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Alstom rolls out hydrogen train on world’s first 100% hydrogen route

© Shutterstock / Markus MainkaHydrogen train in Germany.

Alstom’s is hailing the rollout of its first fully hydrogen powered train, as a giant step forward in green mobility. It is operating on the first 100% hydrogen fuelled route in Germany, leapfrogging delays in electrifying Europe’s railroads and will likely add fuel to the argument for hydrogen to be viewed as transition fuel.

Coradia iLint trains, powered by hydrogen cells, will run between Cuxhaven, Bremerhaven, Bremervörde and Buxtehude, and can go 1,000 km on a single tank. The trains will be fuelled at a facility in Bremervörde operated by Linde (DE:LIN).

Hailed as a major step forward for green mobility, the company claims its hydrogen trains have no carbon emissions, and are replacing diesel trains. But they are being fuelled by grey hydrogen, which has a carbon footprint equal to or higher than diesel.

Green hydrogen is far from being a reality, but that isn’t stopping a wave of investment being driven into using grey hydrogen as a fuel now. While good as proof of concept, it may exacerbate the challenge of reaching net zero by 2050.

In its Net Zero by 2050: A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector the IEA assumes hydrogen use from low-carbon sources grows six-fold to meet 10% of the world’s energy demands. More than half of the emissions reductions required to meet the net zero scenario, especially in heavy industry and transport, come from technologies that are currently in early stages of development. 

The IEA’s Global Hydrogen Review highlights the high cost of green hydrogen — the levelized cost of producing hydrogen from natural gas ranges between $0.50 and $1.70 per kg, which rises to between $1 and $2 after adding carbon capture technologies to lower CO2. Green hydrogen is estimated to cost between $3 and $8 per kg.

Pioneering hydrogen train project

In its announcement, Alstom (PAR:ALO) also reported it has four orders for its hydrogen-powered Corada iLint trains across Europe, two in Germany, and one each in Italy and France. It has also tested the trains in Austria, The Netherlands, Poland and Sweden. 

The 14 hydrogen-powered Alstom trains belong to Landesnahverkehrsgesellschaft Niedersachsen (LNVG) and will be operated by the Elbe-Weser railways and transport company (evb).

For the first three years of the operations, the trains will be fuelled with hydrogen obtained as a by-product of production in the chemical industry in Stade, after which hydrogen will be produced on site in Bremervörde by electrolysis, with electricity from a solar or wind farm for this purpose. 

Carmen Schwabl, spokeswoman for the management of LNVG said – “We own 126 diesel multiple units, which we use on various railways in Lower Saxony. We will no longer buy diesel vehicles in order to do even more to protect the climate. We are also convinced that diesel trains will no longer be economical to operate in the future. We are pleased to have now reached another milestone with our partners Linde and Alstom as well as evb.” 

European funding is driving hydrogen powered trains

The rise in demand for Alstom’s hydrogen powered trains comes from increased funding from the European Investment Bank (EIB). In June 2022, it approved €2 billion for urban transport, hydrogen mobility and rail, after it allocated €700 million in for the purchase of four hydrogen trains and the construction of a hydrogen filling station in Groningen in the Netherlands.

The province of Groningen aims to have clean trains on its tracks by 2025, and wants to replace all diesel trains with hydrogen-powered trains. After conducting feasibility tests with a hydrogen powered train from Alstom in March 2020, it expects to operate hydrogen powered trains between the city of Groningen and Stadskanaal from 2024.

Rival train maker Siemens (DE:SIE) is also testing commuter trains with Deutsche Bahn, Germany’s national railway.

The EU seems to have become the biggest backer of hydrogen as a bloc, having approved €5.4 billion in hydrogen projects with 15 EU states in July 2022, amid questions about the opaque approval process, and about the related technology’s potential to reduce emissions.

Alstom was among 35 companies selected for subsidies, encompassing four applications, including hydrogen generation, fuel cells, storage and distribution, and end-user technology.

The EU expects a further €8.8 billion in private investment to bring the total investments in the hydrogen sector to €14.2 billion. 

Every shade of low-carbon hydrogen needs heavy investment

Net zero scenarios projected by the IEA in its Net Zero by 2050: A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector envisages almost all the hydrogen produced in 2050 to be based on low-carbon technologies.

Yet its own analysis shows that an investment of $1.2 trillion in low-carbon hydrogen supply and use through 2030 would be needed to make this happen.

Even if all the announced industrial plans to produce hydrogen are implemented by 2030, the IEA analysis shows that it would still fall short of the required amount to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

Adoption of low-carbon hydrogen needs to be accelerated to meet the 2050 target, requiring half of the planned $5 trillion investment in clean energy by 2030 to be directed to hydrogen-related technologies.

Europe’s accelerated hydrogen strategy may be driven by a near-term threat from the rising cost of energy, and a need for energy independence. However, ignoring expert advice on the costs and environmental hazards posed by this strategy may incur an even higher cost.

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