The Future of Green Transport
cross the globe, governments are accelerating their efforts to keep the world below 1.5C of warming, or even 2C for that matter — as per commitments made in the 2015 Paris Agreement – with some urging nations to set more ambitious targets to lower carbon emissions by 2030.
Certainly, the COP26 summit in 2021 acted as a catalyst for further climate targets, with the UK government’s introduction of a ban on the sale of all new Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) cars in 2030, and 2035 for the sale of new hybrid vehicles, respectively.
This means that the leading economies of the world have only 8-13 years to decarbonize transport. Without question, this process has already begun, but with deadlines fast approaching, it raises the question – how do we get there?
The answer lies in the development of an entirely new automotive industry.
A green automotive industry
The charge to develop a green automotive industry is being led by electric vehicles. There are already 395,000 all-electric cars on UK roads and over 740,000 electric cars, if plug-in hybrids are included. Globally, electric car stock surpassed over 10 million units in 2020, with sales accelerating each year.
According to McKinsey, one in four cars on the road is already an EV, accounting for 75% of new car sales, indicating that the global energy transition is already well under way.
The UK government has earmarked £1.3 billion to accelerate the roll-out of charge points for electric vehicles, and there are already more than twice as many charging points as there are petrol stations.
This transition is being supported by other nascent technologies, which will be key in driving the automotive sector beyond the 2035 deadline. One such technology is hydrogen.
Hydrogen technology is still in the early phase of development with only 300 hydrogen vehicles presently on UK roads, and only 11 hydrogen refuelling stations – with a further five planned.
The UK government has stated that “the longer-term role for hydrogen in transport decarbonization is not yet clear,” due to the relative earliness and uncertainty of the technology, the lack of existing hydrogen infrastructure, cost differentials and low numbers of hydrogen-power vehicles.
As such, it is unlikely that hydrogen will be pivotal in helping the world reach 2035 targets to stay below 1.5C. In the longer term, however, demand for hydrogen-powered transport could potentially reach up to 140TWh by 2050 after sufficient investment in research and innovation.
This said, it may still have a role to play in the nearer term. The UK government sees potential for hydrogen buses and other depot-based transport in the 2020s. By 2030, it envisages “hydrogen to be in use across a range of transport modes, including HGVs, buses and rail, along with early stage uses in commercial shipping and aviation.”
This assessment is validated by a review of patent activity, which finds innovation is largely focused on applying hydrogen fuel cells for larger scale, longer distance transport, while the current consensus is that the future of passenger and short-range vehicles (such as inner-city delivery vehicles) lies in battery electric vehicles.
Industry has recognised the potential hydrogen holds and is reacting accordingly. JCB is investing £100 million to produce super-efficient hydrogen engines. JCB has already developed prototypes for a hydrogen powered JCB backhoe loader and a load-all telescopic handler with hopes to sell to customers this year. However, the development time for engines for wider application remains unclear.
Eliminating the barriers to decarbonization
One of the barriers to widespread electric vehicle adoption is the range anxiety felt by many due to the reduced range of a battery car compared to fossil-fuel cars.
However, these fears are likely to abate as technological progress further increases the mileage of a battery charge. Professor Maximillian Fichtner states that “Electrical ranges of well over 500 kilometres will soon be a matter of course. Even a range of 1,000 kilometres is possible.” Recent progress in the automotive industry supports this claim, even signalling that further ranges may be possible.
A contributing factor to range anxiety is the belief that it takes many hours to charge a battery-electric vehicle. Whilst it is true that a slow charge can take hours, existing rapid chargers – such as the ones found in motorway service stations – can charge an electric car to 80% capacity within 20 minutes.
It is already the case that a driver is never more than 25 miles away from a rapid charge point anywhere along England’s motorways and major A-roads, and given that motorists often choose to have a short rest at some point when travelling hundreds of miles, rapid chargers should alleviate range concerns for reluctant adopters.
In fact, technological progress will only hasten charging speeds. Car batteries capable of fully charging in five minutes have already been produced, meaning electric cars may soon become as fast to charge as filling up a petrol vehicle.
Professor Chao-Yang Wang at the Battery and Energy Storage Technology Center at Pennsylvania State University, believes that ultrafast-charging batteries could enter mass production as early as 2024, signifying electric vehicles finally achieving parity with petrol vehicles in both cost and convenience.
Another, longer-term, solution to the range problem is the development of EV and hydrogen hybrid cars. This would allow clean-fuel cars in the future to take advantage of the benefits of both technologies, increasing efficiency, speed and power.
The speed of some of these developments in helping eliminate the obstacles to electric vehicle adoption will work to accelerate the transition towards a fully green automotive market. It may even be possible for EV and hydrogen to entirely replace petrol and diesel within three generations.
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