Across the Wupper on a hydrogen bus
Emissions-free mobility for Wuppertal, NRW and beyond
Those who care about climate protection can now look to Uellendahl-Katernberg, a district of Wuppertal that is part of a lighthouse project for future-oriented mobility. Until now, if you wanted to get from the centre of Wuppertal up to the northern suburbs in a climate-friendly way, you had to get on a bicycle. Understandably, most people would find this too strenuous – this is the hilly country of the Bergisches Land after all. But since 20 June 2020, they have been able to reach their destination emissions-free.
Since then, ten fuel-cell buses have been in regular operation in Wuppertal – powered by hydrogen. The new buses produce neither nitrogen oxide nor CO2. The hydrogen is converted into electricity in a fuel cell, which thus powers the electric engine. With no engine noise and only water vapour from the exhaust, the buses now offer a relaxed, quiet and smooth way to travel the region’s hilly routes.
Hydrogen: produced and consumed in-house
Where does the hydrogen for the buses come from? Uniquely in the world, the fuel of Wuppertal’s municipal utilities is not only consumed but also produced in-house, namely at the existing waste incineration plant. Here, an electrolyser splits water into hydrogen and oxygen, with the energy for the process coming from the electricity generated by the waste incineration process. Next to the electrolyser is the hydrogen filling station for the bus fleet: It’s sensible, well thought-out, practical and climate-friendly.
Further hydrogen buses are to be acquired gradually. For this, Wuppertal is forming a purchasing consortium with the town of Hürth in the Cologne area, because in Hürth, too, climate protection projects are hydrogen-themed: “Hürth has one of the biggest, if not the biggest, hydrogen-powered municipal bus fleet in Europe!”, says Mayor Dirk Breuer with justified pride. For nine years now, people here have been gaining experience with fuel-cell hybrid buses – all of it positive. Hence, bit by bit, the entire bus fleet for Hürth’s public transport has been converted to hydrogen propulsion.
Hürth also gets the hydrogen for its buses from a local supplier, the Hürth-Knapsack Chemical Park, which boasts a hydrogen filling station at which up to 12 buses can be refuelled daily. Another filling station is currently being built, so that the entire fleet will then be able to fill up its hydrogen supplies within a short space of time.
The initiatives for hydrogen-based mobility are important signals
The technology works; it is suitable for everyday use and can be financed through European and national funding. Now individual lighthouse projects must be transformed into a nationwide mobility revolution for emissions-free public transport. The light has finally turned green: In June 2020 the federal government presented its national hydrogen strategy. A variety of measures are intended to establish the production of hydrogen on an industrial scale, promote demand in the transport and industrial sectors, advance the development of infrastructure, and foster research and innovation. The German government sees demand here of up to 110 TWh of hydrogen in Germany for the year 2030, which would represent a doubling of the current demand within the next nine years. It should be noted that gray hydrogen is predominantly consumed at present. In the future, this will become green. A crucial market for hydrogen, the federal government believes, is the mobility sector.
Mobility without climate-harmful emissions
This vision requires an expansion of local public transport. However, such expansion must also include modernisation: among other things, with vehicles that use green hydrogen, i.e., produced using renewable energies.
Public transport in Germany: billions of journeys, millions of tons of CO2 saved.
Around 11.4 billion journeys were made on public transport in Germany in 2019. Half of these were on the approximately 80,000 buses and coaches, meaning buses and trains replace more than 20 million car journeys on German roads every day. In contrast to private motorised transport, local public transport already saves about 10.5 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per year. How great would the additional savings potential be if all local and long-distance buses in Germany were converted to hydrogen and fuel cell technology?
From 1 % auf 45 %: NRW promotes hydrogen buses
A total of 8,500 buses are in operation for public transport in North Rhine-Westphalia, but only 82 of these are powered by hydrogen. To ensure that more and more of the climate-friendly buses traverse the most populous federal state, the state government wants to continue its support for purchasing consortiums. In the future, the support is to be linked to decreasing price ceilings so that companies on the demand side benefit from the economies of scale brought about by increasing production numbers. There is great optimism in NRW: By as early as 2030, 45 percent of all public transport buses could have hydrogen in their tanks. More and more municipalities are planning to enter the hydrogen technology market. Essen city council, for example, has decided to use only hydrogen buses in Essen and Mülheim an der Ruhr by 2033. By then, Ruhrbahn aims to buy 212 new buses for Essen and 46 for Mülheim.
“We want to convert the first large vehicle fleets to hydrogen.”
From the Hydrogen Roadmap of the State of NRW
Such ambitious goals for climate-friendly mobility in NRW need political support. In 2020, the Ministry for Economic Affairs, Innovation, Digitalisation and Energy of North Rhine-Westphalia launched a Hydrogen Roadmap. In it, there is emphasis on the great importance of the gas infrastructure, which currently makes a crucial contribution to security of supply and is set to perform this same task in a hydrogen-based system too. The ministry points out that a completely greenhouse gas-neutral energy supply in Germany will require considerable long-term gas storage capacities. The gas grids and gas storage facilities in particular, which have so far transported, distributed and stored natural gas, will have to cope with greenhouse gas-neutral gases of all colours in the future.
Science helps hydrogen
The hydrogen projects in Wuppertal and Hürth have enjoyed the scientific guidance of the Jülich Research Centre from the outset. The scientists are investigating the role of hydrogen in bus fleet operation as part of an overall strategy for emissions-free road and rail transport.
OGE talked to one of these experts, Dr Thomas Grube. He is responsible for techno-economic system analysis at the Jülich Research Centre’s Institute for Climate Research. He has been researching trends and developments in the transport sector for more than 20 years. In an interview with OGE, the scientist explains how climate protection can also be realised technologically and economically with hydrogen. This interview is currently only available on the German website.
Government action means action in the energy industry
A local public transport system with buses running on hydrogen reduces pollution from particulate matter, cuts greenhouse gas emissions, and helps to achieve our climate protection goals. The technologies and vehicles are already available and in use in some places, but the costs have to be reduced, and taxes and levies for hydrogen eliminated. If these regulatory screws are turned in the right direction, the vision of emissions-free mobility can take off.