8 January 2019
It is scarcely 100 years since transport in the western world was revolutionised by the rise of the internal combustion engine, which decisively replaced horsepower for the first time in history.
Now, according to insiders who were quoted by the Financial Times at the end of December, we may have reached another milestone: the point at which global demand for vehicles that are powered by internal combustion engines will begin to go down.
Even a year ago, the predictions were that the era of petrol and diesel would come to an end in the foreseeable future but that demand for internal combustion vehicles would probably not peak until the 2020s.
Experts now believe that the year of peak demand may, in fact, have been the year just ended—2018.
Just as the rise of the internal combustion engine reached a point at which it became unstoppable, so the rise of alternatives to the internal combustion engine will also reach a tipping point—and that is already not far away.
Action to support electric vehicles is welcome, but it would be a mistake to put all our low-emission eggs in a single electricity basket.
Although an infrastructure for charging electric cars is important, a different approach will be required to tackle the largest and most polluting internal combustion engines, which include those of diesel-fuelled buses and trucks and diesel locomotives on our railways.
There is increasing evidence that the most efficient way to phase out those vehicles here and around the world will be by developing hydrogen as the low-emission fuel of choice in public transport and in freight.
On a global scale, Japan leads the way.
The local authority in Fukushima, for example, is building a new hydrogen production plant on a site that was originally zoned for a new nuclear power station.
In that case, the fuel source is electricity generated from solar panels.
Japan is also pioneering the production of hydrogen from human waste.
One expert reckons that biogas extracted from sewage sludge could power nearly 2 million hydrogen fuel cell vehicles across Japan in the near future.
The athletes village for the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic games will be powered by hydrogen from Fukushima and, for the first time, hydrogen will be the fuel for the Olympic torch.
What the Japanese Government and business want now is the promotion of global collaboration in order to grow hydrogen technology while cutting costs.
That is where Scotland could and should come in.
The cabinet secretary has referred to Aberdeen.
Aberdeen has, with Scottish Government support, built up the largest fleet of hydrogen-powered buses in Europe.
The vehicles are owned by Aberdeen City Council and are operated by First Aberdeen and Stagecoach alongside conventional diesel-fuelled buses.
Hydrogen buses require a hydrogen fuelling point, which the council provides at Kittybrewster—that has also been mentioned.
That fuel point has, in turn, allowed the use of hydrogen to fuel cars and vans.
The next stage could be hydrogen production fuelled by renewable electricity generation.
Major new offshore wind farms, such as that at Aberdeen bay, will generate more power at some times than the grid can use.
Like solar power and biogas in Japan, offshore wind in Scotland can be the feedstock for hydrogen production to fuel buses, trucks and much else besides.
Those developments will need willing partners, such as hydrogen technology companies, renewable energy generators, local authorities such as Aberdeen City Council, and the Scottish Government.
If Scotland is to be a producer as well as a consumer, we certainly cannot afford to stand still.
Last September, Lower Saxony in Germany deployed the world’s first hydrogen train to replace diesel locomotives on 100km of non-electrified tracks close to Germany’s North Sea coast. Alstom, which also builds France’s TGVs, expects to deliver 14 hydrogen trains to Lower Saxony by 2021.
Even closer to home, plans were revealed only this week for hydrogen-powered trains on the greater Anglia network in England to replace diesel trains, but using locomotives that were originally built for electric trains some 30 years ago.
Their range is 1,000km, which is similar to that of a diesel train, and their maximum speed of 87mph is similar to the maximum speed of a diesel train.
The campaign for rail electrification Aberdeen to Edinburgh—CREATE—has long argued for extending the infrastructure for electric trains north of the central belt.
Hydrogen now offers another option.
That option is the 21st century steam train—the only emissions are steam and water.
Just as Scotland should build on its strong position on hydrogen bus transport, so should we look to lead the way on hydrogen trains, on the three quarters of the Scottish rail network that have not been electrified.
8 January 2019