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23 July 2020

Europe’s hydrogen bus fleet to double in size through 2020

The number of hydrogen buses in operation in Europe will more than double through 2020, as the continent’s six demonstration projects wind to a close. But as the idea of a hydrogen economy starts gaining traction, market conditions could see buses in the first category of transport technologies to see rapid decarbonization through the use of fuel cells.

The current operational fleet of 107 fuel cell buses in 2019 will rise by 98 to a total of 205 across seven European countries this year. Leading additions will come from the UK (62), France (16), Germany (13), the Netherlands (4) and Denmark (3).

With some exceptions, these installations primarily come off the back of six European initiatives to prove the technology on a pilot scale: 3Emotion, High V.Lo-City, HyTransit, CHIC, JIVE and JIVE 2, running over various periods between 2010 and 2023, with significant support from the EU’s Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking (FCH JU). Beyond this year however, only the tail-end projects from the JIVE project will be developed, and the technology will have to make the leap from demonstration to commercialization.

There’s arguably no better time for this to happen. The EU recently released its hydrogen strategy which will bring the technology much closer to the center of the bloc’s decarbonization efforts. Among promises for 6 GW of electrolyzers by 2024, and demand-side production in the short-term, the plan also outlines fuel cell buses as the first step for hydrogen in the transport sector, noting that “hydrogen refueling stations will be needed for the uptake of hydrogen fuel-cell buses and at a later stage trucks.”

In boosting demand and scaling up production, it goes on to say that “in transport, hydrogen is also a promising option where electrification is more difficult. In a first phase, early adoption of hydrogen can occur in captive uses, such as local city buses, commercial fleets (e.g. taxis) or specific parts of the rail network, where electrification is not feasible. Hydrogen refueling stations can easily be supplied by regional or local electrolyzers, but their deployment will need to build on clear analysis of fleet demand and different requirements for light- and heavy-duty vehicles.”

In the broader context of transport, this “clear analysis” is in reference to the cut-off point between hydrogen and batteries as an optimum technology, in a trade-off between cost and energy density. While both offer similar advantages in emission and noise reduction, hydrogen offers a higher energy density than batteries, and in vehicles with high space capacity it enables a significantly longer range of up to 450 km; the maximum we’ve seen from an electric bus is 280 km. With hydrogen as a molecule-based fuel, charge times are also much shorter – around 7 minutes, compared to an electric bus’s equivalent of around half an hour.

In reality, it is cheating to draw a distinct line between hydrogen fuel cell buses and electric buses, as both involve batteries (or capacitors in some rare instances). In a standard fuel cell bus, a fuel cell of around 150 kW capacity is paired with a battery of between 100 and 250 kW, which provides peak power to the drive train – often during stop-and-go – to improve overall efficiency. In this instance however, the battery is typically charged through a combination of the fuel-cell itself and regenerative braking.

Like the hydrogen trains we wrote about last week, the performance of fuel-cell buses is designed to match that of its diesel counterpart. Using multiple fuel tanks on the bus’s roof, storing hydrogen at 350 bar, with a capacity of around 35 kg, the buses range can reach up to 450 km, with comparable speed and acceleration, and a consumption that can be as low as 7 kg of hydrogen per 100 km.

The other benefit of fuel-cell buses is that they require no additional infrastructure such as overhead powerlines, reducing initial capital requirements and offering greater operational flexibility than rail-based networks. With high available range, the only required infrastructure is that of a refueling station at the bus’s depot – if electrolysis is performed onsite, this is well-aligned with the vision set out in the EU strategy.

As with most clean technologies, the largest barrier to mass-uptake is cost. The purchase price for a fuel-cell bus fell 75% between 1990 and 2015 and is expected to fall to around €400,000 by 2030. While this will still be significantly greater than the equivalent Diesel bus at the time (€244,000), progressive EU policies to tax carbon emissions and reduce the cost of green hydrogen could see the total cost of ownership of a fuel cell bus reach parity before 2025 – at around €2.5 per kilometer – even before considering any subsidies that could be introduced at various levels. With the potential to reach net zero emissions, if hydrogen is produced from renewable sources, fuel cell buses will save approximately 120 kg of CO2 per 100 km of a typical Euro VI Diesel equivalent.

Across the EU, there are currently just under 900,000 buses in operation, with 40,000 new units cycling into the system each year. The modest number of fuel cell buses in Europe currently accounts for only 0.02% of this. But by 2030, Rethink Energy expects a Europe-wide fleet of over 40,000 buses running on hydrogen – 30% of new sales and 4.3% of the operating fleet (see our hydrogen forecast due next month). By 2040, the fleet will have grown six-fold to 244,000 – 26% of the operating fleet and 57% of new sales. At this time, the bus sector will account for an annual hydrogen demand of approximately 7 kilotons.

While this level of penetration requires rapid acceleration, cogs are already in motion to facilitate this. In Norway and the Netherlands, targets are in place for all new buses to those of zero emissions by 2025, with similar targets on a city level in London, Copenhagen, Hamburg, Paris, Athens, and Madrid.

One of the keys to unlocking this early potential and providing a blueprint for the hydrogen-based decarbonization of other sectors, is likely to be the cluster coordination of deployment, which could be coordinated by the Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking. Through bulk ordering, participation will be encouraged from the OEMs in the sector, ranging from fuel cell manufacturers like Ballard and Hydrogenics, bus manufacturers like Van Hool and Solaris, all the way up to infrastructure and giants like Siemens and Skoda. With Asian OEM’s beginning to respond to this market, these companies will be well placed to grow their global presence in this sector if they can establish an early lead.