A fleet of 200 hydrogen buses could be coming to the West Midlands, if a business case is accepted.
And the new vehicles would be “safer and better for air quality” than diesel buses, according to an expert.
And Professor Robert Steinberger-Wilckens, head of the University of Birmingham’s centre for hydrogen and fuel cell research has said the source of the hydrogen will be critical for the project’s climate change impact.
The West Midlands Combined Authority’s (WMCA) board has signed off agreeing to the submission of a business case to the Government’s Zero Emission Bus Regional Areas (ZEBRA) competition which if successful would bring 200 hydrogen buses to the region.
A fleet of 20 hydrogen Sprint buses is already set to come this autumn under a separate scheme titled Birmingham’s Clean Air Hydrogen Bus Pilot.
The hydrogen for these 20 buses is set to be produced and dispensed by ITM Power from a new re-fuelling hub at Tyseley Energy Park using renewable energy sources.
The 200 buses being applied for by the WMCA are also set to use hydrogen produced using renewable energy sources, and the business plans include two refuelling depots.
Professor Steinberger-Wilckens said: “It’s fantastic – finally. We have 20 buses arriving just now which has been a long time coming.
“It’s safe, it’s improving air quality in cities. But we have to keep an eye on where the hydrogen comes from.”
Explaining how the technology works, he said: “Essentially it’s an electric bus. We have a battery and a fuel cell and the fuel cell turns hydrogen into electricity.
“[A lithium ion battery such as those found in many electric cars] would take up half of the lower deck. It’s excessively heavy and expensive – it’s unaffordable.”
He said the buses can be refuelled in as long as it takes a diesel bus – whereas a lithium ion battery would take four to eight hours.
The 20 buses coming to Birmingham will be refilled at Tyseley Energy Park – and Prof Steinberger-Wilckens estimated another four to five filling stations would be required for the 200-bus fleet.
Hydrogen is flammable but modern technology means the risks associated with hydrogen-powered vehicles are small.
He said: “Will they explode? No. Petrol is so much more dangerous. There is no reason why they would explode unless you had a tremendous impact.”
Tanks are lined with heat-resistant fibres and release mechanisms are in place to manage any scenario where a bus was to catch alight.
The hydrogen tanks are located at the back away from passengers – which would help to keep them safe in the event of an emergency, he said.
He said buses which have caught alight should be moved away from busy areas and added: “You have to be careful of open fire but it does not explode just like that.”
From the point of view of a passenger, the lack of engine noise would be noticeable.
He said: “When the bus sets off, you don’t hear anything – no roar of the engine.”
A passenger would hear the whirring sound of the electric motor and the wheels “but that’s it”, he said.
“Bus drivers love them because they are much easier to drive,” he said. “You just accelerate, you don’t have to change gears.
“You can accelerate at a terrific rate – which as a bus driver you should not use.”
He estimated the carbon footprint of a hydrogen bus would be around 10 to 20 per cent of that of a diesel bus – “and that would be the maximum”.
He expressed the view that anything other than “green hydrogen” – the process where the element is produced from renewable energy sources and that which would be used by the West Midlands buses – is “wasting your time”.
“Either you do the project properly or you forget about it,” he said, adding “you are not doing the climate a favour” by using black hydrogen.
This is the process where hydrogen is made through converting natural gas – but is a highly polluting process.
Akin to this is blue hydrogen – which also uses natural gas but part of the CO2 is captured and put into storage.
“Essentially you have the problem of having to discard the CO2 which is expensive and you have a waste problem on your hands,” he said.
Funding for the 20 buses coming to Birmingham this autumn comes from the Office for Low Emission Vehicles, Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership, Birmingham City Council and European Funding from the Fuel Cell Hydrogen Joint Undertaking.
The business case for ZEBRA-funded buses sets out how the £148.8 million project would be funded mostly by operators and the Department for Transport with the WMCA contributing £2.8 million.
A spokesperson for National Express said: “National Express West Midlands bought its last diesel bus in 2019. And we have pledged that our entire 1600 fleet will be zero-emission by 2030.
“We are excited to be the operator of Birmingham City Council’s 20 hydrogen double deckers, which should be out in service later this year.
“And working with Transport for West Midlands, we have put in an application to the Department for Transport’s Zero Emission Bus Regional Areas scheme for funding for 200 more.
“If that bid is successful, there could soon be more hydrogen buses running on routes in Birmingham, Solihull and the Black Country.
“We aim to fuel all our hydrogen buses using green hydrogen and we are working with several other organisations on how to provide this level of capacity for future requirements.”
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