Next stage for Aberdeen hydrogen project

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Following his test drive of Wrightbus’ new hydrogen double-decker, Jonathan Welch spoke to some of the key figures in the hydrogen project, including Wrightbus Chairman Jo Bamford

It doesn’t seem like five years since CBW featured a test drive of the then-new Van Hool A330H single deckers which led the way in this EU-wide project to promote and develop the use of hydrogen in public transport. As reported earlier in the year, those buses have now served their purpose, and were withdrawn from service in January. After some delay, their replacements are now starting to arrive in the city in the form of Wrightbus Streetdeck double-deckers, representing a world premiere in being the first double-deck vehicles so powered. As with the Van Hools, the new buses are part funded by the European Union’s JIVE project, which aims to promote commercialisation of hydrogen buses through joint procurement between cities. Other cities which will follow Aberdeen’s lead include London and Birmingham, with Dundee and Brighton & Hove being lead partners in JIVE2.

The new £8.3m project has been funded by Aberdeen City Council, the Scottish Government, and the European Union (FCH JU), with an investment of about £500,000 per vehicle.

Old meets new as Aberdeen’s first hydrogen double-decker meets one of the buses it will replace, Platinum-liveried 37642 en route from Peterculter to Tilydrone outside Aberdeen City Council’s Marischal College headquarters. JONATHAN WELCH
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Points of view

Expanding on the test drive feature elsewhere in this issue, I spoke to a number of key people involved in the project, including Wrightbus Chairman Jo Bamford, Aberdeen City Council Hydrogen Spokesman Cllr Philip Bell, and First Aberdeen’s Operations Manager David Adam and Engineering Manager Mick Smith to find out more about the new buses and what they mean for the city, the operator and the manufacturer.

Jo Bamford, Wrightbus Chairman

After the official launch of the buses at Aberdeen’s King Street depot, I spoke briefly to Jo Bamford about the buses and Wrightbus’ plans for the future. Jo explained that now the first bus had been delivered for testing, Wrightbus was expecting it to work straight from the box but also looking to find any faults and make sure they are rectified so that successive buses can be delivered trouble-free. “We’re very excited by them,” he said. “I look at it and think it is a great solution. The question is, from a zero-emissions point of view, when do we get mass adoption?” Addressing that issue, Jo said that if the production volume were to increase, Wrightbus could produce a hydrogen double-decker for the same cost as a diesel bus if they made up 10% of the UK bus fleet. He also went on to say that it is possible to deliver hydrogen for approximately the same equivalent cost as diesel, around £6 per kilo. Jo said that he believes hydrogen is the way to go for longer-distance services, where a bus can run a similar mileage to its diesel equivalent as well as taking a similar amount of time to refuel, meaning that they can be operated in much the same way.

Electric buses on the way

Hydrogen is not the only technology on the Wrightbus horizon though. “We will have a battery-electric double-decker by next year,” he said, acknowledging that for some applications batteries are the way to go. Since we spoke, it was announced that Wrightbus is one of six winners to be awarded a share of £29m of funding through the government’s APC16 competition by the Advanced Propulsion Centre, whose role is to accelerate the industrialisation of technologies which will help to realise net-zero emission vehicles.

Between them, the six winners are expected to create 2,880 jobs and save 15.8m tonnes of CO2. One project, expected to create over 500 jobs, will develop infrastructure to collect and recycle electric vehicles and their batteries, boosting UK capability to re-use materials from vehicles at the end of their life, namely electric vehicle batteries and the chemicals within them – with the potential to save vehicle manufacturers thousands of pounds shipping battery packs abroad for recycling.

The Wrightbus involvement will deliver a zero-emission electric single-deck bus that can either be powered by batteries or a hydrogen fuel-cell. The vehicle will be used to test new technologies and help bus operators decide what blend of electric and fuel-cell buses are required in the zero-emission fleets of the future.

British-owned

Jo highlighted that the transition to hydrogen works better on a whole-depot basis, and that operators and planners need to be looking two years ahead to convert from diesel to hydrogen. “The problem with hydrogen is that you can’t do two or three buses easily, which is the opposite of electric. We’d be delighted to sell battery buses but lots of operators don’t want to change how they work. That’s why we believe in hydrogen. We are a one stop solution provider. We will finance the whole lot, the infrastructure, the bus, on a per mile basis.

“Transport is about getting people from A to B. We’re not looking to re-invent the wheel. We want a bus that can do the same as a diesel bus does today. It’s almost at the point where you don’t notice it is a zero-emissions bus. As the last British-owned bus manufacturer, we would be delighted to help operators with their move to hydrogen.”

Aberdeen’s Van Hool A330Hs have served the city well during their five-year trial, but have now been withdrawn and will be used for training and education purposes. JONATHAN WELCH

An operational perspective

Following CBW’s test drive, I spoke to David Adam and Mick Smith to hear more from the operator’s point of view. Operations Manager David said that the introduction of the new buses was much less of a challenge this time around. “It’s very much an engineering-led thing. From an operational point of view, the only difference is how we fuel them. We will have to lay out the yard differently so that they can be parked together, and there will be a dedicated venting location for buses which need to go inside the workshop.

“It is not so much of a challenge as last time. Having 15 instead of four is still a challenge, but we are looking forward to seeing them in service. I have driven one, and it was very smooth, which should cut down in passenger injuries. It’s great to have the new hydrogen buses before anyone else. It is the way forward for public transport. They will replace Volvo double-deckers on our route 19, and the extra ones will go on route 3. Fuelling will take place in the evening, the same as our diesel buses.”

Fuelling will take place at Kittybrewster hydrogen fuelling station, David explained, where the canopy had to be raised to accommodate the taller vehicles. Kittybrewster is one of two in Aberdeen, used to fuel not only the buses but also serves the city council’s fleet of hydrogen vehicles, which includes 14 vans, 42 cars (which are mostly part of the Co-Wheels car club) and six HGVs including the world’s first hydrogen road sweeper.

“Training has gone smoothly,” David added. “The cab is very similar to our Streetlites and our drivers are already used to hydrogen buses so everything has gone very well so far. The safety features too are fantastic. Our drivers and passengers will love them. We have to get across the message about their low emissions.”

Seen in First’s King Street Depot, Aberdeen after arrival from the Wrightbus factory is this TfL spec demonstrator, which was tested in Aberdeen in late August 2018. It ran on tests in the city for around a week but did not carry passengers during its stay. DUNCAN COGHLAN

Engineering and maintenance

Looking at the engineering side, Mick said that work was ongoing to fit out a bay in the workshops for the hydrogen buses, which will be maintained by First. The Van Hools were looked after by Aberdeen City Council at its own premises, and whilst First’s King Street depot was fitted out to accommodate the buses in its inspection lane, there were no general workshop facilities with the required safety equipment. This change should mean less downtime, as well as increasing the operator’s familiarity with the technology.

“We will have a dedicated venting location, where the fuel system can be vented before bringing them into the workshop. We will also have a venting line plugged in at the highest point of the vehicle whilst it’s inside our workshop, should we need to drain off any hydrogen whilst carrying out maintenance on the vehicles,” Mick explained, clarifying that this meant only the small amount of gas in the fuel lines, not the whole content of the tanks.

“The hydrogen system is very secure, the main risk with electric vehicles comes from the high-voltage systems. There are safety systems to shut everything down in an accident.

“We have had the fire brigade here looking at them, we explained that there is not much risk from the hydrogen, and that the biggest problem in an accident is the risk of high voltage cables touching the chassis after an accident, but there are safety systems which will shut down the high voltage supply if they detect a current leak.”

Getting the depot ready

Mick explained that the project was running slightly behind due to Covid-19 but that the buses were starting to arrive and timescales are not too far adrift or the original plan. He explained that the engineers from Wrightbus have been working to test the bus on the road, with any issues fed back to the factory to be actioned on subsequent deliveries. “There have been a couple of small things needing attention but no major problems,” he said. “The next three should arrive within two weeks and after that the depot should have the necessary alterations in place to take delivery of the remaining 11 vehicles. All being well, that should be done in around eight weeks.”

“The inspection bay is already hydrogen-ready. We’ve converted one workshop bay for the hydrogen buses, which is being fitted with safety features and having the gas heating removed. The team here wants to work on them. If we only work on diesel we will be left behind. It’s not going to be long before we don’t have diesel any more. We are leading the way, it’s all very exciting stuff. We’re excited that in a year’s time we may be getting more too.”

With the announcement of a further £1m being made available, along with funding from other as yet unnamed sources, a further order for 10 more Wrightbus double-deckers is expected. The existing 10 Van Hool buses will not return to the road.

“The Van Hools were good,” continued Mick, “but it will be easier for us with the Wrightbus bodywork. FirstGroup already stocks a lot of parts. Having 15 instead of four means that they make up a larger proportion of the fleet, so it is easier for us to hold a stock of parts. Support from Wrightbus has been fantastic. All those involved have been very positive and have the drive to make this a success, which has filled me with confidence.”

Innovation

Aberdeen City Council’s Hydrogen Spokesman Cllr Philip Bell was enthusiastic for the city’s hydrogen future. “I like to say that ever since King David I granted Aberdeen the status of a Royal Burgh in 1153, it has opened up the city of Aberdeen to be one which attracts great innovators and innovation. Besides oil and gas, there have been many more, such as the development of ‘clipper’ ships via the ‘Aberdeen bow’ here,” he said, highlighting that as some of the city’s traditional industries have declined, such as fishing and paper-making, it has to grasp new and innovative technologies. “To ensure that global temperature does not increase by more than 1.5°C the world has a carbon budget of about 550 million tonnes of CO2 which means that emissions must be cut by 45% by 2030 and then net zero by 2050,” he explained, “and transitioning the North Sea Basin to greener technologies will play a part in putting it in good position to be at the forefront of that.”

End of the road for Van Hools

Cllr Bell highlighted the need to reduce the cost of production of hydrogen to the equivalent of the cost of diesel: “It is currently around £10 per kilo. We need to reduce that to £6 per kilo. The Van Hool buses were supported by a subsidy from the EU of 30p per km, which lasted for five years. That funding came to an end in January and they have now been retired. The Van Hools have done us proud and covered more than 1m passenger miles. They taught us a lot about the supply chain, but they have had their day.”

One of the buses is expected to go to the Transport Museum at nearby Alford, whilst others have been donated to science and technology projects for further use in training. NESCOL – the North East Scotland College – is to receive one for use as part of its hydrogen technician’s course, and another is likely to see its fuel cell and equipment donated to help with learning and research. There remains a possibility that some may go back into service elsewhere to help launch hydrogen projects in other areas.

Net positive

Returning to the subject of hydrogen production, Cllr Bell said that the Kittybrewster hydrogen fuelling station has achieved an uptime of around 97% over the last five years. He said that it is vital to get the cost of green hydrogen production down, and that the council was working on a plan to build a hydrogen hub which would be supplied with electricity via a private wire, reducing costs significantly. The council is currently working on a full business case, which is due to be finalised by January 2021.

“Electricity is supplied to the national grid at around 5.1p per kWh, and costs us 12p to 14p to purchase from the grid on a green tarrif. By installing a private wire there is a trade off in that we pay less, and the supplier receives more. We currently produce around 500kg of hydrogen per day. The hub would be rated at up to 3.5 tonnes per day, and could be part of a network across Scotland used by hauliers. Aberdeen is not just looking to be net-zero when it comes to emissions. We want to be better than that, we want to be net-positive.”

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