Infrastructure changes needed to support low-carbon hydrogen-powered vehicles

Out-Law Analysis | 06 Dec 2022 | 11:22 am | 3 min. read

The UK’s transition to hydrogen-powered vehicles is being held back by the fact that its hydrogen infrastructure is not yet ready to accommodate a major shift to the fuel.

Certain fuel cell electrical vehicles (FCEVs) have already been approved to operate on UK roads by the Vehicle Certification Agency and the first zero emission light commercial vehicle has been certified legal and will start trials in January 2023. Despite this, however, there are still just a handful of hydrogen fuel cell cars on the market in the UK.

One key reason for the shortfall is the cost of the infrastructure, to which the UK has struggled to adapt. For example, in 2018, the Department for Transport awarded more than £8 million in funding to a project aimed at improving access to hydrogen refuelling stations – but since then just 14 filling stations have been completed.

Future FCEV trends

Despite the concerns that the UK’s hydrogen infrastructure is not yet ready to accommodate a major vehicle shift to the fuel, the change still looks likely to happen in the coming years. With the ban on internal combustion engines only eight years away, hydrogen is a fuel-revolution solution which manufacturers and consumers are increasingly considering. Some of the world’s largest vehicle manufacturers have committed to the technology, and Toyota has already developed an internal combustion engine that runs on hydrogen.

The UK’s Industrial Hydrogen Accelerator Programme provides £26m for innovation projects that can demonstrate end-to-end industrial fuel switching to hydrogen. £2.95m has already been awarded to nine projects, and up to £7m will be granted additionally from December 2022. The British Energy Security Strategy (BESS) has doubled its ambition to up to 10GW of new low carbon hydrogen production capacity by 2030, with at least half of this coming from electrolytic hydrogen. It has also committed to design new business models for hydrogen transport and storage infrastructure by 2025.

Meanwhile, Project Union, a National Grid development, has been formulated to create a hydrogen ‘backbone’ for the UK by the early 2030s by repurposing 25% of existing gas pipelines. Major UK grid operators expect that hydrogen could be blended into the existing national grid at a volume of up to 20% by 2023, cutting natural gas needs by a fifth. The government will publish its decision on the policy proposal next year. To achieve the successful uptake of hydrogen-powered vehicles in the UK, however, a number of infrastructure changes are required – using lessons learned from the infrastructurally-demanding accommodation of electric vehicles (EVs).

Lessons learned from EVs

EVs are becoming increasingly prevalent in the UK and across the world. One of the keys to the accommodating the rise of EVs was getting grid infrastructure established. The Local Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Fund was set up to provide a total of £450m to facilitate the rollout of larger-scale chargepoint infrastructure projects. EV grid infrastructure was established as a priority, which helped to prevent charging anxiety among consumers, and helped ensure that commitments and projections forecasted for the uptake of EVs were met successfully.

The uptake of EVs was also assisted by the government’s commitment to address barriers to private investment in new EV charging infrastructure, signposting to help drivers find nearby charge points, and sharing of information on data, price transparency and reliability of charge points.

Challenges facing FCEV market

EVs have the clear advantage of being able to depend on an existing power generation and distribution system – the electrical grid. An electric vehicle can be recharged wherever there is access to a plug socket. In contrast the infrastructure that exists to support hydrogen vehicles is limited in comparison and will require extensive investment to introduce.

The pipeline infrastructure necessary for a European hydrogen distribution system alone is estimated to cost between £69 billion and £123 billion, so investment from governments and businesses is critical for the development of the FCEVs.

Going forward

Original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and others wishing to participate in the growing low-carbon hydrogen market, like low-carbon hydrogen producers and off-takers, need to get ahead of the curve as the economic and regulatory landscape continues to change. One key consideration for strategic planning will be lead times for hydrogen transport and storage infrastructure. Those companies that want to keep abreast of developments should contact infrastructure and energy sector specialists who can provide the advice needed to support OEMs’ engagement in the hydrogen transition.

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