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Interview Special – Nigel Holmes on Hydrogen in Scotland

Interview Special – Nigel Holmes on Hydrogen in Scotland
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NanoSUN Interview Special:
Nigel Holmes - SHFCA CEO

We speak to Scottish Hydrogen Fuel Cell Association’s (SHFCA) CEO, Nigel Holmes, on Scotland’s draft Hydrogen Action Plan, the demand for hydrogen within the transport industry and the number of projects ongoing across Scotland.

Tell me about the role of the SHFCA and how they help companies like NanoSUN?

The SHFCA was established in 2004 as a way of taking action to decarbonise the energy system. We are an organisation that is funded by our members, so we are firstly here to help them grow their business and be most effective. Secondly, we’re about promoting hydrogen technology and hydrogen applications, where the technology can be used and what benefits they give. Finally, it’s about how we can help our members and assist projects in Scotland to really deliver on a Scottish level.


What has been your experience of the hydrogen industry to date, and how has this impacted the association?

Here at the SHFCA, we’ve seen the level of activity within the hydrogen industry steadily increase over the years with initial membership links being to European projects; NanoSUN was one of these in the early years. However, it was in May 2019 when things really started to move – when the government decided that the UK was going to set a target to be net zero by 2050. This in many ways was when the hydrogen industry really became transformational and we saw SHFCA’s membership double.

What do you think has been the most significant turning point within the hydrogen industry to date?

Before Scotland set its Net Zero target in May 2019, there was a target for a 80% greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction by 2050. This meant that ‘hard to treat’ emissions from trucks, trains, planes, marine, and heavy industry were all squashed into the 20% residual emissions. Whilst there might not seem to be much of a difference between 80% and 100%, there were a lot of things hiding in this 20%. There wasn’t a reason to change, it was almost kind of an excuse for people to keep doing the same old, same old.

Since May 2019 government policies and decisions have really driven things forward and are now shaping the direction and speed of travel within the industry. We have seen the level of activity and the scale of companies involved in the hydrogen sector really take off. Through 2019-2020, even Covid didn’t slow things. In fact the opposite happened, it really drove people to think how we can do better.

What are your thoughts on the electric or hydrogen debate in facilitating the deployment of zero/low-emission vehicles across the UK and the EU.  

We need to concentrate on how we actually decarbonise transport and help them to get to net zero. It isn’t a race between Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles (HFCV) and Battery Electric Vehicles (BEV), it’s actually a race about how quickly we can give the customer something they can use that is zero emission or as close to zero emission as we can get. We continuously see hydrogen and electric framed as a competition, much like VHS or Betamax back in the day, but for the past hundred years we’ve had diesel trucks and petrol cars used together in the transport market. Now, it makes sense that we’re seeing one alternative fuel type for heavy-duty commercial vehicles (hydrogen) and another for domestic (electric).

So, how do you think hydrogen will best serve the heavy-duty sector within the transportation industry?

Hydrogen Buses in London

It really comes down to what the customer actually needs to do their job. Truck operators make money moving cargo, on schedule, over long distances, and therefore need the truck, driver and infrastructure that allows you to do that. The beauty of the hydrogen approach is that it gives you something that is very close to the operational aspects we have at the moment. You can refuel quickly with hydrogen and it provides a very good range; not quite the same as diesel but you can get 2/3 times the rate with a hydrogen truck than you could with an electric truck. It then becomes about payload; looking at electric trucks, how much space is taken up by batteries?

We need to bear in mind the actual purpose of the vehicle. Electric will be good for some EV applications but if you want a bus, for instance, to run 6am in the morning until 12pm at night without needing to recharge, then this is where the hydrogen bus has the operational advantage. On paper the cost aspects may be the same but, there are practical aspects that we must take into account.

For the transport sector, what challenges do you see with refuelling?

One of the advantages of a BEV is if you have a power supply. In theory you can just plug it in and charge it, but you can’t do that with hydrogen because there’s no hydrogen grid.

This is where creating either strategic hydrogen refuelling hubs or bringing the cost of refuelling down to the point where large refuelling users can have a refueller at the back of their yard is vital. We have to remember that many fleet users have their own fuel supply – big truck operators with 50 -100 trucks will have a yard with a big diesel tank and they will fill up from there. Bus depots are very similar and they may be able to install electric, but won’t have the power connections or the space to install multiple electric charges. So again, it comes back down to what will be most applicable to the customer’s needs. What is the most cost effective, operationally, sensible approach.

Is this an area you see NanoSUN’s Pioneer helping?

Absolutely! A typical timeline for getting a traditional hydrogen refuelling station up and running can be over 18 months, because of planning, consenting, utility and power installation. If Pioneers can be deployed, installed and used quickly without the use of much power, it’s just the simple case of getting it onsite the next day.

It was great to see Scotland release it’s 5 year Hydrogen Action Plan. What are your views on the actions outlined and what more do you think needs to be done to facilitate hydrogen as a fuel source?

There’s a lot of talk about regional hydrogen hubs that include local hydrogen production. In terms of the ambition in Scotland, the Hydrogen Action Plan highlights the benefits of renewable hydrogen and offshore/onshore wind, solar and bio gas as key suppliers of this. This means that people can start to see where the hydrogen is coming from, which will become increasingly important for people that are decarbonising, as people that are having to make an effort to do something want to know there doing something for a real purpose. For instance if you purchase a hydrogen car, you don’t want to know the hydrogen fuel being supplied is produced using natural gas.

Could you give us some idea of the diversity of hydrogen projects currently ongoing in Scotland?

One of the areas that really is probably the furthest ahead is public sector fleets. Due to the Scottish government announcing plans to remove the need for new diesel and petrol cars by 2030, vans & trucks a little later, the public sector now has specific targets that must be met. This meaning that city authorities and local authorities are all starting to look at plans to decarbonise their vehicle fleet.

For example, Glasgow is looking to have its vehicle fleet decarbonised by 2030 and to do this, it is looking at its vehicle replacement cycle. Vehicles, like refuse trucks, have a short lifecycle of around 7 years, and so to get to a point where your fleet is decarbonised by a certain date, some of these decisions need to be made within the next couple of years. This is, therefore, one area in Scotland where we’re seeing a lot of activity in terms of vehicles. Aberdeen are ahead of the curve with this, but we’re also seeing a lot of other organisations, such as Scottish Water, looking to decarbonise their fleet. There is actually a UK wide ambition for all of the water utilities to become net zero by 2030. I believe this is an area that will greatly benefit from transitioning to hydrogen powered vehicles with the support of companies like NanoSUN and its Pioneer Mobile Hydrogen Refuelling Station.

What more do you think companies like NanoSUN can do to help facilitate hydrogen projects and the adoption of hydrogen fuel within road transport?

It comes back to where the demand for hydrogen comes from. The more demand we see for fleets to become decarbonised from their customers, the more they will start to respond. We’re starting to see signs of this in Scotland within the Whisky sector who are a big user of transport; moving whisky from distilleries in the north of Scotland to the bottling halls and then onto ports. Whist we see government policy driving hydrogen activity forward, we also need to see customers encouraging hauliers to respond and in turn the hauliers will either need to update their own refuelling infrastructure or rely on a strategic refuelling infrastructure to be put in place.

To learn more about the Scottish Hydrogen Fuel Cell Association (SHFCA) visit the website here.

Find out more about NanoSUN and the Pioneer Mobile HRS.

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