The Electrification Movement Will Keep Trainspotters Jumping

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The electrification of the global railway system has been gathering steam, and the latest company to put the zero emission rubber to the road is the Caterpillar subsidiary Progress Rail. Progress Rail is one of the world’s leading railroad suppliers, so one small step for Progress could spark a giant ripple effect around the world.

Rail Electrification, One Way Or Another

Progress Rail is new to the CleanTechnica radar, so we have some catching up to do.

The mining industry has begun to lean on rail electrification as a low-hanging fruit for rapid decarbonization, at least for Scope 1 and 2 emissions that relate directly to mining operations. Progress has hitched its wagon to the trend. Last week, the company struck a deal with the leading firm Fortescue Metals Group for the delivery of two battery-electric locomotives in 2023. The two zero emission locomotives will be set to work hauling iron ore.

Fortescue Chief Executive Officer Elizabeth Gaines emphasized the bottom line benefits as well as a milestone in the company’s plan for rebranding itself into a “green renewables and resources company.”

“The new locomotives will cut our emissions while also reducing our fuel costs and our overall operational expense through lower maintenance spend,” Gaines said.

“The acquisition builds on the work being carried out by Fortescue Future Industries’ Green Team in Hazelmere to deliver locomotives operating solely on green ammonia and other green renewable fuels and technologies,” she also said.

Green ammonia! That’s a whole new kettle of fish. For those of you new to the topic, most of the world’s ammonia is produced with hydrogen, and most of the world’s hydrogen is sourced from natural gas and coal. That could change sooner rather than later, depending on how quickly the global supply of green hydrogen can ramp up.

Currently, much of the green hydrogen activity is focused on electrolysis systems that push hydrogen gas from water. Other sources include biomass, biogas, organic waste and wastewater, and industrial waste gas.

Fuel Cell Electric Locomotives Are Also On The Move

Progress is also active in the area of hydrogen fuel cell electric locomotives, and so is Fortescue, which naturally brings up the question of where all that hydrogen is going to come from, and whether or not it will be green.

That’s a good question. Fortescue is contributing to the green hydrogen trend, having inked a green hydrogen deal with Plug Power for 250 megawatts worth of electrolyzers, which will go to Fortescue projects in Australia.

Plug Power got its start pitching hydrogen fuel cell electric forklifts before apparently deciding that the real greenbacks are in green hydrogen, and other leading firms are jumping on board. Of particular interest is Chevron, which has been lagging behind in the electrification movement but appears to be making an exception for green hydrogen.

Last fall, Chevron launched itself into the big leagues of electrification through hydrogen, when it announced an agreement for a stake in the Advanced Clean Energy Storage megaproject in Utah. The ACES project enables some wiggle room for natural gas, which could be part of the reason why Chevron latched onto it, but Chevron has also hooked up with Caterpillar on a series of hydrogen rail and marine demonstration projects.

That includes a hydrogen fuel cell locomotive to be manufactured by Progress Rail, on which the rail company BNSF has dibs. No word yet on whether or not Chevron will commit green hydrogen to the cause, so stay tuned for more on that.

It’s also worth noting that Chevron has hooked up with United Airlines, which is also incorporating green hydrogen into its electrification plans through the fuel cell aircraft company ZeroAvia.

Green Hydrogen & The Vehicle Electrification Connection

Earlier this week, Fortescue also signaled another leap into the green hydrogen fray, through a long term agreement with the German polymer firm Covestro.

Under the agreement, Fortescue Future Industries will supply the equivalent of up to 100,000 tonnes of green hydrogen to Covestro. The green hydrogen will replace fossil-sourced hydrogen used by Covestro in various locations. Facilities in Asia, North America, and Europe potentially top the list.

That’s the tip of the green iceberg. Fortescue Future Industries states that it plans to produce 15 million tonnes of green hydrogen per year by 2030, and 50 million tonnes per by 2040.

This could circle back around to the vehicle electrification field, because Covestro, among its many other endeavors, is a supplier of high tech resins used in EV battery manufacturing. To the extent that Covestro can transition out of petrochemicals and into more sustainable supply chains, electric vehicle fans can celebrate.

The auto industry is already marketing supply chain sustainability into its plans, so look for more green hydrogen to pop up in the EV world.

Catching Up With Caterpillar

Speaking of Caterpillar, the company has had its feet in the fossil-centric world of heavy equipment for generations, and now it is applying its know-how to zero and low emission technology.

Progress Rail is just one example, and CleanTechnica can cite many others.

Caterpillar is also a good example of a legacy company that is taking advantage of new clean tech opportunities to grow its business into new areas.

Last November, Caterpillar announced a 3-year collaborative project with Microsoft and Ballard Power Systems aimed at demonstrating hydrogen fuel cells as backup power for data centers.

If all goes according to plan, the project will have a ripple effect on data centers throughout the US.

“The project is supported and partially funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) under the H2@Scale initiative and backed by the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL),” notes Caterpillar.

Caterpillar is tasked with system integration, power electronics and controls. The company describes the hydrogen source as “low-carbon-intensity,” which could mean all sorts of things. For example, there is a movement afoot to produce hydrogen in systems that combine natural gas or coal with carbon capture, which is just as nasty as it sounds.

However, the prospects for more sustainable sourcing look good. Ballard is part of a US consortium that is focusing on green hydrogen, and Microsoft has proposed a data center power model based on green hydrogen.

Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.

Photo (screenshot): Electrification of railways, EMD® Joule BE2.4C Battery Powered Switcher courtesy of Progress Rail.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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