A hydrogen reality check – Part 2

My past couple of columns have looked at the realities of a low, or zero, carbon future, globally and in Australia.

I have explained why Australia needs clear leadership on this issue and a holistic plan to reach net zero emissions by whatever date our political leaders and the Australian constituency deem appropriate.

I have looked at the media hype, verses reality, of battery electric vehicles and last month I discussed some of the reasons why hydrogen is not the low emission transport panacea that many are touting it to be, at least not in the short to mid-term.

This month I will continue that hydrogen reality check.

Unlike battery electric vehicles, where we at least have a substantial electricity grid to rely on, providing the electrical energy to recharge vehicle batteries, if and when, we eventually get around to installing enough vehicle charging stations to that grid, hydrogen has little, to no, infrastructure in place to offer a viable source of fuel.

Even with the abundant supply of electricity on offer, with ‘poles and wire’ spread far and wide across our nation, albeit not supplied by enough green power in most jurisdictions, electric vehicle owners continue to struggle to find the necessary recharging stations to provide anything like seamless electric vehicle passage within Australia.

The biggest challenges that face any new transport fuel, or energy source, is distribution and refuelling infrastructure.

That is the very reason that Tesla built and deployed their own charging infrastructure in many countries in an effort to make their electric vehicles a viable transport option.

While many commentators sit back and debate the ‘chicken or egg’ approach of refuelling infrastructure verses vehicle deployment, it HAS to be refuelling/recharging infrastructure FIRST, for the road freight sector to be viable.

There are many car drivers out there who are patient enough to wait for a reasonable level of refuelling/recharging infrastructure to be deployed to make their electric, or hydrogen, powered travels less of a major logistics planning exercise and more like the regular commute that most of us enjoy in our petrol and diesel powered vehicles.

The same cannot be said for a freight operator.

An operator who depends on the unhindered use of a truck for their livelihood, cannot afford to have that vehicle ‘parked up’ because they cannot find a viable source of fuel, or a convenient refilling/recharging station.

Road freight operators simply cannot afford to gamble on a fleet of low and zero emission vehicles until there is viable refilling/recharging infrastructure.

The plan for that infrastructure needs to be shouldered by government. I back up my claims that refuelling/recharging infrastructure is critical for the effective deployment of new power technologies in the road freight sector, by recalling the failure of natural gas trucks in Australia, not all that long ago.

A number of Truck Industry Council members developed natural gas trucks specifically for the Australian market. At one point in time in the mid-2000s there were several gas powered trucks available here.

However, due to much promised natural gas refuelling infrastructure never materialising in a meaningful form, the prospect of a viable Australian natural gas-powered truck fleet failed.

This despite Australia having the world’s largest supply of natural gas and an existing and vast gas network, that reaches approximately 70 per cent of Australian households and businesses.

No such hydrogen distribution network exists. Globally we have seen some very proactive and astute governments that have prioritised the installation of recharging infrastructure for electric vehicles, countries such as the Netherlands, Norway and South Korea. It is also not surprising to see that these same countries are in a group that lead the world in the uptake and use of electric mobility.

Similarly, some governments are well advanced in their planning for hydrogen refuelling frameworks now, infrastructure that will be in place to fuel the hydrogen cars and trucks that are being designed, tested and developed today.

The low and zero emission vehicles of tomorrow, well in reality, the commercialisation of large-scale hydrogen trucks is some years off yet, however we need to be planning the infrastructure now, not tomorrow.

Our lack of electric vehicle infrastructure is testament to the fact that we are lagging well behind most of the world and is a significant hindrance to the take up of electric vehicles in Australia. Without roads, we would not have cars and trucks, without low and zero emission refuelling/recharging infrastructure we will not have low and zero emission vehicles.

The level of infrastructure that is required is massive and can only be provided with a national plan developed and substantially funded by governments, as is Australian road infrastructure.

Tony McMullan

Truck Industry Council