Extracts from an article published on LinkedIn on March 23, 2018

Anne Chassagnette

ENGIE is involved in all of these alternative solutions

Hydrogen is positioning itself as an alternative and complementary solution to NGV and electricity (battery electric vehicles, or BEVs) in the context of the energy transition, which is calling on us to rethink the model that has prevailed until now, according to which a single fuel can meet all uses. The future will see a model of complementary fuels that will allow us to reply to the environmental challenges with which we are confronted both at local level (air quality) and at global level (climate change), while ensuring that we deal with the technical and economic issues of the of vehicles targeted.

Towards a balanced mix of fuels

Diesel may currently still ne the cheapest and simplest technology, but is it still acceptable from an environmental standpoint, particularly with regard to urban air quality? Particularly as there exist innovative alternative solutions that can be brought into service immediately.

The future is a balanced mix of fuels according to the principle of “each fuel has its use.” For cars with limited need of range, the BEV is a perfectly suitable solution.

For heavier vehicles and greater needs in terms of range, natural gas for vehicles and hydrogen solutions are the best adapted to guarantee operation that meets users’ needs and expectations. Whatever the technology, the environmental impact has to be assessed as a whole, and not only at the level of the vehicle. Don’t forget that a BEV or a hydrogen vehicle is not intrinsically a clean vehicle. It all depends how the electricity or hydrogen is produced.

If the electricity is generated by power plants that emit large quantities of CO2 (coal-fired plants, for instance) the results may be worse than a diesel vehicle. In France, the situation tends to be favorable, with a low-carbon energy mix (principally nuclear and renewables).

The same analysis has to be done with hydrogen: it’s essential that a low-carbon process is used to produce the H2. This is why ENGIE believes in producing hydrogen by electrolysis using renewable electricity: for a fuel that is genuinely “zero emission”.

Hydrogen, a mature technology now used for buses in France

The positioning of hydrogen on this segment is gaining pace: ENGIE recently won its second contract for refueling hydrogen buses from the Artois-Gohelle transport authority, in northern France, after an initial success this summer in the city of Pau, in southwestern France.

Other tenders are expected in 2018 in France.

Taking advantage of our long experience as a supplier of alternative fuels, we are developing a solution for passenger transport based on renewable hydrogen. The buses don’t fill up with electrons, but with hydrogen, using a method close to that used for gas fuel distributed by GNVERT for the past 20 years. The hydrogen feeds fuel cells installed in the bus which provide electricity to the vehicle’s electric motors. To develop our response to the green mobility challenge, we make use advantage of European expertise, notably of “French tech” in hydrogen – France is particularly well-off for start-ups with world-renowned expertise in hydrogen fuel storage and fuel cells.

Substantial range and an unchanged infrastructure

The hydrogen solution for buses is green in two respects: the energy needed to produce hydrogen by the electrolysis of water comes from renewable sources, and the operation of fuel cells produces nothing but heat and water. So it is a green solution, but it is also one which gives comfort of usage: hydrogen-powered buses guarantee a range of more than de 300 kilometers. As for the time taken to refuel the buses – carried out in a zone designed and operated by GNVERT at the bus depot – it is equivalent to that of vehicles with the same capacity using a traditional fuel.

A pillar of the energy transition

As an energy vector, renewable hydrogen is an essential pillar of the energy transition and the development of renewable energies. By nature these are intermittent and unpredictable, so it is vital to find solutions for storing surplus electricity production generated when conditions (wind, sunshine, etc.) are favorable and then use them effectively when the means of producing renewable energies cannot meet demand for instant energy. The system constituted by the production of hydrogen by electrolysis and its use in fuel cells to produce electricity will play a key part in balancing networks thanks to the use of hydrogen as an energy vector.

A sector undergoing consolidation

The sector may be technically mature, but it still needs to be consolidated economically. National and European funding, such as support given by the Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking (FCH-JU), currently makes a big contribution to the economic competitiveness of the solutions proposed to local authorities. Tomorrow, it will be the economies of scale achieved through rolling out more refueling stations and a greater number of fleets that will be the best guarantee of the economic value of hydrogen fuel. The higher the volumes of hydrogen required by vehicles, all the greater will be the economies of scale. This is why buses are such a key avenue of development for the hydrogen sector. Capitalizing on its lead – we have operated three hydrogen refueling station in the cities of Lyon, Rouen and Valence for three years – and building on its early successes on the Pau and Artois-Gohelle networks, ENGIE GNVERT is currently working on the co-design of standards and the introduction of new bus lines operating on renewable hydrogen. Which is good news – globally, for the planet, and locally, for the health of city-dwellers!