Hydrogen buses: Has their time come at last?

Has the time finally arrived for hydrogen buses, wonders Dan Hayes

With the announcement of the order for 20 Enviro400FCEV hydrogen fuel cell-electric buses (HFCEBs) to be built by Alexander Dennis for the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority, it is clear that hydrogen as a fuel for buses is being taken seriously.

There are currently 58 HFCEBs in operation and 50 more with funding. Two double-deck and two single-deck options are currently available. By the end of 2024, we could see as many as 500 HFCEBs in operation. With two UK-based manufacturers now providing a solution, here may be the place that demonstrates the viability of HFCEBs in real-world operation.

Hydrogen buses, and hydrogen, likely to develop in ‘clusters’

The initial development of hydrogen as a transport fuel will be in clusters, in areas such as Liverpool and Teesside. Areas that have lots of excess renewable energy (like Aberdeen) are also seeking to become net exporters of hydrogen in the future.

The UK Hydrogen Strategy, published recently, was very much focused on production. It did not set any specific targets around refuelling stations along the strategic road network, as there are for rapid battery charging. This leaves it up to local authorities, operators and commercial enterprise to decide where refuelling stations will be.

That presents a challenge for coach and bus operators that wish to adopt hydrogen, as it is scale and a coordinated approach that will be key to driving down costs and developing the supply chain. Coach operators in particular seeking to explore hydrogen solutions have no access to capital grants for infrastructure, leaving them heavily restricted to the extremely limited public provision.

Is ‘green finance’ one of the keys to hydrogen buses?

There is potential for green finance to support changing ownership models through leasing, but with little understanding of second-hand asset values, there is still hesitation from many lenders when looking at purely commercial operation.

Retrofit is also being considered. Ricardo is developing a hydrogen fuel cell solution, winning funding to demonstrate a retrofit with Stagecoach on Teesside next spring. Should this be developed to production scale, there may be a more affordable solution for operators in the short term.

To date, all hydrogen used in buses is compressed to 350bar. Like refuelling infrastructure for gas buses, that for hydrogen needs electricity to power compressors, with additional space needed for storage tanks as fleet sizes grow. Some suppliers are now looking at liquid hydrogen. It uses more energy in the production phase, but it removes the need for compressors and reduces infrastructure footprint.

RTFO alignment can help low carbon hydrogen development

There is also strong concern around the carbon intensity of hydrogen, with greener production methods being the most expensive.

The government is seeking to encourage low carbon hydrogen production, but it is leaving the door open for blue hydrogen that uses fossil gases as its main input. Aligning incentives such as the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation with other production incentives will be key to ensuring that the lowest carbon supply chain is developed in the UK.

Either way, it will be an exciting few years watching how HFCEBs develop in the UK, particularly in the double-deck space, and how many operators choose this route.