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Could hydrogen fuel cells help us reach net zero CO2?

5 min to readElectric vehicles
As global economies take steps to electrify and decarbonise transport, could hydrogen fuel cells provide a solution to some of the drawbacks of battery-electric vehicles?
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The UK has set a target to become a net-zero carbon economy by 2050, and it’s a process that will change the way people and goods travel. Road transport was responsible for over a fifth of our total CO2 emissions in 2022, so finding alternatives to fossil fuels is an important step towards that end goal.

However, opinions differ when it comes to which solutions will get us there, with battery and hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles often cited as key contenders. We’ve unpicked the pros and cons of each technology below.

What is a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle?

Put simply, it’s an electric vehicle that can produce its own electricity, instead of storing it in a battery pack. Fuel cells use a chemical reaction between oxygen from the air and hydrogen from a tank on board, generating electricity which can be used to power an electric motor. The only exhaust emission is pure water vapour and, as long as the hydrogen is electrolysed using renewable electricity (known as ‘green hydrogen’), then it’s a carbon-neutral power source.

This isn’t new technology. Hydrogen fuel cells powered NASA’s Apollo missions (and produced water for astronauts) during the 1960s, while General Motors repurposed the same hardware in the Electrovan prototype in 1966. Decades of research since have resulted in much smaller and more powerful fuel cell systems, while other drivetrain components (such as motors, power electronics and batteries) can be shared with electric vehicles.

How do hydrogen fuel cells compare to batteries?

Some of the benefits are shared. Both offer almost-silent driving and require less maintenance than a combustion engine vehicle, but there are some key differences.

A hydrogen fuel cell vehicle has several advantages:

However, electric vehicles have benefits too:

Which manufacturers are selling hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in the UK?

At the moment, only two manufacturers have hydrogen fuel cell vehicles available to buy. The second-generation Toyota Mirai saloon launched in 2021, while Hyundai has offered the Nexo SUV since 2018. Both have sold in small volumes – there are 213 hydrogen fuel cell vehicles on UK roads, according to the Department for Transport, and 84 of them are buses.

Most of the recent announcements are focused on commercial vehicles, particularly for large vans and trucks, where range and payload compromises make battery-electric vehicles more difficult.

Most truck manufacturers also include hydrogen fuel cells as part of their technology roadmap.

How is the UK supporting hydrogen?

The UK has home-grown expertise in hydrogen fuel cells. ITM Power is building electrolysers in Sheffield, while Johnson Matthey (which supplied components for the Apollo missions) has a vehicle-focused R&D centre here too. Government strategy is targeting 10GW of low-carbon hydrogen production by 2030, with half of that coming from electrolysers. However, the focus is industry, heating and heavy-duty and emergency services vehicles, while support for cars and vans is patchier.

Because hydrogen fuel cell vehicles don’t emit CO2 at the tailpipe, they qualify for some of the same incentives as electric vehicles – emissions from generating electricity or producing hydrogen are not counted. Benefit-in-Kind is currently 2% for company car drivers (0% for vans), there is no VED until April 2025, no fuel duty on hydrogen and they count towards the government’s Zero-Emission Vehicle Mandate which comes into effect in 2024.

However, suppliers have also highlighted issues with the Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation (RTFO), which mean it isn’t effectively incentivising production of hydrogen. This requires energy companies to produce a percentage of their fuels from renewables, with the option to buy and sell credits from others. Although hydrogen is included, it must be made with 100% renewable electricity which effectively requires on-site energy generation, as the grid hasn’t been decarbonised yet. This means producers can’t earn extra credits for making it, reducing their costs and enabling them to cut prices to end-users.

Find out more:

To shed light on this debate, Ayvens Consultancy has created a white paper, "Hydrogen vs. electricity: Which powertrain holds the key to emissions reduction."

Published at 25 January 2024
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25 January 2024
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