What about hydrogen-powered trucks and heavy fleet vehicles?
There are already signs of a heavy-vehicle hydrogen revolution. US brewing giant Anheuser-Busch recently reserved 800 hydrogen trucks from start-up manufacturer Nikola, while Hyundai has forged a partnership to sell 1000 into Switzerland. South Korea, meanwhile, hopes to have 1000 hydrogen buses on the road by 2023.
Many believe fleet operations and hydrogen power are a natural fit. Electric vehicles are generally cheaper to run, offering a commercial advantage, and the refuelling problem can be solved by generating hydrogen at the depot via electrolysis (basically, using electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen). Infrastructure Victoria executive director Jonathan Spear is one who sees it as a possible pathway.
“If you have a big roof and can capture a lot of water and sun you can generate your own hydrogen,” he says. “So a fleet of buses and trucks might be viable even in the absence of a broader hydrogen economy.”
Hydrogen trucks could also solve many of the health and noise problems associated with diesel. “In industrial areas where vehicle noise has been a challenge, removing that could be very important to retaining the licence to operate,” Jonathan says. “And there’s millions of dollars of potential avoided harm from removing internal combustion emissions.”
Is hydrogen power really cleaner than other types of fuel?
The other dimension of hydrogen is that it is much more than a transport fuel. Because it can be used to generate power or burned in place of natural gas, advocates foresee whole cities and economies running on clean, limitless hydrogen. Japan is actively working towards that scenario, aiming to have 800,000 hydrogen cars on the road by 2030, and to import hundreds of thousands of tonnes for power and heating.
The sticking point is generation and distribution. Making hydrogen is energy and emissions intensive, so the challenge is producing it at scale from green power – something that Australia with its abundant land, sun and wind could be well placed to do.
Is there a future for petrol in Australia?
Whatever the future holds, it will not look like today. Scott Nargar, head of government relations for Hyundai Australia, believes we are on the cusp of a transport revolution whether we’re ready for it or not.
“Everything that’s petrol today will be battery in future, everything that’s diesel will be fuel cell,” he says. “We’ve got a long way before we transition, but cars of the future won’t have internal combustion engines. Global emissions regulations will determine that, and it’s just a matter of Australia having the infrastructure ready when that day arrives. We can prepare for it, or be dragged along kicking and screaming.”
Battery v hydrogen fuel cell
- Powered by a rechargeable battery that drives an electric motor.
- Slower to recharge, but can be plugged in to any existing power point.
- Shorter range than hydrogen vehicles.
- Requires heavy battery packs, making it less suitable for large vehicles.
- More efficient.
- Hydrogen undergoes a chemical reaction in a device called a fuel cell, producing electricity, water and heat.
- Quick to fill, but requires specialised refuelling facilities that are still very rare (only two in Australia).
- Longer range than battery-powered cars.
- Very light fuel – one kilogram of hydrogen provides enough energy to drive 100 kilometres.
RACV is very interested in the potential of low-emissions vehicles. It is monitoring hydrogen production developments at the Toyota plant in Altona and new product development with hydrogen-powered vehicles at manufacturers including Hyundai.
RACV is technology neutral in terms of the electric-versus-hydrogen debate (or any other fuel type), and supports any technology, as long as it is proven to be both safe and efficient for the motoring public and all Victorians.