14 fév 23

EC unveils new green hydrogen rules for fuel cell vehicles

Only hydrogen produced by renewable (not nuclear) electricity will be considered renewable to avoid displacing greenhouse gas emissions.

The European Commission (EC) has announced two new laws that will help fleets assess the environmental sustainability of hydrogen as a road fuel.

While most fleets and vehicle manufacturers see battery electric power trains as the short term solution to decarbonise road transport, zero emission hydrogen fuel cells remain on the agenda for some applications.

According to the EC: “In transport, hydrogen is a promising option where electrification is more difficult.”

Hydrogen applications

Hydrogen offers a similar range and refuelling time to diesel, which makes it an attractive option for fleets that operate 24/7 and for long-haul commercial vehicles.

The EC now wants to ensure that any hydrogen used for such applications supports its carbon net zero objectives, even if this costs more to produce. Fossil-based hydrogen costs about 1.5 €/kg within the EU, depending on natural gas prices, while renewable hydrogen costs 2.5-5.5 €/kg, according to the EC.

Sustainability throughout supply chains will be a key theme of the Global Fleet Conference in May - register today.

Production costs

However, renewable hydrogen costs are falling quickly; electrolyser costs have reduced by 60% in the last 10 years, and the EC forecasts that they will halve in 2030 compared to today thanks to economies of scale. This means that in regions where renewable electricity is cheap, electrolysers are expected to be able to compete with fossil-based hydrogen by 2030.

One of the new laws announced this week introduces a tight definition of what can be considered ‘renewable’ hydrogen.

Definition of renewable

“Renewable hydrogen produced with electrolysers can only be considered as renewable if it is produced from renewable electricity,” said the EC.

This means that renewable hydrogen can only be produced using energy from additional renewable power plants, and that the hydrogen can only be produced during the hours that the renewable energy plant is generating electricity (ie when the sun is shining on solar panels or the wind is blowing turbines). Moreover, the hydrogen production can only take place in the area where the renewable electricity generator is located.

Without an increase in renewable electricity generation, there is a risk that a new hydrogen economy could be based on increased fossil-based power generation.

However, hydrogen production is also a useful and valuable way to absorb excess renewable electricity, which would otherwise be wasted. An an energy storage solution, hydrogen is longer-lasting and more easy to transport than battery storage.

Jorgo Chatzimarkakis, Hydrogen Europe CEO’s, said: "At last, there is clarity for industry and investors and Europe can kick-start the renewable hydrogen market. This comes at a critical time, with the USA setting a very high benchmark with their Production Tax Credits, offered under the Inflation Reduction Act, attracting more and more investments towards their clean hydrogen market."

Green electricity

The Commission’s approach highlights an issue faced by international fleets looking to electrify their vehicles. A wide variance in the greenhouse gas emissions of electricity generation means that exactly the same EV can have a much larger carbon footprint than another, depending on the country in which it operates.

The latest figures from the European Environment Agency show that each kWh of electricity generated in Sweden produces just 9g of CO2, compared to 750g of CO2 in Poland, where coal-fired power stations still operate, and 946g in Estonia.

Translated into distances travelled, Volvo calculates that after 47,000km its XC40 Recharge has a smaller carbon footprint than the XC40 ICE (petrol), so long as the electricity is generated by wind power. However, if the power is generated through a typical ‘global electricity mix’, the break-even distance extends to 146,000km.

For renewable hydrogen, the EC has laid out criteria for hydrogen producers to prove that the electricity they are using is renewable. Significantly, neither nuclear power nor hydrogen produced from biomass sources are considered renewable, but they may be considered as ‘low-carbon’ if they produce at least 70% less greenhouse gas emissions than fossil natural gas across its full lifecycle.

The EC’s second new law provides a methodology for calculating the life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions of renewable fuels, including upstream emissions, emissions associated with taking electricity from the grid, from processing, and those associated with transporting these fuels to the end-consumer.

The European Parliament and Council now have two months to scrutinise the EC’s proposals and either accept or reject them.

Authored by: Jonathan Manning