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Transport and the
Hydrogen Economy -
part of the solution to global warming.

Outline of proposed talk by Hugo Spowers

22nd February, 2007


I have been working on solutions to the non-sustainability of transport since 1999, when I undertook a feasibility study of bringing hydrogen fuel cell cars to market during an MBA at Cranfield University. My view of the future of transport is derived by backcasting from the end point - a sustainable system, ecologically, financially and socially - rather than forecasting. I am clear that step changes in technology and the provision of transport are required; incremental development will reduce the negative impacts but never eliminate them. If we are to enjoy freedom to travel that is any way comparable to that we enjoy today, the only viable technology on the horizon is hydrogen fuel cells. All other candidates suffer from unsustainable attributes of one sort or another and the scale of personal transport is such that any solution must be rigorous.

If a hydrogen-fuelled system is to be sustainable, the biggest single issue is the transport energy demand. 'Sustainable' implies living off revenue streams, as any family, business or nation knows, so energy efficiency will be orders of magnitude more important than any other metric; in the past, mpg has always been quoted but never made a material difference to design, as we have been living in a capital based system where the loss of capital has never been evaluated on any balance sheet. This will change. To achieve sufficient energy efficiency that we can supply the transport system renewably means that we have to rethink the design of cars rather than graft fuel cells into cars designed and optimised for petrol engines. This is the technical aspect of my work - whole system design of cars to suit fuel cell technology, leading to an improvement in energy efficiency of at least factor 4 or 300%. However, whole system design must also be used on the organisations and systems that deliver the transport service, as these are just as optimised around combustion engines as the vehicle design. I can touch on this briefly, including examples of why the current industry cannot adapt to be 'fit for purpose'.

The last aspect upon which I will touch is hydrogen generation which must be thought through in a similarly holistic fashion. Without doubt, the aspect of a hydrogen economy with which thoughtful sceptics find they have the most leverage is the production of hydrogen. This is not to say that it is a weakness in the case for hydrogen but that it is the most difficult to explain, as it unifies energy and transport strategy - one of the most complex scenario planning exercises facing mankind - and the power of the hydrogen proposal emanates from the synergies between them. Without hydrogen as an integral element in our energy strategy, it is hard to justify it as a ubiquitous transport fuel; argued from a whole system perspective, it is a different story, but it is culturally counter- intuitive for us to let go of direct one-on-one comparisons. The flaw in such comparisons is that hydrogen is a many sided phenomenon and, in Venn diagram terms, it overlaps with electricity, petrol, batteries, hydro-electric storage, biogas and others, but is not directly equivalent to any of them.

As we are now accustomed to hearing, hydrogen is an energy carrier not a source. It also can be generated from any energy source, so it decouples transport fuel from energy sources. This means that, once we implement hydrogen as the primary road transport energy vector and invest in the infrastructure, we never need make a similar investment again; we can migrate from 100% 'brown' hydrogen to 100% 'green' hydrogen, incrementally and at any rate we choose, without further investment in infrastructure or the consumer being aware of the change. However, this also applies to vehicle technology; it becomes independent of energy source and we never need another disruption in vehicle architecture. This gives real flexibility in developing our energy strategies in a transition to a sustainable world and, with a combination of whole system design and energy efficiency, there is every reason to believe that we will be able to harvest ample energy. This flexibility maximises the range of options, both regionally and temporally, open to us in the light of technical, economic and political changes; and we need flexibility.