Kiwis fuel-up the hydrogen economy

New Zealand’s Ports of Auckland has been conditionally granted funds to buy hydrogen fuel cell vehicles as part of a wider project to build a hydrogen fuel production plant. That second project, in turn, is part of a bigger project to transform New Zealand into an electricity-powered economy.

So the Port of Auckland, along with its partners, Auckland Transport, Auckland Council and Kiwi Rail, will buy three hydrogen fuel cell-powered cars and a bus. The new hydrogen vehicles will be partially funded (up to 14 percent of the estimated cost) by a grant of about NZ$250,000 (U.S.$173,000) from the New Zealand government’s Low Emission Vehicles Contestable Fund.

The fund grants up to NZ$7 million in a given year to a variety of projects in both the private and public sector. It will co-fund up to half of a project’s costs. Applications for funding can be made for any project that contributes to one of the fund’s objectives, which includes increasing the variety and supply of electric vehicles, improving the availability of servicing or charging or increasing the demand for electric vehicles.

So far, there have been numerous projects to install electric vehicle charging networks around New Zealand, such as installation of chargers on the Pacific Highway on the North Island, which will allow electric vehicles to recharge at various places. Several commercial trucking-related projects have also attracted monies from the fund.

Waste Management, a New Zealand company, successfully applied for NZ$500,000 of funding to open a workshop that would convert diesel trucks into electric vehicles. Waste Management will convert 20 of its own vehicles and will open the workshop to other companies looking to do likewise. Waste Management has a fleet of over 200 cars and 800 trucks.

Foodstuffs New Zealand applied for NZ$379,000 to build two six-tonne and two 11-tonne trucks using a standard Isuzu cab and chassis but fitted with batteries and electrics. The purpose of this trial is to demonstrate whether there are environmental and financial benefits of electrifying heavy vehicles.

Alsco NZ, a textile rental company, has received NZ$50,000 to invest in heavy electric trucks as part of a feasibility study for its over-the-road trucking fleet. The trial truck will run daily between Rotorua/Tauranga and Totorua/Taupo (about 286km a day).

Truck and trailer rental company TR Group attracted NZ$350,000 to buy three curtainside freight trucks for the purpose of general hire by industry.

Container lessor and vendor, Container Co NZ received just under NZ$100,000 to introduce a heavy electric vehicle to move international shipping containers to its port and rail customers. “By introducing electric heavy vehicles into this section of the supply chain, ContainerCo could convert a significant percentage of the container movements in Auckland and Tauranga to electric, reducing noise and emissions,” says the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority, a statutory-based energy advisor and administrator.

So far, jotting up the figures provided by the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority, the fund appears to have granted about NZ$3.2m to a variety of trucking-specific projects. It should be remembered that the Authority has allocated millions more to non-trucking energy projects too.

 Ports of Auckland CEO, Tony Gibson (pictured), says that hydrogen could be a fuel source for the heavy vehicles in the port. (Photo: Ports of Auckland)
Ports of Auckland CEO, Tony Gibson (pictured), says that hydrogen could be a fuel source for the heavy vehicles in the port. (Photo: Ports of Auckland)

Hydrogen production and re-fuelling

A further development in New Zealand’s nascent hydrogen-economy, but unfortunately for which there is little in the way of detail, is the Port of Auckland’s announcement that it is planning to build a hydrogen production and re-fuelling facility at Waitematā port (Auckland harbour).

The plant will produce hydrogen from tap water by using electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. Landside and marine vehicles of various kinds will be fuelled by the hydrogen; the oxygen will be released into the air.

Ports of Auckland Chief Executive Tony Gibson explains why. “We have an ambitious target to be a zero emission port by 2040. In order to meet that target we need a new renewable and resilient power source for heavy equipment like tugs and straddle carriers, which are difficult to power with batteries. Hydrogen could be the solution for us as it can be produced and stored on site, allows rapid refuelling, and provides greater range than batteries. It could help Auckland and New Zealand towards energy self-sufficiency and our emissions reduction goals. Trucks, trains and ferries could also run on hydrogen… which would be a significant benefit for the community,” Gibson says.

Engineering consultancy Arup has been engaged to work on the development, design and delivery of the project. Although Ports of Auckland is about to start stakeholder engagement, it already has had some consultations. A spokesman from the port told FreightWaves that “the response has so far been very positive.”

The port will seek the appropriate permissions to build from the authorities in the first half of 2019; it is hoped that the hydrogen production facility will be operational by the end of 2019.

 A highly simplified schematic of how a hydrogen fuel cell works. Polymer Electrolyte fuel cells are suitable for vehicles (Graphic: Shutterstock).
A highly simplified schematic of how a hydrogen fuel cell works. Polymer Electrolyte fuel cells are suitable for vehicles (Graphic: Shutterstock).

How do hydrogen fuel cells work?

There are efficiency, environmental and health benefits to be gained from using hydrogen fuel cells, which are directly tied to the way they work.

Hydrogen fuel cells do not burn fuel like combustion engines to create power. Instead, electrical charge and heat are generated by chemical reactions as the hydrogen passes through a fuel cell.

A fuel cell has three main parts – two electrodes (an anode and a complementary cathode) and an electrolyte (a substance that connects the two electrodes but which keeps them separate). Protons and electrons are stripped from the hydrogen molecules by the anode. The electrons flow into an electrical circuit thereby generating power while the protons flow through the electrolyte to the cathode.

Meanwhile, oxygen from the air simultaneously enters the cathode. Protons, electrons returning from the electrical circuit, and oxygen combine in the cathode to form pure water and heat, both of which are expelled as exhaust.

A vehicle that obtains motive power from a hydrogen fuel cell would likely be an all-electric vehicle. Electric cars transfer about 72 percent to 82 percent of their electrical energy to their wheels compared to a mere 16 percent to 25 percent for gasoline powered cars, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Most of the energy from gasoline, some 68 percent to 72 percent, is lost as heat from the engine, radiator and exhaust.

Hydrogen fuel cells perform much better than traditional engines because “Carnot’s Law” does not apply to them. A fuel cell creates power by a chemical reaction whereas conventional engines create power by combustion. That means the hydrogen fuel cell is not limited by thermodynamic laws relating to heat transfer whereas the combustion engine most certainly is limited.

Outdoor air pollution is deadly

Operating a hydrogen fuel cell also does not introduce pollutants to the outdoor air such as volatile organic compounds, particulate matter, carbon dioxide, nitrous oxides or sulfur oxides.

And that’s a really big deal because outdoor air pollution is deadly.

Outdoor air pollution kills 2.4 million people a year by causing heart disease; that’s 25% of all world heart disease deaths.

Outdoor air pollution kills 1.4 million people a year by causing strokes in the brain; that’s 24% of all world stroke-related deaths.

Outdoor air pollution kills 1.8 million people a year by causing lung disease and cancer; that’s 29% of all world lung disease and cancer deaths.

Sadly, our industry, the heavy freight trucking industry, contributes to the pollution. Heavy trucks burn diesel which belches out pollutants that contribute to outdoor air pollution levels. The World Health Organization reckons the contribution by heavy vehicles to outdoor pollution levels could be cut by shifting to cleaner modes of power generation, changing to cleaner heavy duty vehicles and by using low-emission vehicles and fuels. Adopting hydrogen powered vehicles would be one way to do that.

Admittedly, Aucklanders are not particularly at risk from ambient air pollution as the air in that city is pretty clean, according to the World Health Organization.

But, of course, that’s not true everywhere in the world. More than 90% of all air pollution related deaths take place in the low- and middle-income countries, the majority of which are in South East Asia and the Western Pacific. Pollution improvements in truck power-technology in higher-income countries will potentially cause a reduction in air pollution in lower- and middle-income countries in the years to come owing to the workings of the second-hand truck market.

There is a large secondary market for used trucks as large fleets are, FreightWaves understands, turned over every three to five years or so. Owner-operators then buy the used trucks and run them for another five years before selling them. The trucks are often then exported to lower- and middle-income countries such as Vietnam.

 Nearly 93 peta-joules of non-renewable energy (that’s a lot of energy) is used by non-light transport vehicles in NZ each year and 18% of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions. (Photo: Shutterstock).
Nearly 93 peta-joules of non-renewable energy (that’s a lot of energy) is used by non-light transport vehicles in NZ each year and 18% of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions. (Photo: Shutterstock).

Reduction of carbon emissions

And, finally, a national swap-over to a hydrogen-powered vehicle fleet could greatly reduce New Zealand’s carbon emissions.

Around 93 peta-joules of non-renewable energy is used by non-light transport vehicles in New Zealand each year, according to the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority.

Let’s put that in context. Imagine, while reading this article, you were feeling peckish and grabbed an object that weighs 100 grams – say, a nice tasty shiny apple – and you moved it one metre closer to you so that you could scoff it. Moving that apple by one metre represents one joule of energy.

So what is a peta-joule?

It’s a huge amount of energy, is what it is.

One peta-joule is the number “1” and 15 zeros: 1,000,000,000,000,000 joules. It would power 2.35 million 50-inch TVs for one year, assuming each device consumes 320 KWh of electricity a year.

According to the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority, transport (all types) accounts for 40 percent of all of New Zealand’s energy usage and near 100% of the country’s vehicles are fossil-fuelled. Transport is responsible for 18 percent of New Zealand’s total greenhouse gas emissions each year and 45 percent of its energy-related emissions.

And this is why the Authority believes that the transport sector represents the biggest opportunity to improve the country’s energy productivity and emissions profile.

“There are significant improvements to be made using sustainable and efficient technologies, particularly electric vehicles. About three million tonnes of energy-related emissions can be avoided in 12 years by making economically feasible changes to how we move around. This could largely be achieved by a switch to electric vehicles,” the Authority says.