Alternative fuel discussions are often dominated by the transition to electric, but we are conscious that for the van sector, EVs may not be the only solution for decarbonisation, largely as a result of battery size. Some managers are beginning to consider hydrogen as an alternative solution.

An EV alternative for commercial vehicles, hydrogen requires much smaller batteries - a lithium-ion battery made to power a 44-tonne truck would in itself weigh several tonnes, vastly reducing space available to cargo. Commercially, hydrogen's reach is vast - it has the potential to power HGVs, trucks, trains, buses, small aircraft and even ships.

Government support for hydrogen is growing

A clean fuel that produces only water when consumed in a fuel cell, decarbonised hydrogen has a major role to play globally in reaching net zero emissions targets. The UK Government launched its Hydrogen Strategy in April 2021 and its Hydrogen Investor Roadmap in April 2022. Its aim is to have up to 2GW of green hydrogen production capacity by 2025 and up to 10GW installed by 2030.

Plans were also recently confirmed in the UK to build an £80 million hydrogen gigafactory to produce vehicle components, with a focus on road freight vehicles. This was made possible thanks to backing from the Advanced Propulsion Centre's Automotive Transformation Fund, which focuses on ramping up supply chain components. The government is also announcing new green hydrogen subsidies in a bid to reduce its dependence on natural gas imports. Managers considering hydrogen as a future fuel can be assured that the vehicle supply will be there to meet future demand.

Some fleets are already considering the switch. Zero-emissions developer First Hydrogen recently confirmed its two demonstrator hydrogen-powered light commercial vehicles (LCV) are on schedule for testing and on-road commissioning in the UK. The vehicles will be ready for potential real-world customer usage trials in early 2023.

As part of a partnership with the AHFC (UK Aggregated Hydrogen Freight Consortium), 10 fleet operators have expressed interest in trialling First Hydrogen's vehicles in their real-world operations, from industries including telecoms, express delivery, national utilities, a national supermarket chain, an ambulance fleet and a national fleet leasing group. The trials will take place across the UK, from West London, Birmingham and Sheffield to Tees Valley and Aberdeen.

Take-up barriers

Hydrogen supplies could, however, prove a barrier to take-up. In the UK, there are only 10 open, currently active hydrogen refuelling stations, half of which are situated within the M25. There are none at all in Northern Ireland or Wales. European-wide supplies are by no means secure either. At the end of 2020, France, Germany, Italy and the UK only had 218 hydrogen fuelling stations between them.

Clearly, if hydrogen is to be a serious contender as a future freight fuel, many more fuelling stations will be required to secure high levels of take-up. The type of hydrogen used must also be green hydrogen, if the fuel is to contribute to the energy transition.

The AA is going hydrogen

When it comes to business fleets, we believe there is a strong case for the use of hydrogen and possible synthetic fuels in the future. As part of our ESG strategy, we are committed to reducing our environmental impact and supporting both commercial and consumer drivers to do the same, recently announcing our commitment to become net zero for our own emissions by 2035. We also recently announced a UK first with the launch of our hydrogen fuel cell roadside breakdown vehicle at this year's British Motor Show, showcasing the capabilities of hydrogen for business. The AA Hyundai Nexo shows how patrol vehicles will evolve to assist the AA's 13 million members in future.

The vehicle will carry most of the tools, equipment and spares you would typically find across the AA's yellow patrol fleet. The vehicle will be used for breakdown jobs in ultra low-emission areas that require fixes rather than tows.

Combining oxygen and hydrogen to create a flow of electrons to power the electric drive motor and charge the 1.56kWh high voltage battery, the NEXO can refuel in a mere five minutes. With an impressive range of 414 miles (WLTP), the vehicle will handle many of the 10,000 daily breakdowns attended by the UK's leading breakdown provider.

Why hydrogen?

And why hydrogen right now? Ultimately, we want patrols to pilot this vehicle to see what lessons we can learn. Hydrogen may be used to power our bigger tow trucks in the future. Admittedly, the infrastructure behind hydrogen is currently rather limited, but the vehicle's 414-mile range ensures the vehicle will meet our patrol's needs.

We have tested many vehicles in our search for solutions to reduce our environmental impact. There isn't a van yet in production that can simultaneously be powered by alternative fuels and meet all our needs ; we are adding EVs to our operational fleets too and trialling other alternative fuels. In welcoming the AA Hyundai Nexo into our fleet, we are taking another step towards our net zero future.

The future is collaborative

Ultimately, the future of fuel transitioning is collaborative. Wherever you are on your alternatively fuelled journey, we are with you every step of the way. Together, we can meet the challenges of today and tomorrow head on.

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