Are We There Yet? Hydrogen Trains and the End of the Carbon Era – Part 1

Steam trains signalled the start of the carbon era. Will hydrogen trains signal its end?

This article was first published on Brendon Harre’s blog and, and has since had some updates.

The world’s first hydrogen train is now in service — Engadget

New Zealand’s goal of being zero carbon by 2050 is like ‘crossing a river by feeling the stones’. The goal is clear but each step is uncertain requiring exploration.

New Zealand can and will follow countries like Norway with its increased use of electric battery technology in the transport industry.

Hydrogen FCEV could specialise in the heavy and longer range end of the transport market

There is a very good case being made by Toyota that electric battery vehicles will specialise in the short range light vehicle end of the transport market while hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles will specialise in the longer range heavier end (youtube video here)

The world’s first hydrogen-powered trains have entered service in northern Germany. Two Coradia iLint trains, made by Alstom, have begun working the line between Cuxhaven and Buxtehude just west of Hamburg. Until now, the nearly 100km-long line has been serviced by diesel trains.

Toyota, Kenworth, and Shell are experimenting with the Port of Los Angeles and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to provide a large-scale “shore to store” plan using hydrogen fuel-cell-electric technology for freight trucking operations. CARB is providing $41million of the estimated $85million cost with a goal of advancing this technology to full commercial use.

As part of this plan, Toyota has produced its second generation hydrogen truck with a longer range (more than 500 km per fill) and more space in the form of a sleeper cabin.

Concept image of the Tesla Semi truck that is promised to be produced in 2019. There are doubts if Tesla can meet this production time frame. So far there is no information on the weight of the truck, which is one of the most important commercial factors. As a truck’s weight determines its haulage capacity (payload weight).

Tesla claims that electric battery technology can be developed for use in commercial trucking. Industry commentators, peer reviewed academic research and competing truck builders dispute this claim, mainly on the grounds that heavy batteries will limit freight payload. In the near future, maybe as early as 2019 and 2020, there should be enough technological maturity to determine which technology is most suited to what market.

South Korea’s Hyundai Motor Group, the world’s fifth-biggest automaker, is betting on hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles. It has recently announced it will invest US$6.7 billion along with local partners with the aim of producing 500,000 hydrogen-powered vehicles annually by 2030.

The Korean government have announced a hydrogen road map to gain what they hope will be a first mover advantage in the maturing hydrogen economy.

New Zealand has signed a hydrogen agreement with Japan.

New Zealand and Japan are working together to transition away from a reliance on fossil fuels says Energy and Resources Minister Megan Woods.

This memorandum helps signal New Zealand’s interest in working in partnership with Japan to develop hydrogen technology as we move towards a low carbon economy.

New Zealand and Japan are both intent on transforming their respective energy and transport sectors as we make the transition to a low-emissions economy and this partnership will allow the exchange of information to enhance hydrogen development.

New Zealand has an abundance of renewable energy that could be used to produce hydrogen as a next generation fuel in a sustainable way.

There is already cooperation between New Zealand and Japan in this space, with the planned construction of a pilot hydrogen production plant between Japan’s Obayashi Corporation and Tuaropaki Trust in Taupō using geothermal energy.

Advances in hydrogen electric fuel cell technology and renewable hydrogen production would give New Zealand another opportunity to step towards its zero carbon goal.

This opportunity is particularly relevant to rail in the South Island of New Zealand due to the longer distance journeys being made in that part of the country. But a similar analysis would also apply in the non-electrified parts of the North Island rail network. The line between Auckland and Northland and the line between Hamilton and Tauranga for instance.

  1. Installing the overhead wiring for 1150 km of track tracks for full electrification having an initial cost in excess of $3bn.
  2. Hydrogen trains with only 40% round trip efficiency would incur the capital costs of installing something like 2.5 times the electricity generator capacity compared to the full electrification option.
  3. More energy efficient electric battery trains would only need something like 1.1 times the generator capacity. Battery trains though would need to solve its short range problem and its limited freight haulage capacity due to the low energy density/high weight of electric batteries.
  4. Diesel trains high ongoing operating costs and it’s lack of progress towards New Zealand’s 2050 carbon zero goal.

Hypothetically a hydrogen train company could replace the South Island diesel train fleet with hydrogen trains, hydrogen production facilities and wind turbines to generate the power to make the hydrogen. Given enough generating capacity, which New Zealand has in the form of many consented but not built wind farms, hydrogen trains could be completely energy self-sufficient. This system would need backup storage capacity for when the wind is not blowing. This could either be hydrogen storage itself or something like a local pumped hydro-electric scheme. It is likely this whole system could be achieved for the South Island at a lower cost than the $3bn-plus cost to electrify the tracks option.

Given the year-on-year reliability of wind power in New Zealand. Using wind power to produce hydrogen directly may avoid the below discussed electricity grid ‘dry year’ problem. The math might show only a small amount of hydrogen storage is needed for the short time periods when calm wind conditions prevail. Perhaps Alstrom the hydrogen train builder and NEL the hydrogen infrastructure provider should talk to KiwiRail and one of New Zealand’s power companies with consented but not built wind power to do that maths?

Note: 5c/kWh is the equivalent to $50/MWh

Generating renewable hydrogen by electrolysis of water is becoming competitive with the natural gas steam methane reforming production method and is the direction where the industry is headed.

According to the Wide Spread Adaption of Competitive Hydrogen Solution -Nel Hydrogen document if electricity prices can be sourced for US$60 (NZ$90) per MWh for onsite production plus dispensing facilities then renewable hydrogen can achieve fossil fuel parity.

New Zealand, like the rest of the world, is starting down the path of of replacing our petrol and diesel vehicles with carbon-free vehicles. Up till now this has mostly meant either trains using power from overhead lines, or batteries for smaller vehicles. However, hydrogen is beginning to emerge as a genuine option for moving heavy vehicles long distances. The first few are now operating a passenger rail service in Germany. Could hydrogen trains be something that suits New Zealand, with our abundance of  renewable electricity and long lengths of non-electrified track? To a degree this depends on our ability to store electricity when the wind’s not blowing, which will be discussed in part 2 of this series.


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