Major UK utilities exploring hydrogen fleets

Two of the UK's largest gas distribution networks (GDNs) - Northern Gas Networks and Wales & West Utilities - are exploring the feasibility of using hydrogen to decarbonise a proportion of their road transport fleets, in the same month that Yorkshire Water converted one of its vehicles to hydrogen.

Major UK utilities exploring hydrogen fleets

Northern Gas Network are working with Cenex

The GDNs are undertaking research to determine which proportions of their respective fleets could be replaced with vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells, and where new production and refuelling infrastructure would need to be installed to meet their demands.

This process is being supported by the EIC and the UK’s first Centre of Excellence for Low Carbon and Fuel Cell technologies, Cenex. Along with the GDNs, these organisations will map what proportion of existing journeys can be completed by an equivalent hydrogen vehicle, taking into account location, distance and proximity to refuelling stations. Cost predictions for this switch will then be developed.

The GDNs will likely invest in hydrogen to decarbonise some of their heavier vehicles, including trucks and vehicles which power hand tools in remote locations. This is because, while battery-electric technologies have matured fairly rapidly for smaller vehicles such as cars, decarbonising heavier vehicles with higher energy demands has proven more of a technological challenge. Moreover, the UK’s electric vehicle charging infrastructure installations are still being outpaced by vehicle registrations, making range anxiety and charging access key concerns for drivers in rural locations.

“At Northern Gas Networks, we are aiming for 50% of our fleet to be made up of ultra-low emission vehicles, including hydrogen vehicles, by 2026,” Northern Gas Networks’ fleet and plant manager Sarah Cooper-Birkenhead said. “By scoping the practicalities of running a hydrogen-powered fleet, this project can help gas distributors make the transition more effectively.”

Businesses already investing in hydrogen for road transport include the likes of Asda, Howard Tenens and Kuehne + Nagel, as well as John Lewis Partnership. In the utilities sector, Yorkshire Water recently converted one of its tankers to hydrogen in what it believes is a UK first. The 7.5-tonne vehicle entered operation in South Yorkshire this week and will be refuelled at ITM Power’s Catcliffe facility, which is supplied with green hydrogen produced using wind power.

Greening hydrogen

Hydrogen is widely regarded as a key part of the UK’s transition to net-zero by 2050, with the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) dubbing hydrogen technologies for transport and heating “a necessity, not an option”.

However, 95% of the hydrogen produced globally in 2018 was produced using fossil-fuel powered methods, meaning it is not yet an intrinsically green solution.

The Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) will soon begin an inquiry into the role of low-carbon hydrogen production and utilisation in the nation’s transition to net-zero, exploring key barriers and opportunities. It believes that the UK’s large offshore wind capacity and extensive gas networks could be used to produce, store and transport green hydrogen, but that stricter requirements, further investment

In March, a new Hydrogen Taskforce emergedled by Shell and BP, that is lobbying for the UK Government to invest £1bn to boost hydrogen production in the UK. Since then, work to develop plans for a solar-powered hydrogen facility on the Isle of Wight has begun.

Utility flexibility

In related news, a coalition of energy sector firms including Centrica and Ovo Energy have written to Ofgem to encourage further support for EV smart charging as part of a flexible energy system.

Along with Moixa, Flexitricity and Renewable UK, the firms have undertaken research outlining how EV smart charging – whereby vehicles are charged during periods of low energy demand and provide balancing services during periods of high demand – could have saved bill payers £133 million since lockdown began in March.

This saving would have been realised both by National Grid, in the form of a 27% reduction in grid balancing costs, and by domestic energy customers, the research concludes. This finding is based on a scenario in which six million EVs provide flexibility services through smart charging on a UK-wide basis. Such a scenario has not yet come about, the letter’s signatories state, because the market frameworks that would enable these smart technologies to support the energy system are not yet in place.

“While reforms are underway, it’s not certain they’ll go far and fast enough in delivering the signals that tell users when they should be charging for cheaper, greener energy,” they state.

The letter is co-ordinated by the Flexibility First Forum, a coalition of organisations with the common aim of bringing about a more flexible energy system as more low-carbon energy comes online. The Forum regularly speaks with Ofgem and BEIS.

Sarah George

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