Our air is killing us

180 years ago, the hydrogen fuel cell was invented in Wales. Simon Thomas AM argues we can use it to power our future.

The problems associated with climate change are fairly well understood these days by a large section of the population. Everyone seems to have a basic grasp on the premise that as man-made CO emissions have increased, we have warmed the planet. What doesn’t seem to be so well understood by the public is what impact our emissions are having at a local level. Air pollution in towns and cities is having a serious impact on our health, and the health of our children. A report by the National Assembly for Wales research service in February of this year estimates that air pollution contributes to 2,000 deaths a year in Wales, and between 30,000 and 40,000 across the UK.

Whilst it’s good that there is now so much discussion on the global challenges posed by climate change, we must also focus on the environment at street level too. It’s worth remembering that the effects of air pollution disproportionally affect those in deprived areas, just as those people facing the greatest threats from global climate change tend to live in developing countries.

It is my view that the best way in which we can tackle both of these problems simultaneously, is a mass decarbonisation of our transport infrastructure, and that is why I have commissioned a report into the potential benefits of hydrogen fuel cell technology to public and private transport in Wales. It is a shame that so few people are aware that the first hydrogen fuel cell was invented and built here in Wales, in Swansea, in 1838. Welsh iron, and Swansea copper and porcelain were combined by William Grove to create the first fuel cell that, in time, powered NASA’s space programme. It is time it powered Wales.

Cars powered by hydrogen have similarities to battery powered electric vehicles, but also some important advantages. Neither produce any emissions at street level, and both can potentially run on entirely renewable energy sources. Hydrogen has advantages however, since the tank can be conveniently filled just like a petrol or diesel vehicle (no long waiting times for charging) and unlike an electric car, the batteries won’t degrade with use, necessitating replacement.

I am very pleased a Welsh company, Riversimple, based in Llandrindod Wells, is leading the way in developing and building hydrogen powered cars. Given that Cardiff and Port Talbot have higher air pollution levels than Birmingham or Manchester, imagine what a difference it would make if we were all driving around in cars that emitted only water. Riversimple are about to embark on a year long trial of their hand built cars in Monmouthshire, so it could happen sooner than we think.

There is perhaps even greater potential for utilising hydrogen in our rail network. In a move towards decarbonising the rail network of south Wales, £738m has been allocated by the Welsh Government towards electrification. This large cost might be unnecessary. Whilst electric trains powered by overhead cable do provide the crucial relief from toxic diesel fumes that our communities desperately need, massive engineering work needs to take place for installing the required cables. It isn’t only a case of erecting the pylons, but rebuilding hundreds of bridges and tunnels to accommodate the cables. The cost of these engineering challenges is partially responsible for the cancellation of the electrification of the south Wales main line from Cardiff to Swansea. A fleet of hydrogen trains would negate the requirement for any re-engineering of our rail infrastructure, since no overhead cables are required. Just like the Riversimple, the only emission from these trains would be water, unlike the tram-trains proposed on the South Wales Metro which would still require diesel engines alongside mains electric and battery power. The French company Alstom is currently testing its hydrogen fuel cell powered iLint in Saxony, which will be capable of 140 km/h (comparable to our current fleet of diesels) with capacity for 300 passengers and a range of up to 800km, whilst the Zillertalbahn in Tirol has ordered hydrogen trains from Stadler after finding the process of electrification to be prohibitively expensive.

The advantages to Wales of embracing hydrogen fuel cell technology, as a means to combat the terrible pollution in our urban areas, are clear. But from where do we get the hydrogen necessary for powering this transport revolution? Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, but it rarely exists on earth in its pure form (H). It can be produced using two methods; one where it is extracted from fossil fuels like coal (so-called brown hydrogen), and electrolysis, where it is extracted from water using electricity (green hydrogen). We have both of these resources in abundance in Wales. Producing brown hydrogen is not carbon neutral, since it relies on fossil fuels, but the hydrogen produced is just as pure as green hydrogen, would still detoxify our urban areas, and would be relatively cheap to make. Brown hydrogen could be an effective stepping stone towards the use of green hydrogen, whilst we are going through the process of installing the infrastructure necessary to supply hydrogen across the country.

When electricity from renewable sources is used to produce hydrogen by electrolysis (green hydrogen), there are no harmful emissions at any stage of the process. Thanks to our vast reserves of fresh water, and reliable supply of renewable electricity, Wales would not only be able to supply its own requirements for hydrogen, but could become an exporter of clean fuel around the globe, potentially generating billions of pounds for the Welsh economy.

We should embrace the hydrogen economy in Wales. Thanks to companies like Riversimple we are poised to lead the way, and we have fantastic opportunities to leapfrog to fuel cell technology in our railways too. I and Plaid Cymru will be highlighting the health and environmental benefits of this during a Clean Air Week between Monday 18th and Sunday 24th June. This week the party at all levels will focus our work on this issue to highlight the opportunities for the hydrogen economy in Wales and urging swift action by both the Labour Welsh government and the Conservative Westminster government.

Dirty air is killing our citizens and ruining our children’s lives. We must clean up our air and force the pace of change.

All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Simon Thomas AM is Plaid Cymru AM for Mid and West Wales

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