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Transport: Hydrogen

Volume 814: debated on Monday 13 September 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the potential of (1) hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, and (2) internal combustion engines fuelled by hydrogen, as alternatives to battery-powered electric vehicles.

My Lords, the Government’s recently published hydrogen strategy and transport decarbonisation plan both make clear that hydrogen has a key role to play in decarbonising transport, particularly in areas where batteries cannot reach. Our support is therefore focused on the use of hydrogen in heavier road vehicles, such as trucks, buses and coaches, as well as in rail, ships and planes.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her Answer, but are the Government looking at an alternative to the rush to battery-powered cars—in particular, to avoid range anxiety and electricity overload? Can the excellent government hydrogen strategy be used to avoid putting all our eggs in one technical basket, so that zero emissions need not, as Jeremy Clarkson pointed out recently, lead to the end of the internal combustion engine? Finally, will the HydroFLEX train developed by Birmingham University be used at COP 26, and how about a flight for the key leaders at COP 26 in the ZeroAvia commercial aircraft developed at Cheltenham airport?

The noble Lord is certainly making the most of his Question today. It is important to say that the Government are not putting all our eggs in a single zero-emission basket. We take a technologically neutral approach to meeting our ambitions —we are not outcome-neutral, of course: the end goal must be zero emissions from the tailpipe—and therefore many of our programmes invest in both electric and hydrogen systems. For example, the £23 million Hydrogen for Transport programme is funding the deployment of about 300 hydrogen vehicles and six new refuelling stations.

Turning to the noble Lord’s question on HydroFLEX, Network Rail has been working with Porterhouse, a British company, alongside the University of Birmingham, and the HydroFLEX train will be on show at COP 26; indeed, it will be running daily on a loop out of Glasgow Central.

My Lords, I refer the House to my entry in the register. Also, my son, Jo, is chairman of Ryze Hydrogen, a green hydrogen business. The UK Hydrogen Strategy recognises that the hydrogen combustion engine could play a key role in decarbonisation. This is most welcome. My noble friend will be aware of my company’s prototype JCB machines, which are powered, with zero emissions, by hydrogen combustion engines. However, unlike hydrogen-powered cars or diesel-powered machines, those hydrogen-powered machines are not licensed to travel to and from job sites on the public highway. Indeed, the same applies to hydrogen farm tractors. What steps are being taken by Her Majesty’s Government to rectify that situation?

I congratulate my noble friend and his company on their world-beating innovation, and I look forward to visiting his facility soon to see it in action. My department is working very quickly to update our regulations to create GB type approval schemes for all types of vehicles and engines following our exit from the European Union. The first step along that road will be a consultation to be published in the autumn. However, in some circumstances, it can be possible to grant a vehicle special order to provide some access to roads. I am happy to look into that further.

My Lords, the UK Hydrogen Strategy and transport decarbonisation plan both highlight the potential for hydrogen and electric aviation. Given that the UK is truly a leader in the world in this technology, can the Minister set out what steps the Government are taking to accelerate the R&D of that technology in the UK and what consideration she has given to airports acting as hydrogen hubs to generate and support more UK-manufactured hydrogen vehicles, planes and ships?

The noble Baroness is quite right: aviation is one of the modes that we think will have a great future in using hydrogen for propulsion. She mentioned airports, and I know that work is being done on whether some of the tenders used at airports can be switched to hydrogen. Obviously, a significant amount of torque is needed to drag planes across the tarmac. She will know that we consulted over the summer on jet zero as a whole. We anticipate that many of the responses will cover hydrogen. We will be collating those responses and looking at them in detail, but I reassure her that significant funding is going into R&D for many sources, be that for planes or the vehicles in airports.

Britain has three major manufacturers producing zero-emission buses, including hydrogen fuel cell buses. If those manufacturers are to be able to compete in international markets, they need the stimulus of a large domestic market. The Scottish SNP-Green alliance has proposed a target to scrap half of Scotland’s diesel buses by 2023, to be replaced by zero-emission buses. Would Her Majesty’s Government consider pursuing a similar objective throughout the UK by mandating local authorities and bus companies to purchase zero-emission vehicles?

I could happily spend many hours answering that question, but I will not on this occasion. The Government have a target of supporting 4,000 zero-emission buses by the end of this Parliament, and we are about to start a further consultation on the phase-out date for new diesel buses. We are investing £120 million in the ZEBRA scheme—the Zero Emission Bus Regional Areas scheme—which does precisely what the noble Lord is asking: it encourages local authorities and the bus operators in their area to switch over from diesel buses to either battery electric or hydrogen fuel cell buses.

It costs around £1 million to install a hydrogen delivery system, so at this stage, at least, the Government need to encourage companies that run fleets of vehicles—not necessarily just heavy vehicles—to utilise hydrogen. What are the Government doing to incentivise and encourage companies that run vehicle fleets to take up this option for zero emissions?

Actually, the focus at the moment is on making sure we have the right data and information from R&D to further develop and commercialise large-scale hydrogen refuelling systems. I mentioned previously the £23 million Hydrogen for Transport programme, which is looking at refuelling infrastructure alongside the vehicles themselves. We also have the zero-emission road freight trials, which are trialling hydrogen among a group of vehicles—it is not only about the infrastructure but about making sure that the range is appropriate for the vehicle in which it is going to be used.

The Minister has made reference to rail and funding. Trains powered by hydrogen are already in traffic in Germany, and successful trials have been undertaken in at least four other mainland European countries. What are the Government’s objectives, and what are the timescales for that funding for the development and introduction of hydrogen trains in the UK?

The Government have invested £4 million through Innovate UK’s “first of a kind” competition for new traction technologies for hydrogen and rail. We have funded both hydrogen fuel cells and hydrogen combustion-engine alternatives for rail. The timeline for introduction is unclear at the moment because it depends on wider considerations re electrification, but we know that the Network Rail-led transport decarbonisation network strategy estimated that possibly around 10% of non-electrified tracks might be better used with hydrogen for propulsion.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the APPG on Hydrogen. Does my noble friend agree that it is most encouraging to see that momentum is building across industry, both in the UK and overseas, to develop engine-based solutions using hydrogen? Will Her Majesty’s Government commit to supporting UK engine manufacturers to further explore the potential for this technology, thus creating considerable numbers of jobs to bolster our economy?

I absolutely agree with my noble friend, and that is precisely what we are doing with these many different pots of money, which are either modal focused or net-zero focused as a whole in terms of developing ways forward for all types of use of hydrogen. Another example is the £14.6 million that we have funded jointly with industry on a project to develop a combustion engine to cater for medium and heavy-duty commercial vehicles. This project is led by Cummins, and it is really good that we have the private sector involved. It is forecast to save 17.1 million tonnes of carbon dioxide.

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that there will not be sufficient hydrogen to fuel heavy transport vehicles, let alone private cars, unless we accelerate the production of hydrogen through attracting more private capital into the sector? Will the Government incentivise such investment by revising the renewable transport fuel obligation to cover all green hydrogen, not just that connected directly to a renewable generator?

Yes, the Government will. The Department for Transport consulted earlier this year on measures to make the supply of renewable hydrogen into transport more cost-effective within the RTFO. We will publish a response on this consultation. I have to say to the noble Lord that I do not think that is going to be enough. We will be focused on the generation of both blue and green hydrogen. As he will know from the hydrogen strategy, the Government will be consulting on hydrogen business models and the net-zero hydrogen fund so we can figure out how we are going to unlock the greatest amount of private investment using the £240 million the Government will invest.