Hydrogen fuel station (image: Motive)
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Motive Fuels, a leading UK hydrogen refuelling station operator, recently announced the closure of two of its London-based stations as it shifts its focus toward providing hydrogen refuelling for large commercial vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells. Although the company has invested over £2 million annually since 2019 in light vehicle fuelling stations designed primarily for cars, it has determined that the current demand for hydrogen fuel cell-powered cars is insufficient to sustain these pumps.

The company’s decision is in line with the UK Hydrogen Strategy, which predicts that hydrogen will play a significant role in powering heavier transport modes by 2030.

Insufficient demand for hydrogen in passenger vehicles

The recent closures of Motive Fuels’ hydrogen refuelling stations in Rainham and Teddington highlight a significant challenge for hydrogen adoption in passenger vehicles. Despite investing over £2 million annually in car-focused stations, Motive Fuels has found that demand is insufficient to sustain these operations. This comes on the heels of Shell’s decision to close all its UK hydrogen filling stations in October 2022, citing that the prototype technology had reached its end of life.

As a result, the number of hydrogen refuelling stations in the UK has dwindled from 15 in 2021 to just five remaining. In contrast, there are more than 57,000 public charging points for electric vehicles in the country, indicating a clear preference for battery-powered electric mobility among consumers.

Challenges in scaling hydrogen infrastructure

One of the main challenges in expanding hydrogen refuelling infrastructure is the small footprint and first-of-kind prototypes of existing stations. Many of these sites are too small to be upgraded for larger vehicles and future technologies. Furthermore, the closures of multiple hydrogen stations in the UK in 2022 have led to a limited network of refuelling options for hydrogen vehicle owners, with alternative refuelling locations available on the H2live website and app.

While hydrogen stations in Germany and Europe are seeing a network expansion with 700 bar facilities for passenger cars and 350 bar facilities for commercial vehicles, the UK’s hydrogen infrastructure is being dismantled. This is a further indication of the lack of intrest in hydrogen powered road transport.

Shifting focus to heavy transport

Both Motive Fuels and Shell see potential in hydrogen for heavier transport, including heavy goods vehicles (HGVs), construction equipment, buses, and rail. This aligns with the UK Hydrogen Strategy’s expectation that hydrogen will be in common use for heavier transport modes by 2030. The strategy’s analysis shows there could be up to 6TWh demand for low carbon hydrogen from transport by 2030, with an emphasis on commercial, large, and off-highway vehicles.

With this in mind, Motive Fuels will continue to operate hydrogen stations in Birmingham and Sheffield and plans to develop new refuelling sites for large vehicles, anticipating greater benefits from hydrogen than passenger vehicles in the short to medium term. Similarly, Shell is exploring opportunities to build multi-modal hubs for heavy-duty trucks in the UK. However, the viability of hydrogen for buses and HGVs is as yet unproven.

Lessons Learned and Future Prospects

Though the closure of hydrogen refuelling stations in the UK indicates a setback for the adoption of hydrogen in passenger vehicles, the industry remains committed to the technology. Insights learned from these closures can be employed to enhance the future hydrogen infrastructure network. However, it remains uncertain whether hydrogen will play a significant role in transportation.