According to DR News, the northern region of Denmark has ordered 3 hydrogen fuel cell powered buses, at an expected price tag of almost $1 million each. In itself that is a very high cost compared to a standard Chinese BYD K9 electric bus at about $500,000, but what strikes me more is the chosen headline in the country’s respected national news media: “The future is here: the country’s first hydrogen buses are coming.”
I am confused about the subject of hydrogen. So much money is invested in the technology, while at the same time the reality of battery storage is forging ahead. What is going on? Is it going to be one or the other? Or both?
As I see it, the main difference between hydrogen storage and battery storage is that hydrogen is cheap to store and hard to transport as opposed to electricity being expensive to store in batteries but easy to transport.
However, let me emphasise that I write this, not to lecture right from wrong, but to reach out for answers. It is very hard to find hard facts about the overall large-scale economy of these technologies, in part because prices sometimes drop rapidly, but also because it might have a lot to do with geography.
The before noted headline “The future is here…” seems to claim that in this windy part of the world, in a small country with a population of 5,5 million and a wind turbine nameplate capacity of 5,5 GW, an energy storage infrastructure based on hydrogen is viable and very much competitive to battery storage.
Testing hydrogen infrastructure
The 3 buses ordered, which are expected to go into public service within a year, are actually part of a larger scheme of an experiment with hydrogen. Under the name of House of Energy, 400 researchers from Aalborg University and 400 companies from all over Denmark have made a platform to share knowledge, skills, and resources on different sustainable energy technologies and production.
One of the companies of the House of Energy platform is Hydrogen Valley and its objective is to facilitate actual projects in a hydrogen infrastructure. The most important project is to build one of Europe’s biggest electrolysis based hydrogen production plants.
The plant is almost complete at the city of Hobro and is called HyBalance. The hydrogen will be produced solely from excess wind power with up to 70% efficiency, and the whole point of the plant is to demonstrate all parts of the hydrogen eco-system, from production, over distribution, to end use, primarily in transportation systems — and that is where the buses come in.
So, at first it seems odd that these buses were ordered in the first place, knowing that with fuel cells only being up to 60% efficient they cannot possibly compete with the cheap battery-powered alternatives that could be charged directly from wind power. However, they are really just pieces in a bigger experiment of whether the hydrogen economy is viable in the long run. Of course, the companies involved believe it is. Time will tell.
Hydrogen is challenged
Personally I think hydrogen is interesting from a technology perspective, but I think what’s happening with battery storage across many different technologies is so radical that nothing will be able to compete with it in the long run. But who knows? Maybe both will serve us in some sort of equilibrium, but with hydrogen playing a minor role if you ask me. One example could be some kind of standardized hydrogen storage system inside all those wind turbine towers.