Hydrogen: a sustainable alternative for land transport

11 October, 2022

The land transport sector is one of the largest consumers of energy. Alternatives to fossil fuels exist today, but petroleum products are still predominant, both for light-duty vehicles and heavy-duty transport.

And this trend must change. On the one hand, to become more sustainable and reduce the impact of changes in the price of raw materials; and on the other hand, to provide solutions with the common goal of mitigating climate change, that is, keeping the rise in temperatures below 2°C.

There are various measures to decarbonise a sector that is so important for the economy and for society, for example:

  • Replacing older vehicles with more efficient ones.
  • The expansion of alternative fuels and electric vehicles.
  • Creating transport strategies with a global vision, taking into account the different means of transport in order to select the most appropriate for each operation.
  • Combining loads and containers to maximise truck utilisation.

While the most effective strategy involves promoting various measures such as the above, one of the most promising is undoubtedly the promotion of renewable hydrogen – together with other green gases such as biogas/biomethane – to power all types of vehicles.

The land transport sector must come up with solutions to mitigate climate change

A green future thanks to hydrogen

It is ever more common on roads to have the presence of electric cars, hybrid and efficient vehicles or even new forms of mobility, such as car sharing.

The combination of these measures can have a big impact, and although they are becoming popular in light transport and we can envision a zero-emissions future with them, heavy transport has characteristics that make it more difficult to decarbonise.

These include the fact that heavy transport requires long travel distances to carry out its work. And under these conditions, with limited storage and charging space, green hydrogen is a sustainable alternative.

Hydrogen – in many cases not yet 100% renewable – is already used in light-duty cars and buses, although its real main potential lies in medium and long-distance transport. For shorter, unladen journeys, the most widespread sustainable option is renewable electricity; but the electric vehicle is not an alternative that can be widely deployed at a professional level because of its shorter range and lower charging capacity.

The best solution available today for heavy-duty vehicles covering long-distance routes is LNG, but with a view to a decarbonised future, the sector will need to move towards the use of renewable hydrogen to limit its emissions.

The best solution available today for heavy duty vehicles covering long distance routes is LNG

Steps are also being taken in Spain to promote trains powered by renewable hydrogen fuel cells. In May 2022, Talgo began dynamic testing of Spain’s first dual hydrogen-electric train. Hydrogen is thus presented as a solution to replace diesel traction and decarbonise non-electrified railway lines.

Advantages and challenges

The main benefit of using hydrogen for land transport is clear: the only thing it emits is water vapour, therefore it does not pollute during operation. If we add to this the fact that the hydrogen used is renewable, we also ensure that its production does not generate any emissions as it comes from renewable energies.

It also has other benefits that make it a real option and alternative to electric vehicles, such as a longer average range and shorter charging time (similar to the time it takes at a traditional petrol station).

However these advantages do not make hydrogen for land transport perfect. Their current cost prevents large-scale deployment and, although there are alternatives to overcome this constraint (strengthening of the market, technological development, etc.), their use is currently limited.

In 2020, 1,000 hydrogen vehicles were sold across Europe and currently, in Spain, only two hydrogen vehicle models are marketed.

For this to change, it is necessary to deploy an infrastructure which, at present, is one of the biggest handicaps. These include the availability of refuelling stations and a transmission network to enable supply. All of these must be prioritised if we are to accelerate change.

The biggest handicap is the necessary deployment of infrastructure to make this happen

However we must also focus on the production of renewable hydrogen to supply this large sector, something that is already being worked on at a European level with the hydrogen valleys and hydrogen corridors.

Both measures will improve hydrogen production, storage and transport, and will also have a positive impact on prices as economies of scale are achieved, technology is developed and a wider market is built.

We have good examples to follow so as to boost hydrogen mobility such as the city of Copenhagen (Denmark), which has purchased 100 green hydrogen-powered vehicles to transform the city’s taxi sector. Or Japan, which has the largest number of hydrogen stations in the world and is strongly committed to hydrogen vehicles.

Spain is expected to have 100 hydrogen stations by 2030, according to the Hydrogen Roadmap

Spain is expected to have 100 hydrogen stations by 2030, according to the Hydrogen Roadmap. Since the first one was inaugurated in 2021 in Madrid, by Enagás (through the Scale Gas startup and in collaboration with other organisations), the number has grown to the current six: in addition to Madrid, there are already hydrogen refuelling stations in Seville, Zaragoza, Huesca, Albacete and Puertollano.

The use of renewable hydrogen for land mobility is a hope for the decarbonisation of the sector. At higher load and distance, it is one of the most promising possibilities for a carbon-neutral future.