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Urban traffic - a clean idea

Hydrogen and fuel cells in public transport

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City traffic can also be clean and quiet - with hydrogen technology and fuel cells

Hydrogen station for a bus. Photo: ©WSW

Hydrogen station for a bus. Photo: ©WSW

Urban traffic initially conjures up associations with traffic jams, noise and exhaust fumes. The expansion and optimization of public transportation in urban areas offers great potential in this regard. Well organized, it can significantly reduce individual traffic and thus the number of vehicles on the roads. The use of alternative forms of propulsion, such as hydrogen, also makes local public transportation climate- and noise-neutral.

Hydrogen and fuel cells

In a fuel cell, hydrogen and oxygen react to produce energy in the form of electricity. The emissions in the process: heat and water vapor. Noise emissions are also reduced many times over. Hydrogen buses are therefore also electric buses. However, they do not operate with batteries, but with hydrogen as an energy storage medium. Ideally, the energy generated by the braking process is also harnessed. At 300 to 350 kilometers, their range is significantly greater than that of battery-powered vehicles. The refueling time is also much faster: It takes about seven minutes for the bus to fill up with the 40 kilograms of hydrogen needed for the next journey. This is currently possible at around 80 hydrogen filling stations in Germany.

Hydrogen for Wuppertal

In Wuppertal, synergies have been created between the municipal utility WSW and the waste management company AWG for this necessary infrastructure. The thermal treatment of residual waste in the local waste-to-energy plant generates electricity that is used to produce hydrogen. WSW's fuel cell buses can be refueled directly on site. Because the power plant supplies uninterrupted power, local public transport can also be reliably supplied. Ten buses have been driving through the city on hydrogen since 2020, and ten more have been ordered for this year to expand WSW's fleet of 300 vehicles in total. While battery-powered vehicles have problems on the steep roads of Wuppertal's hills and mountains, the hydrogen buses cope well with the topography and manage ranges of close to 300 kilometers here, too.

Not far away in the Cologne region, the industry based there can help produce the necessary hydrogen. The quantities produced here would be enough to power 1,000 fuel cell buses.

The availability of the energy carrier could be one of the reasons for the pioneering position of the two cities: The order from the Rhine-Ruhr transport association for 15 hydrogen buses for Cologne and ten more for Wuppertal was the largest of its kind nationwide in 2020. And it is in addition to the 40 vehicles that have already been in delivery here since the end of 2019.

Funding is fundamental

In order to bring other cities and regions onto this path, the BMVI transport ministry decided in January 2021 to follow EU requirements and introduce binding minimum targets for low-emission buses in local public transport when awarding public contracts. By 2030, half of all newly procured buses must even be emission-free. To support municipalities and transport operators in achieving these targets, the BMVI has set up a funding program, although this still has to be notified by the EU Commission.

A look at the costs makes it clear how necessary the financial support is. In addition to the new infrastructure that municipal utilities and transport companies have to set up, the fuel cell buses cost significantly more than conventional models. Where a diesel bus costs 250,000 euros and a battery-powered model 550,000 euros, the price of a fuel cell bus is 625,000 euros. The BMVI therefore intends to fund not only the vehicles themselves with 80 percent of the additional costs, but also the associated infrastructure with 40 percent and also feasibility studies.

Hydrogen buses are still only being tested in small fleets in many cities. Between 2012 and 2020, only around 150 were purchased - throughout Europe. By 2025, however, there should already be 1,200. The EU's JIVE ("Joint Initiative for Hydrogen Vehicles across Europe") and JIVE 2 programs, under which more than 200 hydrogen buses have been ordered, are providing support here; the first 50 are already running.

Mobile and competitive

Despite its comparable range, however, fuel cell technology will only become competitive when its number reaches a certain volume and the investment in infrastructure thus pays off. The technology is also still being further developed. As far as range is concerned, however, the manufacturers are not the only ones who can make adjustments. Municipalities also have tools in their hands here. Bus lanes and priority for regular buses in urban traffic ensure higher mileage because the vehicles don't have to waste their energy standing in traffic jams.