Could hydrogen be the key for heavy transport?
How do we solve the emissions problem from heavy transport? We delve into the Hydrogen solution.
Transport currently contributes around 20 per cent of New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions and is the fastest growing sector as a proportion of our country’s overall emissions profile. Heavy transport, predominantly road freight, makes up around 24 percent of that. This contributes a full 5 per cent of New Zealand’s total emissions, making it an important player in the challenge to reduce our emissions to net zero by 2050.
While the number and type of electric vehicles are increasing and there are increasingly innovative options for car users, the same cannot be said for the heavy vehicle sector. The technological complexities associated with drivetrains hauling heavy freight means that internationally, the sector has lagged in developing effective alternative fuels.
That is not to say that truck manufacturers haven’t made big strides in other ways. An emphasis on emissions reductions has led to increasing engine efficiency and futuristic aerodynamic body designs. Redesigning wing mirrors into ‘slippery’ aerodynamic shapes alone can save up to 2 per cent of carbon emissions!
However, the strongest possibility for major emissions reduction and zero carbon fuels comes from a surprising source - hydrogen.
Hydrogen fuel cells work by generating electricity from hydrogen and oxygen using an electrochemical reaction. Electrolysis is used to split water into hydrogen and, provided the electricity is from a renewable source (as most of it is in New Zealand), the process is emissions-free.
Refuelling takes no longer than for a standard petrol or diesel vehicle with a longer range and fewer batteries, creating a significant weight saving over electric trucks. The downside is that hydrogen is currently expensive to produce, difficult to store and the infrastructure is expensive to install – all problems that supporters believe will be overcome with economies of scale.
There are currently several hydrogen-powered vehicles available globally. Hyundai has a commitment to deliver 1600 hydrogen trucks into Europe over the next six years and Nikola is already trialling a third version of its hydrogen-powered semitrailer truck that reportedly packs 1000 horsepower and has a range of over 1200 kilometres.
Iconic Kiwi road freight company TIL Logistics has recently partnered with Taranaki’s Hiringa Energy, which last year was granted nearly $1 million by the Government to develop hydrogen fuel as a viable transport fuel. The partnership is aimed at trialling a hydrogen heavy vehicle in New Zealand in 2020 with a view to ultimately rolling the technology out across TIL’s fleet and putting in place the necessary refuelling infrastructure.
And it is not just trucking that has hydrogen in its sights.
Ports of Auckland, in partnership with KiwiRail and Auckland Council, has also made a commitment to hydrogen with plans for a hydrogen production and refuelling facility. The project is intended to run the port’s equipment, buses and cars. Europe’s largest port, Rotterdam, alongside Los Angeles, Long Beach, Honolulu and Valencia are all trialling hydrogen as well.
Hydrogen buses have been trialled in Europe since 2003 and the South Korea is planning to replace their fleet of 36,000 compressed natural gas buses with hydrogen by 2030. A hydrogen passenger train is already in use in Germany, while hydrogen-powered ferries are being trialled in both Norway and San Francisco.
This uptake of hydrogen as a transport fuel worldwide suggests that the transition away from fossil fuels in transport is unlikely to be solved by one technology alone. Battery-electric and biofuels will almost certainly have their place for many applications, but hydrogen may just be the low-carbon technology that powers heavy transport into the future.