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How the hydrogen accelerator builds on Scotland’s green transformation

5 min

Ahead of Peloton’s Sustainable Mobility webinar, Tangent sits down with Professor John Irvine, of the University of St. Andrews, and lead on the university’s new hydrogen accelerator project. Prof. Irvine explains the vision of the accelerator, what a mix of renewable fuel sources in transport could look like, and what signifies as success for the scheme

The announcement of a Scottish Government investment in a new hydrogen accelerator at the University of St. Andrews is the latest development in what is becoming an increasingly ‘greenified’ Scottish transport sector. On top of the Hydrogen bus projects in Aberdeen and Dundee, and Fife Council’s low-carbon community energy scheme, the £300,000 investment at St. Andrews will seek to build further on impressive progress already made transport planners north of the border.

Prof. John Irvine c. University of St. Andrews

“We’re running a service with Transport Scotland, helping them do their job,” explained Professor John Irvine, researcher in Energy and Materials at St. Andrews, and project lead at the accelerator. “So it’s not really a centre that we’re funding – I think we’re being funded for working under the St. Andrews umbrella, and they will go out and help people to deliver hydrogen projects.”

Professor Irvine outlined that if a member of the industry or the public sector wanted to run a hydrogen project, they could reach out to experts at the accelerator, taking heed of knowledge previous projects have already gained, allowing transport stakeholders to learn from best practice.

“We would advise on safety, perhaps advise on engineering. We introduce people and make links to make the bus project deliverable. The idea is to have all of Scotland having hydrogen buses. Fully-green, no emissions,” Professor Irvine explained.

Professor John Irvine will speak at Peloton’s Sustainable Mobility webinar on 4 September at 9.30am. Click here to register for free!

Building a sustainable industry

The project lead noted that most of the knowledge gained from previous projects is “localised and project-driven,” which can be difficult to share out to wider industry. With a openness to collaborate with public sector bodies seeking to greenify its transport network, one of the objectives of the accelerator will also be to advise on procurement efforts from the supply chain in the coming years.

Orkney Islands wind turbines c. Carron Brown, Flickr

“We talk to everybody – but firstly it’s public sector. In the current morphology it’s public sector, because we have to be careful that we’re giving open advice, and not too commercially-constrained,” Prof. Irvine noted. “But then there’s the realisation that it’s the commercial sector that actually delivers to the economy in the end.

“I guess the other reason for doing this is not just to create a greener Scotland, it’s actually to create a supply chain. So we’re very keen to enable a hydrogen-based industry in Scotland, coming out of the oil industry and try to move across, and bringing companies in. Trains are very much on the agenda as well, not just buses.”

 A confluence of fuel sources?

The variety of renewable industries being built by Scotland’s transport industries provides exciting prospects for the accelerator – and answers pressing questions as to what forms of mobility can most benefit from green fuel sources.

Aberdeen’s hydrogen bus scheme c Ninian Reid, Flickr

“The whole transport sector can be free of fossil fuels,” argued Prof. Irvine. “For the lighter vehicles in trains, for commuter vehicles, it’s pretty clear that the battery technology does the job really well; and so long as we have the grid to charge them properly, then there’s nothing to stop them, I think.

“Hydrogen technology is more about heavy lifting – so for larger vehicles going further, then you can turn to hydrogen. It’s hard to go distance with a battery because it gets too heavy when you use it for longer journeys with heavier loads.”

The St. Andrews academic explained that alternative renewable sources such as turbine fields “can give you lots of wind power, but you’ve got to use that for something.” At the moment, adds Prof. Irvine, the grid can’t take much more power from wind turbines.

“But if you start to produce something like hydrogen which can store from the windy days to the non-windy days, and translate that into transport, then you’ve got a really exciting opportunity. So it’s how it all fits together,” he said.

What success looks like

Nationally, although in recent years governments have ramped up investment in renewable fuel sources, the UK tends to be “behind the curve in terms of impact,” noted Prof. Irvine. The project lead hopes the accelerator will be able to build a “cleverer” sustainable transport supply chain – noting, without the accelerator, town and city mobility planners could mount up costs making similar mistakes to other transport networks around the UK.

“The idea of the accelerator is to bring down the costs, so you can do a lot more for the same amount of money,” he said.

“So if the accelerator is successful, it should save more money than it costs. For this, we just want to have a doubling of growth every six months. Until the whole transport economy is fossil free, that’s our target, and it’s got to happen – there’s no choice, and the sooner we can make it happen, the better.”

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