An international transport expert says the New Zealand government has bought into fossil fuel industry greenwash, and is wasting time and money on hydrogen for heavy freight.
David Cebon should know what he’s talking about.
The Cambridge professor of mechanical engineering leads his department’s research theme: “Energy, Transport, and Urban Infrastructure”. He’s also director of the UK’s Centre for Sustainable Road Freight and has run a multi-million-pound active research project into decarbonising road freight for the past nine years.
Cebon is unequivocal that using green hydrogen – hailed as an attractive zero-carbon energy source – for freight is a waste of energy. “The physics absolutely proves that it is a waste of energy. The result of wasting energy, in one way or another, is pretty bad for the environment. As far as green hydrogen is concerned it means we need a huge amount of renewable energy – much more than people imagine.”
He says that needing to produce that amount of renewable electricity will derail attempts at decarbonisation. “That really threatens the whole decarbonisation project because we’re relying on decarbonising the whole electricity grid and if you suddenly have to manufacture vastly more, multiples more, three or four or five times more renewable electricity, that is going to make it incredibly difficult.”
The huge amount of electricity required also means hydrogen is very expensive to produce. “To power a green hydrogen vehicle costs three times more than powering an electric vehicle. They’re much more expensive to purchase – way more expensive than an electric vehicle to buy at the moment, and they certainly will be going into the future… It costs 30% or 40% more over the first six years of life to run a hydrogen vehicle, taking into account the capital cost and the fuel. The actual fuel costs three times more,” he says.
Hydrogen is also difficult to transport and huge quantities are required. “If you have one tanker carrying diesel and you want to provide the same amount of energy with hydrogen, you would need 18 trucks carrying hydrogen.”
As well as all this, new research suggests even green hydrogen energy isn’t as climate friendly as it’s touted to be, with significant potential for indirect warming impacts through hydrogen molecules leaking during the lifespan of the fuel.
Cebon says the New Zealand Government should be electrifying the heavy transport fleet to decarbonise, rather than moving toward hydrogen.
“The South Island of New Zealand is geographically about the same size as mainland UK. We’ve looked at the UK carefully and looked at journeys in the UK and what trucks do. It’s straightforward to do electric vehicles in the UK. I haven’t analysed every journey in New Zealand but I think that we would find that it’s just as easy to do electric vehicles in New Zealand as it is in the UK.”
Electric vehicles are already available and there’s no reason a move in that direction would be more costly upfront – what’s needed is investment in charging infrastructure, Cebon says. “Broadly you need to get electricity to the sides of the motorways and busy roads, and put in charging stations at roughly the same intervals as diesel stations, and some transport operations need to put charging infrastructure into their depots and warehouses.
“The problem is not the vehicles, the problem is the charging infrastructure. If you design the charging infrastructure carefully it’s perfectly doable.”
But the New Zealand government is forging ahead with its hydrogen strategy. MBIE’s roadmap for hydrogen in New Zealand, published in April, looks at the “future New Zealand hydrogen economy”. It predicts that green hydrogen may account for around 8% of total energy demand by 2050, with heavy freight at the top of the list of use cases. “Demand for hydrogen is likely for heavy vehicle fleets, with other niche vehicle uses likely to follow similar technology tipping points,” the report says.
The government is already co-funding hydrogen refuelling stations and heavy freight hydrogen fuel cell trucks to the tune of $20 million from the Covid-19 Response and Recovery fund.
Last month Hyundai and NZ Post deployed the country’s first hydrogen truck, with Hyundai receiving $500,000 in government co-funding for a trial of five hydrogen fuel cell electric trucks.
And just last week the government announced it had established a a joint hydrogen research program with Germany, investing $6 million in three projects, each receiving $2 million over three years.
Cebon isn’t alone in his misgivings. Professor Susan Krumdieck, a renewable energy expert formerly of Canterbury University, now research director of the global Heriot-Watt University’s Islands Centre for Net Zero, says the government should have put a small fraction of this funding into more rigorous research before investing so heavily in hydrogen.
“Then the tens of millions so far wasted on the hydrogen pipe dream could have been spent on sorting out the low carbon freight supply chain in real world New Zealand,” she says.
But Megan Woods, minister of energy and resources, is adamant hydrogen could be an important part of New Zealand’s climate change response. “I don’t know the level of knowledge the UK road freight expert has of the New Zealand energy landscape, but what I do know is that our latest modelling suggests that hydrogen, as a home-grown next generation fuel source, could fit well into our wider energy and transport system as part of a mixed response to climate change.”
She says the government is investing in battery electric technology for freight, as well as hydrogen. “This investment is alongside, not in place of the roll out of battery electric vehicles and the associated charging infrastructure.”
The government has funded battery-electric vehicles for heavy freight, but these have generally been for battery-swap technology rather than for charging infrastructure. “Given the lack of demand currently for heavy vehicles, [energy efficiency and conservation authority] EECA’s investment in heavy vehicle charging infrastructure has largely been for demonstration purposes,” Woods says.
She points out that hydrogen vehicles can offer longer ranges, fast refuelling times, and more cargo capacity compared to battery-electric vehicles, “which may make them an appealing option in certain situations.”
The government is also eyeing an export market. “Hydrogen produced in New Zealand, thanks to our abundant renewable energy resources, could be cost-competitive with other likely exporters in the Pacific region, and could help meet global demand for low-carbon fuels, particularly among countries with less domestic renewable generation potential such as Japan, the Republic of Korea, and Singapore,” Woods says.
According to Woods there is “unprecedented momentum” overseas with major economies investing as hydrogen costs fall. “In 2021, the Hydrogen Council estimated the global investment in hydrogen projects amounted to approximately US$500b through to 2030.”
Fossil fuel industry lobbying for hydrogen uptake
But Cebon says the New Zealand government is investing precious public funds in projects that are at best a waste of time, at worst a real threat to decarbonisation. He fears the government’s strategy is the result of the worst kind of greenwashing by the fossil fuel industry to continue business-as-usual pollution.
“If you look around it’s very easy to see the fossil fuel industry is pushing hydrogen. The fossil fuel industry realises that green hydrogen is not a practical way to go. It uses so much electricity that nobody is going to be willing to do it. They’re counting on everybody falling back to grey hydrogen.” (Unlike green hydrogen, the process of extracting grey hydrogen does emit carbon dioxide.)
“Why would they count on everyone doing that? Because it increases sales of natural gas in an environment where natural gas and fossil fuel production is completely threatened by people electrifying heating and electrifying vehicles.
“On the one hand, the fossil fuel industry’s market is likely to drop away. On the other hand they can promote this silver bullet solution and say how wonderful hydrogen is and increase gas production.”
He says the fossil fuel industry’s record of successful carbon capture and storage is “really pitiful” despite the industry promoting it for the last 30 years – so the industry is looking for new ways to turn a profit without actually reducing emissions. “It’s quite clear why the fossil fuel industry is spending vast amounts of money on promoting hydrogen with politicians. Politicians are being openly lobbied by the fossil fuel industry in all countries.”
Cebon believes the New Zealand government is likely to be no different. “This is just the same dirty play the fossil fuel industry has been pushing for years. Hydrogen is the next part of that story.”
He says the fossil fuel lobby is hoping to catch politicians in a ‘sunk cost fallacy’, where they invest in hydrogen infrastructure but are then forced to use its more polluting forms when green hydrogen is too expensive or unavailable. “The situation that is being set up is we’ve got these people moving to hydrogen for vehicles and hydrogen-powered heating. But the hydrogen won’t be there. There certainly won’t be enough green hydrogen and the blue hydrogen, if it’s allowed, will be dirty as anything.”
Users will end up defaulting to grey hydrogen, Cebon says. “It just so happens that when you use that hydrogen in your truck it’s far worse than using diesel in the first place.”
Cebon’s views echo those of a report by Earth Justice, a US nonprofit public interest dedicated to litigating environmental issues.
He would like to see the fossil fuel industry made responsible for its pollution. “At the moment they’re not responsible at all. They’re pushing for continuation of the same, and we know we can’t continue the same. And at the same time they’re polluting – it’s not just the CO2 that comes out of cars and trucks. It’s this fugitive methane that they leak with abandon and they don’t care about in a world which is rapidly going up in flames. And they’re lobbying for more of the same.”
However, Woods says green hydrogen could become an important part of New Zealand’s clean energy mix. “This Government knows that by taking bold action, and looking at a range of smart strategies, including emerging technologies, we will maintain our competitive edge, decarbonise faster and support jobs in new, future-proofed industries.”
But, after his years of research, Cebon’s message is very clear: “There is no case for green hydrogen in freight.”
A version of this article first appeared in Carbon News.