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Graham Cooley: “Battery-electric vehicles put a lot of pressure on the grid”

Generating no local emissions and with the possibility of being produced from renewable resources, hydrogen is an attractive alternative to conventional vehicle fuels. In the second part of our interview (read the first one here), Dr Graham Cooley, CEO of ITM Power, discusses how hydrogen can be generated from electrolysers located directly on fuel station forecourts. Not only does it provide clean, zero carbon hydrogen for fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs), but it also fulfills a vital grid-balancing role.

How can the surplus of wind and solar energy be used to make fuel for cars?

The same principle by which electrolysers are used to generate hydrogen in a grid-balancing role can be applied to make very low-cost hydrogen at filling stations for FCEVs. The electrolyser, which is plugged in the national grid, is switched on whenever the grid company requires grid balancing. This generates hydrogen that is stored in tanks and then deployed to vehicles. This is the lowest carbon footprint and lowest cost hydrogen possible because it is made directly where it’s needed — on the forecourt.

It’s also absolutely clean. Hydrogen made by electrolysis from water has never seen any carbon molecules.

Has ITM Power already started building electrolysers at fuel stations?

Yes. We opened the first one in the UK in February this year. It’s at one of the UK’s busiest fuel stations — on the M25 at Cobham. We also have a strong partnership with Toyota, Hyundai and Honda, all of whom are rolling out FCEVs.

Shell first hydrogen refuelling station in the UK, supplied by ITM Power. Credits ITM Power.

We’ve worked with Shell and the Compressed Gas Association in the UK on updating the ‘Blue Book’, which is the established technical guidance that dictates the design of fuel stations. We have been able to publish a Blue Book addendum on the guidelines for electrolysis equipment on forecourts. This compliance work was necessary before we could install our electrolysers. At the moment, ITM Power is deploying 10 refueling stations in the UK. So far, 4 of these stations are open to the public.

“We sell hydrogen at £10 per kilogram. Once we reach a significant loading of our stations we’ll be at £7 per kilogram”

A very important organization supporting efforts towards a low-carbon energy system is the EU’s Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking (FCH JU). The FCH JU is a public private partnership supporting research and development in fuel cells and hydrogen energy in Europe. The FCH JU aims to facilitate the introduction of these technologies onto the market, to help reach the objective of a carbon-lean energy system.

How does the cost of electrolytically generated hydrogen compare to other fuels?

In the UK we sell hydrogen at £10 per kilogram (11.39 euros) at our pumps, which in a Toyota Mirai FCEV is about the same price per mile as petrol. Once we reach a significant loading of our stations we’ll be at £7 per kilogram, which is 20% less than diesel per mile.

What other hydrogen fuel projects are ITM Power currently involved with?

We’ve recently made a major announcement about hydrogen buses. One of the reasons that hydrogen is ideal for buses is the return to base principle. Basically, imagine you’re driving a Toyota Mirai FCEV and you want to go from Edinburgh to London, then you’ll need a few hydrogen refueling stations situated along the 650km route. This infrastructure is in the process of gearing up.

“Zero emission hydrogen buses are financeable today”

Buses travel the same route every day and refuel at the same place every day. This allows a single refueling station to serve a whole network of buses.

Zero emission hydrogen buses are financeable today. There’s an initial investment needed to go from advanced diesel buses to hydrogen buses, which the FCH JU is supporting through an initiative that was launched in January this year. It’s a €125m scheme that is set to deliver 144 hydrogen fuel cell buses and associated refueling infrastructure in 9 cities and regions across Europe.

What sort of timescale are we looking at before hydrogen cars and buses become a familiar sight on our roads?

Mirai production line, Fuel Cell Stack installation, © Toyota.

The number of hydrogen vehicles now being produced is very impressive. Toyota delivered 3,000 Mirais in 2016, this number will be surpassed in 2017, and by 2020 the car will be in mass production. More vehicles are also coming from Honda and Hyundai. There are also Chinese automakers, such as SAIC Motor, BYD Auto and Great Wall Motors. They will soon be major players in the field after the Chinese government announced plans to build a hydrogen infrastructure to support up to 1 million FCEVs by 2030.

For fuel cell electric buses, there are now several major OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers) entering the market, including: Van Hool, New Flyer, Man, Solaris, VDL, Wrightbus, Skoda, Proterra, APTS, Hyundai, Toyota, EvoBus (Daimler) and Ursus.

“Cities such as London and Paris are really pushing to address the problem of air quality”

It’s difficult to be precise about a timescale, but there’s a lot happening to drive things forward. For example, the Japanese government intends to make the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo a showcase for hydrogen technology, using the event to promote the launch of a new version of the Toyota Mirai and a network of fuel cell buses. In the meantime in Europe, cities such as London and Paris are really pushing to address the problem of air quality. London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan unveiled the world’s first double-decker hydrogen bus and has committed to phasing out the purchase of new ‘dirty’ diesel buses for the capital. He revealed that no more pure diesel double-deck buses will be added to the capital’s fleet from 2018 and that all new single-decks for central London will be zero-emission.

Do you think battery electric and FCEVs will coexist?

Yes, I think so. It is important to remember that FCEVs are electric vehicles too. The only difference between them and battery electric vehicles (BEVs) is the way that energy is put into the vehicle. One is refueled, the other is recharged.

“It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that BEVs are more efficient”

If you compare BEVs and FCEVs, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that BEVs are more efficient. But BEVs are typically recharged between 6pm and 8pm, when the network is obtaining electricity using high carbon generation. So while the efficiency of the conversion from the battery’s chemical energy to electricity may be high, this electricity is very high on carbon. On the other hand hydrogen is made using a device that the grid company controls, that fulfills a grid balancing role, so it’s always made with low or zero carbon electricity. How can we compare these efficiencies?

Another problem with BEVs is that they take a long time to recharge and they don’t have a long enough driving range. They also have a very negative effect on the electricity network. BEVs are usually recharged via the low voltage network at people’s homes or in a parking space with a charging station. This puts a lot of pressure on the grid, and the more BEVs there are, the greater the pressure is.

“Hydrogen completely avoids this problem”

If you imagine the load on an average house, the peak at any one time is likely to be around 10KW. If you plug in a BEV, then the load of your house is suddenly increased. Now if everyone along the street does the same, what is the electricity company going to do? And we’re talking about the low voltage network, which is underground. Distribution network operators will need to dig up roads to undertake the necessary upgrading, which will be very expensive and disruptive.

Hydrogen completely avoids this problem. Electrolysers are plugged into the high voltage network, which has a great amount of excess capacity, and the equipment is turned on and off by the electricity company as and when needed to balance the grid. In addition, drivers will go to a forecourt to refuel, which is what they are already accustomed to.

Are electrolysers compatible with several types of renewable energy?

Absolutely, it’s not only about wind and solar power. We have a project in Orkney that connects electrolysis to tidal power. Here’s one of the other propositions of hydrogen: if you have a strong renewable resource, such as waves or tides, hydrogen enables the resource to be accessed even if it’s too remote for a grid connection.

European Marine Energy Centre unit in build, Orkney. Credits ITM Power.

In Orkney we are making hydrogen at the European Marine Energy Centre. There’s no grid connection here because it’s almost impossible to get one right out on the northern tip of Scotland. So we use tidal power to make hydrogen, which we then ship to the mainland.

How efficient is this?

Sometimes, people focus too much on efficiency. Some think that shipping hydrogen on a boat doesn’t sound very efficient. But half of the world’s energy gases are transported via ship.

“When moving hundreds or thousands of tonnes at once, moving it by ship is very low energy”

In Japan right now, Kawasaki is working on building a hydrogen carrier ship so that hydrogen can be transported to Japan from places where renewable energy is available. It’s a very sensible solution. Think about other energy sources: if we want fuel from Qatar to be transported to Europe, then we use a ship. When moving hundreds or thousands of tonnes at once, moving it by ship is very low energy. In Orkney we are using hydrogen to access a resource that is otherwise unattainable. How do we measure efficiency in this situation?

What are governments and other stakeholders doing to help foster the energy transition?

What hydrogen technology needs is for all the large energy players to enter the market. The Hydrogen Council is thus very important because it brings together several key companies for discussions on how to implement the energy transition. It is vital that the world finds a way to value the carbon molecule. In other words, attaching a price to carbon emissions. Without this measure, it will be difficult to steer the world towards a low-carbon future.

The Hydrogen Council is significant because it brings together some heavyweight organizations. These big companies have understood that the role of hydrogen is about energy storage, renewable heat and renewable fuel. It’s a massive transition we’re going through and the market is huge: heat, electricity and fuel — it’s bigger than any other market in the world.

“We have got to eliminate the carbon molecule”

I think sometimes we underestimate the historical importance of what’s happening right now. We’re undergoing an amazing transition. Since the industrial revolution in the 19th century, we’ve gone from coal, which is a network of billions of carbon atoms, to oil, then gas and then ultimately hydrogen, which when made renewably involves no carbon molecules. This is the industrial transition that is happening right now.

If we want a long-term transition to a renewable and sustainable global economy, then we have got to eliminate the carbon molecule. And the only fuel that involves no carbon molecules in any part of its supply chain is hydrogen made with renewable power.

This is the second part of two. In part 1, Dr. Cooley discusses the role of hydrogen in the clean energy transition, particularly its application for grid balancing to support the move towards renewable energy.