The roadmap to a hydrogen-refuelling infrastructure in support of fuel cell vehicles in the UK

In January 2013 the first public report of the UK H2Mobility initiative is due to be published. I am not alone in looking forward to reviewing the content of this landmark report and observing how it is received by the broad range of stakeholders with an interest in low carbon transport.

Hydrogen fuel cells offer a genuine energy efficient and zero exhaust emission alternative to petrol and diesel engines, whilst hydrogen is seen as a key means of storing energy originally generated via water electrolysis, from renewable electricity. Both fuel cells and hydrogen are written into technology roadmaps for transport and energy respectively, with technologies being demonstrated in real world applications today whilst academic and industry R&D is ongoing.

The UKH2Mobility report promises both new insights and a uniquely UK-specific roadmap for the roll out of a hydrogen-refuelling infrastructure supporting the commercial introduction of fuel cell vehicles. The report comes one year on from the launch of the initiative by industry stakeholders, who have worked behind closed doors with government engagement and support. The long gestation period between launch and first report no doubt reflects the complexity of the issues the participants will have been addressing and their need to articulate a common vision capable of withstanding intense scrutiny from interested parties from UK academia, the UK policy community, private investors, fleets and local government amongst others.

The roll out of charging points to support plug-in electric vehicle introduction has seen infrastructure deployed in a wide variety of locations through an organic process based on a mixed range of stimuli. In contrast to this, the UKH2Mobility initiative is expected to point toward a more regimented process, shaped by a Government and Industry consensus. A staged introduction of hydrogen into the transport system is likely to dictate that some geographical areas are dialled into the hydrogen economy quicker than others, based on a phased deployment of hydrogen dispensers at existing petrol station forecourts. The key is to realise hydrogen prices at the fuel pump, that make fuel cell vehicles cost competitive with alternatives. Once fuel cell engines are being mass produced these engines should cross over from cars to a wider range of vehicles, plant and equipment. London is seen as a first mover whilst a number of Scottish island communities are supporting early demonstration activities. Elsewhere in the UK a number of academic and industrial centres have fostered demonstration activities, but this may not see them attract early industry investment for fuel station and vehicle deployment.

From a fleet operator perspective it will be interesting to see how the refuelling station technology investments are proposed to be deployed with particular reference to supporting return-to-base operations. The likely choice of vehicle types and their introduction dates will also be a key point of reference.

Overall it would be unwise to speculate further as to the contents of the report, other than to predict that it definitely won't conclude that fuel cell vehicles are ten years away ....and always will be.

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