By Harry Cross, RSK Environmental Consultant, and Cristiano Francese
As part of its “Green Dialogues” series, RSK is seeking expert opinions on the issues surrounding a global low carbon future. In this inaugural edition, RSK Environmental Consultant Harry Cross sat down with independent expert Cristiano Francese to discuss the future of hydrogen-fuelled transport in Europe.
Over his 10 years’ experience in the energy industry, Cristiano has worked across the regulatory and policy-development landscape, working closely with a variety of organisations, from major corporations to governments and energy regulatory agencies. He has contributed to the Trans Adriatic Pipeline commercial strategy and has experience across multiple areas of the European energy sector, including natural gas, renewable energy and renewable gases.
Why is there so much focus on ‘green’ hydrogen? What is its value as an energy source?
Hydrogen is an emerging fuel that has been identified, alongside renewables, in the shift to decarbonise the economy. It can be produced by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen or by removing the carbon from natural gas, which makes it of interest to the fossil fuel sector. There are three types of hydrogen normally identified by the industry: ‘green hydrogen’, for which the energy required to split the water into hydrogen and oxygen (a process known as electrolysing) comes from renewable sources; ‘blue hydrogen’, for which steam re-forms natural gas into hydrogen and CO2, and the CO2 is captured and stored; and ‘grey hydrogen’, which is made in the same way as blue but the CO2 is not captured and is released to the atmosphere.
The focus on green hydrogen instead of other types of hydrogen comes from the aim to use it as a fuel to decarbonise the economy. Only green hydrogen has the potential to achieve this aim, as it is the only form of hydrogen produced from renewable electricity and water with no fossil fuels and no carbon or other emissions that are damaging for the environment.
What changes are necessary to enable a move to hydrogen fuel in the transport industry, specifically for personal vehicles?
The creation of a fuelling infrastructure and the availability of hydrogen as a fuel are the two main challenges to overcome to enable the large-scale use of hydrogen as a fuel for personal vehicles. Its use is already competitive with traditional fuels in some parts of the transport business, such as heavy-duty transport, both in terms of cost and of re-fuelling convenience. The creation of a hydrogen fuelling infrastructure presents a typical ‘chicken-and-egg’ problem, as adequate demand would need to be in place for hydrogen as a fuel before such infrastructure becomes commercially viable, and vice-versa. The task of creating such infrastructure would most likely fall on those companies that are willing to bet long-term on its use, so are willing to take the risk on the development costs of the infrastructure.
What government support is needed for the adoption of green hydrogen as a fuel source? Does this support need to come from national policy or EU-level legislation?
There is a wide range of mechanisms that governments can put in place to support the adoption of green hydrogen. This includes, for example, guarantees of origin systems that certify the renewable nature of green hydrogen. Such guarantees can then be bought and sold between parties to certify the green origin of their hydrogen. Revenues from these sales constitutes an additional source of income for producers of green hydrogen, increasing its viability and indirectly supporting its production. Quotas for the use of green hydrogen by current suppliers of natural gas to gradually decarbonise the natural gas supply are another way to support the use of hydrogen. Other types of support include direct grants or subsidies to electrolysers’ green-hydrogen-producing facilities and grants to cover part of the production cost of green hydrogen, indirectly subsidising the fuel price. Support for green hydrogen needs to come from both European and national levels, working with aligned or complementary measures. An EU framework for the incentivisation of green hydrogen would be beneficial to make all member states move in the same direction when it comes to supporting green hydrogen.
What adaptations are needed in terms of European infrastructure to enable a move towards green hydrogen?
Hydrogen needs to be stored and moved at great pressure and this requires either the installation of dedicated equipment or conversion of the infrastructure currently used for natural gas transportation. The existing natural gas transport infrastructure would need to be adapted to transport hydrogen. Different operators of European natural gas grids will have to either update part of their equipment (e.g., valves and compressor stations) or substitute pipes to ensure the transportation of hydrogen is possible. There are already several projects in progress in which natural gas transport system operators in Europe are aiming to completely convert existing natural gas pipelines for pure hydrogen transportation. The blending of hydrogen into natural gas pipelines will probably remain only a short-term transport solution to supply limited volumes of hydrogen to consumers. The long-term solutions will most likely see either the conversion of existing natural gas pipelines to pure hydrogen pipelines or the creation of completely new pure hydrogen transport infrastructure.
Does green hydrogen offer the potential to replace electricity as the primary alternative for fuelling a green public transport network? Why is this the case?
Green hydrogen may prove competitive over time compared to electricity, in terms of price, speed of fuelling and convenience. The main competition in this respect may be between fuel-cell and battery-electric vehicles. Much of the potential of green hydrogen to replace electricity in public transport (or other transport) will depend on its final cost to the consumer. The ability to refuel large and heavy vehicles with hydrogen more rapidly than charging or swapping large batteries may represent another key advantage of hydrogen in the public transport sector. This will, in turn, mean more convenience from the use of hydrogen when compared to large battery-electric vehicles. The main possibility of hydrogen use in public transport is in relation to railway transportation, across lines that are currently running on diesel-electric trains. Other examples include the use of hydrogen in bus fleets, where the green hydrogen is produced and stored locally to serve the public network of buses.
Given that hydrogen is highly flammable, how can we ensure its use is safe?
Hydrogen has been safely used as a fuel or feedstock in both industrial and agricultural applications for decades, so there are established practices for its safe transportation and handling. Further research is currently being done to ensure it is safely stored in especially designed hydrogen fuelled vehicles, for example, and that it can be safely used in home appliances, such as cooking hobs and central heating boilers.
More about young expert Harry Cross, from RSK
Interviewer Harry is an environmental consultant at RSK, working within the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), Planning and Design (EPD) team. He holds a bachelor’s degree in geology and physical geography and a master’s degree in water, energy and the environment. Harry is currently managing local projects across North-West England while assisting with large-scale interdisciplinary projects across the UK in the renewable energy space, so he can gain insights into the UK’s drive to a net-zero-carbon future. His aspiration is to eventually be able to specialise in the environmental assessment field to realise his commitment to making our way of life more sustainable. He is a leading member of RSK’s Junior Business Development Forum, a networking and business development initiative for EPD employees within the first five years of their careers.
 Competitiveness of hydrogen as a fuel for heavy-duty transportation versus the use of traditional fuels is most likely possible today using grey hydrogen. Further cost reductions of green hydrogen are needed to ensure green hydrogen can also be a competitive fuel in the transport sector.