Bramble Energy CEO, Dr Tom mason speaks to Smart Cities World about where hydrogen is best placed to secure a smart future for our cities
A hydrogen-fuelled city – a practical reality for the UK or a pipe dream?
Occupying only two percent of the world’s landmass but consuming over two-thirds of the world’s energy and accounting for more than 70% of global CO2 emissions, our cities leave an enormous footprint. Now, more than ever before, we need smart energy solutions that work for these cosmopolitan environments which are sustainable for the future – especially when we consider energy demand is only set to grow in the build up to 2050 net zero goals.
Hydrogen deployment has been steadily growing across the UK with the current government making it a focus of their ‘green industrial revolution’. The world’s cities offer a great opportunity for the deployment of hydrogen technology to aid in making them smart for the future.
Hydrogen is not only the most common element in the universe but as an energy vector it enables the storage and transportation of energy in lightweight and durable solutions. Here are a couple of examples of how it can be applied:
Hydrogen’s role in city transport is certainly not to displace the passenger electric vehicle where charging points can be easily accessed and positioned. Instead it offers a zero-emission solution for in and out transport with a node in the city such as long distance haulage.
The way we consume and receive products has evolved and demand is only set to increase which will have a huge environmental impact on the air we breathe. This is where hydrogen offers a truly smart solution with quick refuelling, no downtime and its only emission is water.
Combined heat and power
The heating of buildings currently equates to around 20% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions. That is nearly double the amount of CO2 created by the aviation industry.
With gas boilers releasing lots of particulates into the air, hydrogen is uniquely placed to not only take out the carbon emissions of mobility and power generation but also as an essential element in the fight to decarbonise heating. Hydrogen is a solution to reduce the number of homes using gas appliances with minimal changes to the end user with whole streets being able to convert at a time.
For any activity requiring off grid or mobile power within cities, hydrogen is ideal and a dynamic energy vector. For example, temporary traffic lights used during roadworks normally use a diesel generator for power but with a hydrogen fuel cell system you could power the same for a lot longer, releasing no emissions into the air and with no maintenance or downtime required.
Benefits of hydrogen
Hydrogen is already a significant focus of government plans to reach Net Zero by 2050 and it will be important to enable products and services that not only drastically reduce emissions, but also provide a comparative or better consumer experience. This mechanism ensures that customers are pulled towards the transition to low carbon solutions rather than being enforced to do so. With any net zero technology we will only ever see the benefits if it’s commercially viable and the scale is the answer to making that possible.
The ultimate benefit of hydrogen is the fact that its only emission is water, providing green energy to consumers and limiting particulates that are released into the air.
The cost of using hydrogen will need to reduce further, and it will as the technology is scaled up, but hydrogen as a fuel is already cheaper than diesel and can offer an affordable option for clean air compared to traditional combustion fuels.
Follow the leaders
We are already seeing hydrogen working to provide a smart solution in cities across the UK. Both Aberdeen and London are leading the way, with the Scottish city launching a fleet of double decker hydrogen buses in January this year. The bus fleet has already covered 100,000 miles preventing 170,000kg of CO2 emissions. In London, we have seen a focus on hydrogen deployment for zero emission rapid response vehicles with the Metropolitan Police adding 21 fuel cell vehicles to their operational fleet since 2017 as part of its zero emission programme. In addition, the ambulance service is due to launch a hydrogen fuel cell ambulance for the NHS in Autumn this year.
One of best practical examples of hydrogen deployment can be seen in materials handling in distribution centres with both Amazon and Asda already using the technology. Hydrogen fuel cells provide cost effective zero emission low down time systems and with local refuelling stations accessible, it means that machinery can be kept up and running 24 hours a day rather than businesses having to factor in downtime for recharging.
Is the UK infrastructure ready for hydrogen deployment?
Hydrogen technology will be a key part in the makeup of our smart cities and whether the UK’s infrastructure will ever be ready cannot be the question – it must be to support net zero goals. There will never be a singular solution. It is not possible to electrify everything with batteries, but a combination of these technologies will offer the best chance for full decarbonisation.
There have been several projects using the current infrastructure that have already been able to demonstrate the capabilities of hydrogen and the government has already laid out their plans for a hydrogen town before the end of the decade, but we have not yet seen significant deployment.
The gas grid will be able to, in time, transition to hydrogen without any significant infrastructure change. To maintain the UK’s current 6,000 petrol and diesel refuelling stations, we only need to integrate hydrogen at those stations rather than the massive infrastructure changes that would be needed to install enough charging points for the number of electric cars that are envisioned to lower city emissions.
Cities operating off a 100 percent hydrogen system is not a realistic outlook however these certain integrations where hydrogen has already demonstrated itself as the most promising pathway, working together with other net zero technologies will be the most smart solution for the future of city living.