sustainable energy solution. With their cost-effectiveness, environmental benefits and regulatory support, electric vehicles offer a sustainable transportation solution today for everyone, that contributes to a cleaner, greener future for the UK and beyond.