Hydrogen buses as an effective way to decarbonise transport fleets – refuelling considerations for local authorities

In July 2021, the European Commission published its ‘Fit for 55’ package of measures designed to achieve the target of a 55 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2030, compared to 1990 thresholds. These measures were a response to the European Green Deal of December 2019, which aims to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050.

While these declarations are welcome and admirable, how exactly should local authorities go about achieving this aim?

One way to approach this conundrum is for councils to consider decarbonising their transport fleets, whether they are owned by the council or a third-party operator. Transport is responsible for 30 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the EU and is therefore the largest emitting sector. An increasingly common method of tackling the GHG emissions produced by council fleets and city bus operations is through the use of hydrogen as a fuel.

Hydrogen fuel cell buses – nothing new in Europe

Local authorities across Europe have been using hydrogen-powered buses for many years now, so the adoption of hydrogen as an alternative fuel to diesel is not a particularly new development. Transport for London’s first hydrogen fuel cell buses (FCBs) began operating on the Riverside bus route RV1 in 2002, connecting central London with attractions on the South Bank. Some local authorities and cities in Europe have been running them for a decade. Aargau, for example, in Switzerland, has been operating FCBs since 2011, while a number of European cities have recently invested in a hydrogen-powered fleet, including Barcelona and Lyon. In the UK, Aberdeen, Dundee, Liverpool, Birmingham and Brighton have all made or are planning similar investments.

Many of these projects have been funded by the Joint Initiative for hydrogen Vehicles across Europe (JIVE), which aims to deploy 139 FCBs and associated refuelling infrastructure in the UK, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain. JIVE began in January 2017 and will run for six years. It is co-funded by a 32 million euro grant from the Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking (FCH JU) under the European Union Horizon 2020 framework programme for research and innovation. A second project, JIVE2, started in January 2018. In total, the JIVE programmes will be responsible for the largest deployment of fuel cell buses in Europe to date: close to 300 fuel cell buses in 22 cities by the early 2020s.

UK public bodies interested in following the example of those above can now procure FCBs via a new procurement framework provided by The Procurement Partnership (TPPL), which gives local authorities access to 27 bus suppliers over the next four years.

Hydrogen buses


The advantages of FCBs

FCBs provide a number of advantages to councils intending to decarbonise city bus fleets. They can travel up to 300 miles on a full tank of hydrogen. The refuelling process is similar to conventional refuelling and only takes 10-15 minutes, depending on the level of investment involved. FCBs are also quiet in operation, helping to keep noise levels to a minimum, and the only thing emitted from their exhaust pipes is water. The refuelling infrastructure they require is modular, allowing councils to start with a relatively small unit and scale up from there as their fleets grow in size and different kinds of vehicle are added.

An additional benefit for local authorities of beginning their hydrogen-powered fleet conversion with buses as their chosen vehicle type is that buses generally involve large volumes, meaning that projects can feasibly get off the ground with just a couple of buses to start with and then become more financially viable as the fleet approaches 50-100. Having said that, refuelling stations can be configured to accommodate fleets of varying sizes and an overview of projects around Europe suggests 20-25 buses is an average figure in the first instance, as the economics are more favourable and councils are able to reduce their emissions much more quickly. And by installing a bigger station, they’ll also find it easier to benefit wider applications and attract other users, such as trucks and cars.

Councils leading the way in FCB adoption

Birmingham is a good example of a council that has procured this type of technology through investment from National Express and funding from UK and European bodies. The city council has decided to start with 20 FCBs and add them to its fleet as part of its Clean Air Hydrogen Bus Pilot, which it hopes will kick-start the next stage of hydrogen buses, production and refuelling infrastructure development.

It has taken two years for Birmingham to reach the point where it can get its hydrogen fuel cell technology off the ground. The pilot will enable Birmingham to play a leading role in the debate on policies aimed at supporting zero-emission public transport at a local level, and use that leadership position to create momentum for other users of hydrogen in the city. As it begins to operate FCBs, the council will come to learn which routes are best suited to them and therefore what proportion of vehicles in its fleet should be hydrogen-powered.

Bodies that have funded the pilot include the Office for Low Emission Vehicles (OLEV) and the JIVE project/FCH JU. In addition to the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, the FCH JU is supported by Hydrogen Europe and Hydrogen Europe Research.

Cologne has also made a considerable investment into its zero-emission transport network by purchasing 15 FCBs, which will be delivered by the end of 2021. The vehicles have been funded by JIVE 2, with support from the FCH JU, as well as local and national bodies.

While it’s positive to see these cities, and others, taking a lead in FCB adoption, councils also need to look beyond their fleet and encourage other stakeholders to convert their vehicles, whether they’re providing council services or not. A local authority’s refuelling station doesn’t have to be reserved for council-only use and can be configured to allow different types of users and vehicles to take advantage of it. If councils are prepared to make such a significant investment in the future of zero-emission transport in their city, it makes sense for them to ensure that the investment applies to as many stakeholders as possible.

In our next blog post, we will look at the different types of refuelling infrastructure available and discuss how councils can go about installing refuelling stations to derive the maximum benefit for all local stakeholders.

If you would like more information on refuelling options for your council’s potential fleet of hydrogen buses, please contact us.

By Nick Power, Hydrogen Business Development Manager – EMEA, Haskel Hydrogen Systems Group


Contact us

How can we help you?