12-04-11 Road to Zero Carbon Transportation

The Road to Zero Carbon Transportation

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11 Apr 2012PDF (493 kb)

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12-04-11 Road to Zero Carbon Transportation

There must inevitably be a transition to cleaner forms of transportation and to cleaner fuels, be they bio-based, grid-powered, or hydrogen fuelled; we cannot however jump straight to a utopian zero-carbon transport structure overnight. Rather, gradual changes will be needed to either the vehicles or the fuel, but preferably a little of both progressing together. In the UK we can already sell blends of up to seven percent biodiesel and five percent bioethanol without additional labelling, but there is a limit to how far this can progress with existing vehicles before engine modification is required. And there are also concerns over how much biofuel can be made and from which source it originates.

Hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV) are planned for commercial launch from 2014 by many of the world’s major automakers. These same companies are simultaneously developing and launching battery electric vehicles (BEV) as part of a portfolio aimed at meeting ever tightening emission limits. The green credentials of these vehicles are continuously debated; supporters lay out a vision of zero carbon fuelled zero emission vehicles and detractors decry the technology as no better than conventional internal combustion engines (ICE) using fossil-derived fuels and requiring massive infrastructure investment and will not provide the solution to our emission targets. I would say that we are at an early stage on our journey to zero carbon transportation which has complex interactions, not only with the way we use our cars but also with broader forms of energy use.

The continued evolution of the ICE will only get us so far regarding emissions but stopping development of battery or fuel cell powered vehicles because either the grid electricity or the necessary hydrogen is fossil fuel based is not an option. The increased adoption of these vehicles over the coming years will offer the necessary stepping-stone to enabling zero carbon transportation.

Future sources of hydrogen will be varied, ranging from stored renewable electricity to biogas-derived hydrogen. Only when a critical mass of vehicles is reached in a specific area will the rollout of a wider hydrogen infrastructure become more economical. In the short term reformed natural gas will provide the bulk of hydrogen, much as it does today in the chemicals industry, with the gas delivered to filling stations from central production facilities – similar to today’s gasoline and diesel markets. While centralised steam reforming offers the opportunity for carbon capture, making it better for the environment, it still utilises finite resources so can be no more than a transient process. Ultimately the decarbonisation of electricity production, coupled to water electrolysis provides the necessary scale required to achieve zero carbon transportation; this will come through the integration of renewables to the grid, which offers a variety of solutions:

  • BEV can directly benefit from the zero carbon electricity;
  • FCEV can be fuelled using stored hydrogen from water electrolysis generated during times of excess electricity – this also increases utilisation of generating infrastructure, reduces potential curtailment costs and removes the need for spinning reserve;
  • FCEV can be fuelled using by-product hydrogen produced during distributed heat and electricity generation at industrial sites, such as waste water treatment facilities;
  • FCEV can be refuelled at the domestic level using water electrolysis; either powered using solar panels or using off-peak zero-carbon electricity.

There is no fast-track ticket which can teleport us to our destination along the road to zero carbon transportation, instead we will all undertake it together with different components of the solution contributing along the way. I have no doubts that it can be done and it will be one of the most complex infrastructure achievements ever to integrate the different facets of our society such as power generation and transport fuel.

Examples can be seen today of how the pieces of this jigsaw puzzle can fit together: in the USA, Orange County Sanitation District is producing heat and electricity from biogas and also generating hydrogen for vehicles; in Germany water electrolysis is being coupled with wind power in hybrid power plants, again with the option to fuel FCEV or produce electricity for the grid; automakers in Japan are developing solar-powered home hydrogen fuelling systems; and electrolyser companies in Europe and the USA are promoting containerised electrolysers with roof-mounted solar panels for distributed hydrogen production with storage and distribution included.

Solutions like these will join together to deliver the goals of zero carbon transportation, with each one finding its niche along the way. I look forward to seeing the complete picture evolve and to hearing announcements of additional projects in the future.


Dan Carter     Manager



Image © Wolfgang Staudt Photography


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