FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
1) Is Italy ready for hydrogen fuel cell mobility ?
Italy is absolutely ready for hydrogen mobility.
The use of hydrogen as an energy carrier for transport in demonstration projects dates back to the early years of last decade. The first national platform for hydrogen and fuel cells was launched in 2005 by the Ministry of the Environment. Hydrogen refuelling stations were opened at Milan-Bicocca, Mantova-Valdaro, Grecciano-Collesalvetti (LI), Turin and Rome-Magliana Nord. In 2008 a working group was set up by the Ministry of Interior to investigate all safety aspects related to the vehicles and to the refuelling stations. As in Turin in 2006, hydrogen mobility was among the highlights of the Ski World Championships in Val di Fiemme in 2013. The following year the center for the production of hydrogen from renewable sources was inaugurated in Bolzano, which to date is the only Italian city where a fleet of hydrogen fuel cell-powered electric cars and buses is regularly in operation. Hydrogen fuel cell electric buses are also being used for public transport in Milan.
Some Italian companies rank among the leaders of hydrogen production, supply and storage, as well as supply of components and fuel cells at global level. Moreover, the current surplus capacity of hydrogen production is already enough to meet road mobility needs of the next twenty years.
The hydrogen refuelling stations that were opened last decade were built as part of demonstration projects, and were necessarily closed at the end of their respective projects. Unlike then, today the conditions for the full development of hydrogen-powered mobility are finally mature. The dieselgate scandal is a tangible proof of this. If Italy does not line up with other major industrialized countries, by acting now to promote its excellencies in the field of hydrogen fuel cell electric mobility, it will nullify the experience accumulated to date and will penalize its companies, which will not be able to compete on international markets at the very moment hydrogen fuel cell electric mobility finally takes hold.
The inclusion of hydrogen in the National Framework for the Development of alternative fuels by the Italian Government is a step in the right direction. This will ensure the necessary regulatory certainty and will allow our players, among other things, not to be excluded from European funds available to develop this type of technologies.
2) Isn't hydrogen dangerous ?
Hydrogen fuel cell electric mobility is not more dangerous than other solutions available today.
In order to travel for 700-1,000 km, a vehicle must carry onboard at least the equivalent of 1.5 GWh of energy. A similar amount of energy is always dangerous if suddenly released, regardless of whether it is stored as gasoline, diesel, LPG, methane, hydrogen or electricity.
However, today no one considers filling up with petrol, diesel, LPG, natural gas or electricity to be dangerous. Methane, in particular, is no less dangerous than hydrogen, but its use is spreading more and more across Italy.
Like any other energy carrier, hydrogen is safe if the vehicles and the refuelling infrastructure meet the strict standards adopted at the international level.
In general terms one has to consider that the technical gas industry, which includes hydrogen producers and suppliers, is among the safest in the world, with less than two injuries per million hours worked. Being hydrogen the lightest known gas (14.39 times less dense than air), it disperses very rapidly in the atmosphere in the event of accidental release, making a trigger very unlikely to occur. On the contrary, liquid fuels or heavy gases tend to accumulate on the ground, a fact that makes them even more dangerous.
3) Being hydrogen a fuel, why not focussing on battery electric mobility instead?
Hydrogen can be used in a much more efficient manner in fuel cells to produce electricity, rather than as a fuel in internal combustion engines. This is why the automotive industry has focused on the development of hydrogen fuel cell electric mobility and has abandoned the programmes featuring liquid hydrogen with internal combustion engines.
Within a fuel cell, gaseous hydrogen is transformed into steam through an electrochemical reaction, using oxygen available in the air. Such combustionless process produces on board the electricity that is necessary to power an electric motor. This is why hydrogen fuel cell mobility is a form of electric mobility in all respects: it is silent and produces no greenhouse gas emissions or pollutants. Compared with traditional battery electric mobility, however, it does not require any awkward cables along the streets or sidewalks, and it allows filling a whole tank in three to five minutes at any duly equipped refuelling station. In addition, the driving range of a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle is also comparable to that of a conventional vehicle. And for a given driving range, the weight and volume of a fuel cell electric drive system is only one sixth of that of a battery electric vehicle. Finally, the cost of a full tank of hydrogen is comparable to that of a full tank of gasoline, while for a given driving range the a hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle is way less expensive than a battery-powered electric vehicle.
It is worth underlining however that hydrogen fuel cell electric mobility should not be necessarily seen as competing with battery electric mobility or with any other mobility based on a fuel labelled as "alternative" under the 2014/94 /EU directive. These are in fact different technologies designed to respond to different problems, which may have advantages or disadvantages depending on the use.
4) Isn’t hydrogen refuelling infrastructure more expensive than charging infrastructure for battery electric vehicles?
Not exactly. An impact assessment commissioned in 2013 by the European Commission for the preparation of Directive 2014/94 / EU on alternative fuel infrastructure (also known as "DAFI") rather proves the opposite. The document estimated that the investment required to guarantee a minimum level of infrastructure coverage in Europe by 2020 is approximately € 123 million for hydrogen fuel cell road transport, whereas the corresponding amount for battery electric transport is around € 8 billion. Although the cost per unit of an electric charging socket is way smaller than that of a hydrogen refuelling point, in fact each charging point may only charge not more than 4-6 vehicles per day, making it necessary to make huge investments to ensure a proper coverage. On the contrary, a hydrogen refuelling point works exactly like any other gasoline, diesel, LPG or natural gas refuelling station and in a single day can fill in not less than a hundred vehicles.
5) Isn’t hydrogen a less efficient option than electricity or natural gas for transport applications?
This is absolutely true in theory, but the reality is quite different.
Electricity generation from renewable sources in Italy has grown exponentially over the last decade, to such point that wind and the sun are now the source of around 40% of the electricity produced in the country. This has resulted in major problems for the daily management of transmission and distribution grids, which were only designed in the past to secure an uninterrupted flow of electricity from a small number of large power plants to a big number of end users. Such grids require today huge investments to be adapted to the new distributed generation model, where a large share of power is provided by unpredictable renewable sources across the territory. Hydrogen is from this point of view the best solution to allow the grid to absorb surplus electricity which could not be produced otherwise. By splitting water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen through electrolysis (power to gas), it is possible to provide balancing services to the grid, while avoiding extremely high costs for the adaptation of various thousand kilometers of electric cables in high and medium voltage. Such CO2-free hydrogen can be blended with natural gas, or can be used for a number of applications, including as a source of energy for clean mobility on road, rail and water.
The mass electrification of transport involves very high infrastructure costs that are hardly sustainable, even for a large industrialized country such as Italy. To give an example of the challenge ahead, in 2015 the city of Milan experienced a blackout for over twelve hours due to a network overload generated by the massive use of air conditioning systems during a particularly hot day. It is easy to imagine that such situations may become the rule, should millions of electric vehicles be connected to the grid at the same moment.
Methane represents an economic alternative with a reduced environmental impact for small vehicles, however it does not allow to eliminate completely the polluting substances that are released into the atmosphere as a result of the combustion process. From the efficiency point of view of, in addition, hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles are equipped with systems that allow to recover energy during braking and to modulate the use of energy.
6) Aren’t emissions just moved upstream when running on hydrogen?
Hydrogen can be hardly found in nature. As it must be derived from other molecules, it is generally not considered as a primary energy source like oil, but rather as an energy carrier. Most of the approximately 60 million tons of hydrogen produced each year worldwide are obtained by splitting molecules of natural gas, liquid hydrocarbons or coal, in a process called “steam reforming”, which occurs at high temperatures. This process has the advantage of being very efficient and economical, but it also produces greenhouse gases that are released in the atmosphere. Although hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles do not emit directly any greenhouse gases or pollutants, it is fair to say that greenhouse gases are released upstream if hydrogen is produced through steam reforming. However, the same principle applies to the electricity used to power battery electric vehicles. Also, by using hydrogen from steam reforming, one obtains a very important reduction of greenhouse gases emissions if compared to any modern diesel vehicle – and no polluting substances are released. Through electrolysis, hydrogen can also be produced using electricity from renewable sources, achieving zero emissions throughout the whole process. The electricity needed to trigger the electrolysis can either be purchased on the grid, or it can be produced onsite by a an off-grid facility: this would allow, among other things, to exploit the full potential of unpredictable renewable sources in those regions where adequate infrastructure for transmission and distribution of electricity is not available. No other energy carrier allows coupling the energy and transport sectors in such an effective way.
Hydrogen fuel cell electric mobility is the most appropriate measure to effectively tackle transport pollution in urban areas. According to the European Environment Agency, the transport sector alone contributes to over 20% of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, 39% of nitrogen oxides emissions (NOx), 25% of carbon monoxide emissions (CO) and 15% of fine particulate matter (PM2.5). Over 90% of Europeans living in urban areas are exposed to pollution levels well above the limit set by the World Health Organization, with all that it implies in terms of premature deaths (467 thousand in 2013) and costs to national health systems.
7) Aren’t hydrogen fuel cell vehicles too expensive to be a credible alternative to conventional vehicles?
Today, hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles are more expensive than traditional cars with internal combustion engines. Being still produced in very small numbers, they cannot benefit from economies of scale. However, for a given range they are already less expensive than battery electric vehicles.
In the upper segments (C, D, J) a substantial convergence with the costs of conventional cars is expected around the mid-2020s, when the mass production of hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles will allow economies of scale. It should be noted however that this comparison does not take into account the environmental, climate and health related externalities due to greenhouse gases and air pollution in urban areas. Should these costs be internalized , the picture would look very different already today.