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Engineers to play a major role in the future of zero emission transportation

Feb. 16, 2017
Article by Alan Mace

Image Credit: Courtesy of ARUP

Public transportation, in the broadest sense of the term, plays a key role in meeting global energy policy goals established at the Paris Accord. This is not just about reducing GHG. The implications of achieving the goals set by many countries, regions and cities are far reaching: improved health of our citizens and a safer food chain are just two of the immediate benefits of embracing a zero emission future. There is a pressing need to identify an alternative fuel to oil-derived petrol and diesel.

It seems there is a competition between battery electric and hydrogen to be the dominant primary fuel to power the next generation of buses. In reality it won’t be just one technology that solves all the ails of the legacy petroleum economy. You see, both electricity (used to charge batteries) and hydrogen are energy carriers and not primary fuels in the conventional sense. Both need to be generated using primary energy sources and hence, both are only as clean as the energy sources used in their production. Having noted that both electricity and hydrogen production have the potential to be significantly decarbonized, they appear to be the best routes to a low-carbon transport system. Hydrogen can also be used as energy storage for electricity. (off peak excess electricity can be converted to hydrogen)

Engineers tasked with designing new transportation systems/vehicles and city planners need to work hand in hand with the development of these complex networks that deliver energy into our communities, certainly as it relates to public transportation. A great example is the recent announcement of Europe's most advanced hydrogen plant to be built in Denmark. They claim that, “hydrogen will move wind power to the transport sector.” Electricity is not the only option to decarbonize our transportation. Hydrogen provides an alternative for bringing low carbon fuel into our city centers without stressing current electric grid infrastructure.

The energy sources are in our environment, we just need to develop the systems to package, store and deliver the “fuel” to market as efficiently as the current petroleum model. This does present challenges. It requires community investments in technology to wean us off the fossil fuel dependency. This will be challenged as market forces respond to increased use of alternate fuels. Demand for fossil fuels will diminish, lowering the cost of a litre of fuel.

This is why we need political leadership to force these changes on the current, and well developed, energy delivery system. Declarations by leaders of many world cities to reduce their dependency on fossil fuel (certainly within the transportation network) is providing the impetus for real change and a zero emission future. The economics are not just about the cost of cheap transportation. Reduction in health costs must also factor into the equation when designing tomorrow’s roads and highways infrastructure.

Join the conversation because together we can solve a lot of problems.

To learn more, perhaps you’d be interested in reading the key takeaways and findings from the 2016 International Zero Emission Bus Conference. Please download a white paper that summarizes government and industry positions, with reports from early adopters who have deployed FCEBs. It includes links to all conference presentations and related resources. The download link is below.