Last month, two of the world’s first hydrogen-powered trains were put into operation along a 100-kilometre stretch in northern Germany. This is a landmark in the development of low-carbon technology in a sector which is still heavily dependent on fossil fuels. 29% of the UK’s trains still run solely on diesel and over 50% are diesel-electric hybrids and the problem is worse in countries with less developed infrastructure, like India, where over 50% of its trains run solely on diesel. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent report provided a worrying reminder that we cannot sustain this use of fuel-burning transport: while a 1.5C increase in global temperatures is ecologically manageable, we are currently on course for a 3C rise in a matter of decades. Scientists have stressed that CO2 emissions – overwhelmingly caused by diesel-based transport – must reach a net total of zero by 2050. Hydrogen offers an opportunity for clean and scalable transport, which is especially important when considering the rapidly developing train networks of Latin America and South East Asia. As populations grow, ensuring that development does not come at the cost of pollution and air quality is doable if we make the right choices now.
The case for hydrogen is particularly urgent because diesel is not only a pollutant contributing to climate change, it is also among the worst fuels for air pollution. Substances produced through diesel combustion, such as particulates and nitrous oxides, cause respiratory problems in humans and affect the life cycle of animals critical to our survival, such as the bee. Yet, the only waste produced by hydrogen trains, quite incredibly, is pure water. Embracing hydrogen would be an unparalleled opportunity for governments and municipalities to show a true commitment to the planet’s future, all while cleaning up cities. If the technology is invested in today, and hydrogen-power becomes the norm in powering transport, we all stand to benefit.
The Hydrogen Process
The hydrogen energy process works in several steps. H2 is by harvested by electrolysis, a process which chemically separates water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen is stored and loaded in tanks onboard the trains. Fuel cells on the locomotives’ roofs then trigger reactions between the hydrogen and surrounding atmospheric oxygen, which generates electricity to power the trains.
While the trains’ principal environmental benefit lies in water being their sole waste product, they also have the potential to be entirely carbon-free. Naturally, the initial electrolysis procedure has to be powered by an external source of energy. Yet if this source is entirely renewable – be that wind, solar or hydro – the entire energy process stands to be green from start to finish. Hydrogen trains are certainly compatible with a future free of fossil fuels.
In the long-term, a cost-effective solution
Critics have pointed to the high cost involved in the switch to hydrogen, with trains currently sold to operators at €81 million apiece. Yet once the technology is installed and operational, running costs are significantly lower than with diesel-fueled engines, especially if hydrogen stores are generated by a renewable energy source. As diesel prices go up, the long-term cost efficiency of hydrogen will be made increasingly apparent.
While start-up costs are high for now, these will also decrease over time. As with all new technology, more widespread production leads to greater efficiency and a reduction in cost. Taking a financial hit now has the potential to pay great dividends in the future.
Not just in Western Europe
In my recent article on turning away from single-use plastics, I discussed how Latin America seems to be breaking the historical tendency for uniting rapid industrialization with a disregard for the environment. There is no need for hydrogen-powered technology to be the preserve of Western European countries either.
Many Latin American countries are already major producers and users of renewable energy, with some like Uruguay sourcing as much as 78% of its power from wind and hydro in 2016. The adoption of hydrogen trains, especially in places which have no existing train networks, would make sure that development was sustainable in the long-term. Investment in renewable transport also makes political sense – people are in tune with environmental messaging and governmental initiatives in this domain are well-received.
There are economic incentives too. While the technical infrastructure for building trains set with fuel cells may currently be lacking in regions like Latin America, hydrogen is a clever market for developing economies to start investing in. In January 2017, the Hydrogen Council was inaugurated at Davos, with 13 energy and transport companies pledging €10 billion in hydrogen investments over the coming five years. Getting a foothold, in what may soon be the world’s foremost energy market, is a shrewd move.
With hydrogen trains, it is not so much a matter of if, but when. As global temperatures rise and fossils fuels get depleted, we must look for alternatives to diesel-fueled transport out of necessity, not choice. If we recognize this as an urgent matter and make the right investments now, humanity as a whole stands to benefit.