The future for Hydrogen powered fleets
Mark Cheadle, Publisher at Essential Fleet Group Ltd. talks with Allan Rushforth, Chief Commercial Officer at First Hydrogen about his involvement with the launch of their Hydrogen powered fleet utility vehicle and the future use of Hydrogen within the fleet sector.
At a time when there is widespread awareness of the need to hugely reduce emissions from transport, there is also the commonly held view that this will be delivered wholly by the adoption of Battery Electric Cars and LCVs. Within a framework of targets such as Net Zero and the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel only vehicles in just eight years’ time, this may well be largely true for the short and medium terms, but with an additional awareness building of the environmental issues associated with BEVs, there is a growing focus on a long-term future involving Hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles.
Hydrogen Fuel Cell technology has been around for – for most – a surprisingly considerable amount of time and with the first vehicle powered by a fuel cell being accepted as the General Motors Electrovan of 1966, it could be asked why it does not yet dominate the green transport argument and agenda. The truth lies in the complex nature of both developing the infrastructure and costs associated with producing Hydrogen gas so that it can be adopted at the huge scale needed to make the crucial difference.
Driving the future of Hydrogen Fuel Cell vehicle technology are several notable organisations including First Hydrogen, who along with partners are committing resources and industry leading expertise to the development Hydrogen Fuel Cell fleet vehicles and bringing them to market. On behalf of Essential Fleet Group I was delighted therefore to be able to speak with newly appointed Chief Commercial Officer Allan Rushforth, who arrives with a wealth of automotive experience gained over thirty-five years.
How much awareness within fleet and the wider public is there of Hydrogen Fuel Cell technology, how it powers vehicles and of what the benefits are to the environment? What are the common misunderstandings?
There’s growing awareness amongst businesses of Hydrogen Fuel Cell technology driven by vehicle emissions regulation and government policy relating to renewables. Most fleet managers don’t need to be expert in either Battery Electric or Hydrogen Fuel Cell technology and are primarily focused on the benefits that these technologies can bring them when it comes to their company’s environmental targets and the total cost of ownership of their fleet. What’s also clear is that EVs simply aren’t cutting it when it comes to refueling times, range and vehicle payload in particular.
What are the criticisms of the technology and how would you answer them?
Just as Battery Electric Vehicle technology has and will continue to improve, Hydrogen generation and Fuel Cell propulsion is rapidly developing. The costs for fuel cell systems and onboard hydrogen storage are coming down, the technology has matured over the last few years and a competitive supply base is growing at an enormous pace. Improvements in the energy efficiency of hydrogen production and provision of refueling infrastructure are about to reach an inflection point. This is particularly true in markets such as Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and the UK that have invested heavily in renewable energy and have developed a green hydrogen strategy as a way of storing renewable energy and reducing CO2 emissions. As a result of government policy, we expect hydrogen prices to reduce by more than 60% by 2030 and refueling stations to increase 50x by 2035.
The fleet Utility Vehicle is a fantastic commitment by First Hydrogen, Ballard and ALV to delivering a realistic, practical and above all, truly sustainable option that meets the operational needs and long-term environmental commitments of fleets. Could you run through the vehicle specification, highlights and the target dates for both the prototype and expected market availability?
Our first technical demonstrator vehicles will be a core component of First Hydrogen’s Hydrogen-as-a-Service (HaaS) offering and represent the first fuel cell 3.5-ton large panel vans to enter the UK market. They will be available to members of the UK Aggregate Hydrogen Freight Consortium (AHFC) from early next year, proving the range, increased payload and fast refuelling they require. The AHFC operators interested in trialling the vehicles include large fleets working in telecoms, express delivery, national utilities & infrastructure companies as well as a national UK supermarket chain and a national breakdown & recovery association. Data & insight from this program will help inform later trials of larger fleets as well as the configuration of our all new, next generation range of vehicles.
We understand that there are planned innovations of the manufacturing process. Will these further reduce negative environmental impact?
There are many advantages that come from low carbon manufacturing and sustainable sourcing which are designed-in to the First Hydrogen model so as to minimize our environmental impact, something that’s difficult to achieve for OEMs with legacy manufacturing facilities. New manufacturing facilities would typically generate their own electricity through solar roof panels and would deploy highly energy efficient manufacturing processes which eliminate waste wherever possible.
Stellantis has, as you know, already gone into production of their hydrogen fuel cell LCV prototype. Are you therefore already in a race to market?
First Hydrogen are hydrogen specialists. What really differentiates us from our competitors is our end-to-end pairing of green hydrogen production & supply to fleets operating our Hydrogen Fuel Cell powered range of Light and Medium Commercial Vehicles. This proprietary coupling of green fuel and zero emission vehicles, providing Hydrogen-as-a Service (HaaS), gives us an environmental and commercial advantage over OEMs. That said, we welcome competition as it will help grow the total market, drive investment in the sector and bring attention to our technologies.
How far do the partnerships with AVL and Ballard and the wider hydrogen technology expertise of First Hydrogen give you the market advantage?
First Hydrogen is pioneering a complete solution for our customers. That includes smart technology integration working with partners and industry leaders such as Ballard & AVL. However, it is First Hydrogen’s proprietary offering of HaaS that will help drive down our customers’ total cost of ownership (TCO) and bring them an environmental advantage over diesel and pure electric vehicles. Our aim is to create a compelling business proposition for our fleet customers that is greater than the sum of its parts.
What will be the main challenges in your journey to bringing the Hydrogen Utility Vehicle to market?
First Hydrogen is early-to-market and has avoided the recent right-down in US tech stock valuations but that doesn’t mean there won’t be operational & commercial bumps in the road ahead. Liquidity is especially important for any manufacturing business, so it’s important that we execute our strategy, begin producing green hydrogen and get vehicles on the road to sustain the confidence of our investors and customers as we navigate the developing market for hydrogen.
How do you plan to meet those challenges?
We are already working with a group of 10 very large van fleet operators with whom we are about to begin a First Hydrogen vehicle evaluation program. I plan to lead this program personally, where we hope to learn from one another and have the group influence the development of our product and our business model.
Of course, part of the fun of operating in this space is that, to an extent, you can write the rules & help define what the sector looks like in the future. That said, business fundamentals are just that… fundamental! So, we’ll be building great product, providing high quality service to our fleet customers and developing strong, supportive relationships with our investors and partners in Government, Local Authorities & Public Services, business and academia. And of course, we have to listen carefully to our partners and be prepared to flex our business model, to change and develop as the road ahead opens up.
Are the EU and the UK Government aligned in their level of support for the development of Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles and the complex infrastructure needed to make them a practical reality?
Governmental strategy and support for hydrogen tends to be a function of their environmental policy and investment in renewable energy. In addition to the UK government’s initiative, there’s alignment, particularly amongst north European markets, with regulatory & government support of €11 billion from Germany, and €7 billion from France. Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark already have sizeable refueling networks, with the UK playing catch-up. However, First Hydrogen’s plans to develop its own hydrogen production & refueling at 4 different UK distribution hubs. These, along with our mobile refueling solution for large fleets of depot-based vehicles, are helping to complete the picture.
Finally, do you see Hydrogen Fuel Cell vehicles becoming the norm in the long-term?
I see a mixed market for sustainable mobility in the future, with Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles having a greater presence in the commercial vehicle sector where range & payload are key. There’s likely to be co-existence of technologies depending on their use case, with First Hydrogen providing its HaaS product where customers require zero emission vehicles with longer range, better payload and possibly auxiliary power e.g., refrigeration or emergency services, along with a more predictable TCO.