In my role as General Manager of Renewable Energies at Total Construction, I regularly work with organisations that want to invest in environmentally friendly energy solutions. Their reasoning is frequently based on two objectives: the desire to reduce energy costs, and a commitment to environmental sustainability.

These same companies face some interesting options ahead; one business component being logistics. In this article, I look at some of the vehicles out there, the technology behind them, new breakthroughs, and ways to utilise existing renewable-energy sources to power them.

Problem statement.
Electric vehicles are attracting plenty of attention. They represent less reliance on fossil fuels, however, there are concerns about short battery life, high battery-replacement costs, and the use of hidden ‘dirty electrons’ (i.e. if charged from the grid, they can be sourced from coal-fired electricity).

In an ideal world, the battery of a non-petroleum fuelled car would not need replacing, not be charged by ‘dirty electrons’, and have comparable mileage and performance to its petrol and diesel-fuel counterparts.

The solution may be the latest kid on the vehicular block: hydrogen fuel cell cars. Let’s take a closer look, make a few comparisons, and explore the pros and cons.

Hyundai – hydrogen fuel cell car.
There is a possibility that hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will be available in Australia from as early as 2018. Vehicle reviews indicate that the driving experience is similar to an electric vehicle, such as a Prius.

So how do they work? Compressed hydrogen is stored in two high-pressure tanks located at the rear of the vehicle. Hydrogen is fed into a fuel cell that combines it with air (oxygen) to generate electricity. That electricity turns a motor that turns the wheels.

It’s important to note that the only by-product of the whole process is chemically-pure water. That’s right; H2O. It dribbles out of a small tube at the back of the car.

The refuelling process only takes three to five minutes. That’s significant when compared to an electric vehicle, which can take around 30 minutes.

The manufacturers of the Hyundai ix35 tout the mileage to be around 594 kilometres – fairly similar to petrol and electric vehicles.

It is interesting to note that this particular vehicle has been mass produced since 2013. It’s just taken some time to find its way to the Australian market.

Toyota – hydrogen fuel cell car.
Toyota also offers a hydrogen vehicle known as the ‘Mirai’. It operates in essentially the same way as the Hyundai. You can check out a Mirai test drive and review on YouTube, here.

In the US, the Mirai lists as only US$57,000 and has an eight-year (or 100,000 mile) warranty on the fuel cell components. Equally impressive, it comes with three-years’ worth of fuel (or up to US$15,000) for free.

The catch? The offer is only valid in California.

About hydrogen refuelling stations.
The most developed network of hydrogen refuelling stations is in California in the USA. In Australia, the first to be constructed was announced only in August 2017. The location of the refuelling station will be Moreland City Council in Victoria.

So, the vehicles will be sold in 2018, but only one station has been announced in August this year? Could be a problem.

Vehicle manufacturers such as Hyundai and Toyota have been supporting their demonstrator vehicles with mobile refuelling stations. It’s plausible that some will be set up as an interim measure.

South Australia is trialling hydrogen buses and that may generate a hub for a distribution network of refuelling stations.

Self-generation could be the answer.
If a company (or even your average householder) already utilises solar panels, they will recently have lost their generous feed-in tariff. They’ve got power to spare but the idea of putting it into the grid for peanuts isn’t particularly appealing. In order to derive a greater benefit, they might consider storing the power they produce in batteries.

The beauty of this solution is they can then take that energy and power an electric car – as opposed to charging from the grid. However, this still doesn’t overcome the problems referred to in our Problem Statement, above.

But what if they could forgo the purchase of a battery, and employ an electrolyser (hydrogen generator) and in-ground hydrogen storage, instead? A fuel cell converts the hydrogen to electricity for use in their business or home, or the hydrogen can be compressed and used in a hydrogen vehicle. Starts to make sense if you don’t plan on doing a round trip of more than 594 kilometres.

This solution doesn’t just work in commercial or residential applications, either. Consider the benefits to community organisation as well, like RSL buses, local community buses and the like. And what about industrial business applications where vehicles operate on-site or within localised jurisdictions?

Is hydrogen sourcing always clean?
Unfortunately, the answer is no, not always. Industrially, it is obtained from methane via steam reforming. It can also be gasified from coal and stripped out of the subsequently obtained ‘syngas’.

That said, there are technology providers in the Australian market planning to place hydrogen (electrolyzer) cells into wind farms and solar farms, so an abundance of ‘clean’ hydrogen could be just around the corner and a distribution network may not be that far behind. But if you can generate your own fuel, let them take their time!

Concluding opinion.
To me this concept is a bit like the next iPhone. You want it, it makes you feel good, and once you have the next model you can’t go back. My point is that generating your own fuel from your own solar panels and driving around guilt-free has got to be a pretty hard feeling to beat.

James Bolton
General Manager – Renewable Energies


Disclaimer: Total is not an agent of these technologies and cannot speak to their ability to serve the Australian market. This document is merely an opinion on them and the concepts involved.

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