India’s delayed approval of hydrogen as a fuel: Implications and road ahead

India’s delayed approval of hydrogen as a fuel: Implications and road ahead

While the country’s work on hydrogen has trailed leaders, it could gather speed once the labelled buses roll around Delhi. Private sector firms too are starting to show interest

True to form, India has taken close to four years to approve plans to use hydrogen as a commercial fuel. On Monday, the ministry of road transport and highways allowed use of combined hydrogen and CNG (18 per cent mix of hydrogen) in automobiles. The first set of 50-odd DTC buses powered by this mix called Hythane shall hopefully begin their commercial trips soon.

As usual, India was one of the first countries to begin research in the use of hydrogen as a clean fuel two decades ago. But as its own agencies kept on spiking a research programme by state-owned Indian Oil Corporation (IOC), other companies, including the government-run NTPC have decided instead to buy hydrogen-run buses from abroad.

IOC’s tryst with hydrogen began in earnest in 2017 when the Delhi government was rapped by the High Court to release funds to finance work on clean energy buses. Indian Oil Corporation picked up the project to explore if hydrogen could indeed run a bus or a truck. It has been a long journey since.

The technological one was pretty short. Hydrogen proves remarkably adept at blending with CNG in a stable fuel mix. “The CNG in these buses will be spiked with hydrogen to create a lower carbon monoxide foot print”, said S S V Ramakumar, Director (Research & Development), IOCL. It doesn’t also need hydrogen to be transported over long distances to the fuel pumps, a risky manoeuvre. IOC has produced a Compact Reformer where, in a two-stage process, hydrogen is extracted from natural gas in the first step. In the second step the residue of carbon monoxide is again processed to release more hydrogen, leaving a small trail of carbon dioxide. It is a stable technology available across the world. This is still not blue or clean hydrogen, but marks a huge leap in India’s energy transition.

But this simple innovation had to travel several years across courts, ministries and tribunals before even one bus could run. All Delhi and central government agencies including DDA, DTC, the Supreme Court, the National Green Tribunal, Central Pollution Control Board and Delhi Pollution Control Committee ran hoops around the project. Last year in July the IOC and Indraprastha Gas Limited began work to select a bus depot where the facilities could be built with a timeline of November, 2019. Almost a year later, the ministry of road transport and highways has now come out with a notification.

Wiser from the experience, competitor state-owned firm NTPC took an alternative route. It invited global expressions of interest in February this year to provide 10 hydrogen fuel cell buses and cars for Leh and Delhi. Depending on the response, NTPC will set up hydrogen generation and fuelling stations wherever the companies which respond to the bids apply for and will also work with the local transport authorities.

Europe, Japan, South Korea, China and the US have already stabilised the use of hydrogen on various engineering platforms to run not just buses and trucks but also cars and even as an industrial fuel. “Europe has a manufacturing capacity of 1.2 gigawatts (Gw) per year–enough capacity in theory to power more than half a million fuel cell passenger cars with (clean) hydrogen”, reports International Energy Agency. Japan remains by far the highest funder of hydrogen and fuel cells research at $297 million. In fact, in 2019, within the global research budget for all types of energy technology the highest increase was reserved for hydrogen at 18 per cent. The jump followed an increase of 25 per cent recorded in 2018. No wonder at the G20 Osaka Summit in June last year, Japan not only launched its hydrogen report it also pushed in generous references to the scope of hydrogen in the Energy Ministers’ Communique.

As the Delhi experiment shows, even now hydrogen is not really a clean fuel as it is extracted. Though it is the third most abundant element on earth, most of its current use comes from fossil fuel sources such as natural gas. The next stage is fuel cell technology, which means there shall be on site electricity production to power vehicles with the only emissions being water. Ramakumar says “The big challenge in producing these fuel cells is that they need about four times the purity of hydrogen that is available commercially.” Otherwise, battery-operated cars from solar powered sources can beat the economies of hydrogen-based fuel cell cars handsomely. Still Hyundai and Toyota are betting on hydrogen fuel cell powered cars along with lithium-ion battery powered ones whose prices have “already declined sharply in recent years”, as IEA notes.

India had got Ratan Tata to chair a committee to report on a National Hydrogen Energy Road Map in 2006. It wrote aggressive strategies of putting one million hydrogen-fuelled vehicles on Indian roads and 1,000 Mw aggregate hydrogen-based power generating capacity, both by 2020. The report went nowhere.

Among the G20 countries, therefore, India’s work on hydrogen has trailed the leaders. Surprisingly this has happened without any counter lobby. It could gather speed now once the hydrogen run labelled buses roll around Delhi. Private sector companies too are beginning to show interest. Reliance Industries has pushed for adoption of hydrogen technology in heavy duty vehicles. RIL has joined IEA Hydrogen, a global lobby group for hydrogen as a sponsor member along with countries like France, European Commission, China, Japan and Australia. Pune based KPIT Technologies has asked IOC for the prototype of a “hydrogen supply chain pathway” in a truck that will cost less than Rs 250 per kg of delivered hydrogen. Even in labs the current costs are almost three times higher. Yet, with the visible phase out of oil-based transportation networks and breakthrough in technology for large-scale solar batteries still proving elusive, hydrogen based energy cycle is catching attention. Tata Motors has also launched a prototype hydrogen fuel cell bus in collaboration with Indian Space Research Organisation and IOC.

Most significantly, world leader Hyundai also plans to launch its NEXO SUV by next year in India. Most important it has plans to complement the launch by building a complementary hydrogen infrastructure near Delhi, notes a report by Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association, a US-based group representing the leading companies and organizations which claim to advance “innovative, clean, safe, and reliable energy technologies”.

As an article in The Economist puts it “hydrogen is enjoying a purple patch,…It is being touted as a means of propelling buses and lorries, and even ships and aircraft”. But it would need faster clearances at home unlike the four-year cycle that the bus experiment showed.

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