How to ensure the Hydrogen (H2) distribution for a decarbonized freight sector?

To achieve the commitments made at COP21, the major players are starting to invest in sustainable and feasible solutions.

On March 16, 2022

For the world’s major economies, diesel fuel is on its way out, as a contribution to achieving the commitments made at COP21 – 1) end of fossil fuel resources 2) climate change urgency.  One of the most promising solutions to decarbonize transport is to use hydrogen fuel cells. But there will need to be a substantial increase in the level of hydrogen gas production to support this, particularly when it comes to green hydrogen where production today is negligible. In addition, H2 distribution networks are currently very limited. Rather than a traditional national or international network, the answer may be multilocal. 

Decarbonisation of the road freight transport sector is key for energy transition

According to Eurostat and the OECD, road transport in Europe is forecast to grow by 82% between 2015 and 2050. Solutions will need to be found to manage this amount of traffic on our roads. The key issue is the level of polluting emissions that it could generate. Apart from congestion due to the volumes of vehicles, one important issue to solve is to limit the GHG (greenhouse gas = CO2) and air pollutants related to transportation. We estimate that 8-10% of GHG emissions is due to specific freight transportation activities.

A move away from the reliance on diesel-fuelled vehicles is urgently needed in Europe, and more generally worldwide to respect the COP21 agreement. For passenger cars, solutions such as electric battery-powered cars or natural gas combustion may make up a large part of the solution. But, this is unlikely to be the case for heavy trucks. Hydrogen and different alternatives, namely, biogas, biofuels, electric as well for a part, are the way to go; where H2 is necessary to complete these solutions, especially promising for the heavy-duty trucks and long distance.

Indeed, hydrogen fuel cells are one of the most promising decarbonisation options for trucks, buses and commercial vehicles. They require significantly less rare earth’s elements, as raw materials, compared to the batteries and internal combustion engines (ICE). Yet, they offer the same range and refuelling speed.

All of the major players in truck manufacturing and the wider industrial vehicles sector are starting to invest in sustainable and feasible solutions. A key part of this process is building the network, required to refuel the logistics operators’ trucks.

In Europe, the key players came together to study how to implement the hydrogen fuel networks. European regions are working together to imagine H2 corridors on the major freight routes. For example, Wallonia in southern Belgium, is working with Occitanie in south-western France, and Aragon and Catalonia, in northern Spain. Other pioneering regions include those in the industrial heartlands of Germany, and in the east and centre of France. Truck and equipment manufacturers, transport operators, infrastructure providers and infrastructure investors also form the teams, looking into these questions. 

The enthusiasm exists and the investment is coming for the fuel cells

Individual countries are also investing time and money. For example, Germany recently invested nine billion euros within a stimulus package, and aims to become the world’s leading supplier of hydrogen. Spain plans to deploy 5,000 to 7,500 hydrogen fuel cell vehicles by 2030, with a longer-term roadmap (2050) and a total investment of nine billion euros. Other countries leading the way include Japan, South Korea, the United States and China. 

The level of investment is significantly higher than that seen over the previous ten years, when investments reached no more than 800 million euros for all the countries combined. This represents a clear change of scale and ambition. 

This enthusiasm is shared by industrial players in other sectors, towards decarbonizing transport using hydrogen fuel cells. Plans, announcements and investments are abound. Examples in the transport industry (air, sea, rail) are too numerous to list, which include Airbus for aircraft, Samsung Heavy Industries for ships, and the French national rail operator SNCF, for the hydrogen-powered trains. 

How will hydrogen be produced?

Another question that remains to be addressed concerns the production and distribution of hydrogen. Reducing harmful emissions by operating trucks, running on hydrogen, solves only part of the problem, if the production of H2 is itself a source of pollution. 

Hydrogen is classified by colour codes, from white (naturally occurring and almost impossible to capture) to grey. Grey hydrogen comes from fossil resources and the production process emits CO2.      Grey hydrogen accounts for most of the production today and emits about 9.3 kg of CO2 per kg of hydrogen produced. Blue hydrogen captures and stores the CO2, mitigating the environmental impact. 

A cleaner way to produce hydrogen is a process called water electrolysis – using electricity to decompose H20 into hydrogen gas and oxygen. When produced using electricity, generated from renewable sources, it is classified as green hydrogen, which currently accounts for around one percent of hydrogen production.

Developing the most appropriate distribution infrastructure

One of the most problematic aspects remains the costs of distribution. This gas is so light, that storing, compressing and channelling it all requires a robust and well-planned infrastructure – a big hub and a small version. Without the massive deployment of a hydrogen fuel network, widespread use of this technology for trucks will be impossible. 

Current thinking in terms of hydrogen production, storage and delivery leads to two possible solutions. It could be produced centrally in a large production site and then transported to fuelling stations, in a similar way applicable to diesel, today. There are cost advantages in this scale of production facility, but transport costs must also be incorporated. Pipelines could be built, or trucks used, to deliver at the risk of emitting further pollutants. 

Alternatively, hydrogen could be produced on smaller sites, using solar panels for example, for self-consumption. Costs are low and cannot be scaled. Transport costs, on the other hand, are eliminated. 

Develop local hubs as a key element of H2 networks

A semi-decentralised solution could reduce the production costs, and provide considerable environmental advantages as a bonus. It is based on the concept of hydrogen production hubs at logistics warehouses, producing green hydrogen from solar panels. This is a solution that FM Logistic is enthusiastic about, and is investigating through its H2 Hub project.     

Given their generous roof surface, large warehouses are ideal locations to produce carbon-free energy from solar panels. These logistics centres are hubs and distribution centres, with constant arrival and departure of vehicles, linking them to locations near and far. Using these warehouses, a network of hydrogen production stations could be set up, with one main station supplying the auxiliary stations. The economic model investigated by FM Logistic is based on supplying not only the long-distance trucks, but also a wider variety of vehicles, serving the communities around the logistics site. 

This forward-thinking approach shows how FM Logistic is already finding solutions, to ease the transition to green energy, by decarbonizing transport using hydrogen fuel cells. Finally, it is incumbent to work together with the clients and OEM, to get access to the trucks, and be ready to test initiatives.

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