Is Australia’s push for hydrogen powered transport the right way?

There has been a lot of discussions about the use of hydrogen as a fuel for heavy vehicle transport and trucks in particular.

Recent government announcements regarding the east coast hydrogen highway, are a case in point.

The three eastern seaboard states recently announced that they will band together to make a start on a project to build a “renewable hydrogen” highway, with the state governments of New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria signing an agreement to develop hydrogen refuelling infrastructure for heavy trucking.

A memorandum of understanding signed in March 2022 is for the development of a hydrogen refuelling network for heavy transport and logistics by 2026.

Work will centre on the Newell Highway, that links Queensland and Victoria, the Hume Highway between New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria, and the Pacific Highway between Queensland and NSW.

The project will start with the Hume Hydrogen Highway grant program that is run by the NSW and Victorian governments. Both states have committed $10 million each, which is sufficient for at least four refuelling stations along the Hume.

These should support 25 hydrogen-powered long haul heavy freight vehicles a day.

So not a full-scale commercial solution, but rather more an initial infrastructure to support hydrogen truck trials.

NSW Minister for Energy Matt Kean said the project on Australia’s busiest road freight routes was a significant step in the decarbonising the heavy transport industry.

He added that renewable hydrogen “will increasingly become a competitive zero emissions fuel option for our heavy transport sector.”

Queensland Minister for Energy, Renewables, and Hydrogen Mick de Brenni said the collaboration presented fuel security opportunities, “when you consider the impacts of the COVID pandemic and international conflicts, it’s clear Australia must achieve energy independence, to shield our nation from foreign companies and foreign powers.”

Similarly, the Victorian Minister for Energy, Environment, and Climate Change Lily D’Ambrosio said, “this historic collaboration between Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland will revolutionise Australia’s busiest freight corridor, lighting a pathway to a zero-emissions transport sector.”

So all good you might think. And while the Truck Industry Council (TIC) is fully supportive of decarbonising Australia’s road transport industry, we question just how realistic the hydrogen highway will be.

Granted, refuelling infrastructure is critical to the uptake of this technology and those with a long memory will remember the push for natural gas trucks over a decade ago.

Back then the operating cost justifications worked out, there was a number of natural gas trucks available, however the concept ultimately failed due to a lack of refuelling infrastructure.

With plans set in motion for the refuelling stations along these major highways, that leaves suitable trucks and a ready supply of economically priced hydrogen fuel to be found, in order for this initiative to be viable.

A global perspective paints a telling picture.

There is only one major truck manufacture who has a commercially available hydrogen truck for sale and that truck is not for sale in Australia.

There are other smaller organisations who claim to be able to offer hydrogen trucks and there are other H2 trucks under development, but it is too early to tell when a range of hydrogen trucks will be available for general purchase.

Then there is the issue of the hydrogen fuel itself.

Only approximately one per cent of all hydrogen produced globally is ‘green’, that is carbon neutral. Leaving the other 99 per cent as ‘grey’ or ‘brown’ hydrogen produced, using fossil fuels that is more CO2 intensive than burning diesel in a conventional truck engine. Then there is the cost of ‘green’ hydrogen.

The general belief is that hydrogen needs to be at about AU$2 per kilogram for the fuel to be competitive with diesel.

California currently has the largest automotive hydrogen refuelling network in the world, however the average price of ‘green’ hydrogen for a fuel cell vehicle there is approximately AU$16 per kilogram.

The point I make is simply this, Government initiatives are welcome however they must be accompanied by facts and the details.

Hydrogen may be the future, but that future is probably 10 to 20 years away.

Australia needs a realistic plan to get to that point and that requires looking at the mandating of Euro 6 and equivalent technologies, the use of bio and carbon neutral synthetic drop-in fuels, diesel/electric hybrid trucks and other ‘stepping stone’ technologies that will provide meaningful levels of decarbonising in the short- to mid-term. After all, transport carbon neutrality by 2050 is a pathway to zero emissions not a light switch event.

Tony McMullan
CEO, Truck Industry Council