A hydrogen train manufactured by Alstom, on September 16, 2018 in Bremervoerde, Germany (AFP/Patrik STOLLARZ)
No more diesel locomotives: Germany on Wednesday inaugurated the world’s first rail line to run entirely on hydrogen, a major step forward for rail decarbonisation, despite supply challenges posed by this innovative technology.
The fleet of fourteen trains, supplied by the French group Alstom to the region of Lower Saxony (North), now runs the hundred kilometers of the line linking the cities of Cuxhaven, Bremerhaven, Bremervörde and Buxtehude, not far from Hamburg.
“We are very proud to be able to bring this technology to commercial exploitation, as part of a world first,” Alstom CEO Henri Poupart-Lafarge said on Wednesday.
Designed in France, in Tarbes (southwest), and assembled in Salzgitter (centre) in Germany, Alstom’s hydrogen trains, named Coradia iLint, are pioneers in the field.
This technology is the preferred way to reduce CO2 emissions and replace diesel, which still powers 20% of train travel in Germany.
The new fleet, which has cost “93 million euros”, will avoid generating “4,400 tons of CO2 each year”, according to LNVG, the regional network operator.
– Orders –
Testing a hydrogen train made by Alstom, in Bremervoerde, Germany, on September 16, 2018 (AFP/Patrik STOLLARZ)
Since 2018, commercial tests have been carried out on this line with the regular circulation of two hydrogen trains.
Other rail links will follow: Alstom has signed four contracts for several dozen trains, in Germany, France and Italy, and does not see demand weakening.
In Germany alone, “between 2,500 and 3,000 diesel trains could be replaced by hydrogen,” Stefan Schrank, project manager at Alstom, told AFP.
“By 2035, around 15 to 20% of the European regional market could run on hydrogen,” Alexandre Charpentier, railway expert at Roland Berger, confirms to AFP.
Hydrogen trains are particularly relevant for small regional lines, where the cost of a transition to electricity is too high compared to the profitability of the link.
They mix the hydrogen on board with the oxygen present in the ambient air, thanks to a fuel cell installed on the roof. This produces the electricity needed to pull the train.
Currently, around one in two regional trains in Europe runs on diesel.
Alstom’s competitors have also entered the race. Germany’s Siemens unveiled a prototype train with Deutsche Bahn last May, with a view to commissioning from 2024.
But, despite these attractive prospects, “there are real barriers,” says the expert.
Because trains are not the only ones thirsty for hydrogen. The entire transport sector, road or air, but also heavy industry, in particular the steel and chemical industries, rely on this technology to reduce their CO2 emissions.
– Resource still scarce –
An Alstom-designed hydrogen train undergoes tests in Bremervoerde, Germany, on September 16, 2018 (AFP/Patrik STOLLARZ)
Although Germany announced in 2020 an ambitious plan of seven billion euros to become a leader in hydrogen technologies in a decade, infrastructures are still lacking in the country -as in all of Europe- either for production or transport, and require colossal investments. .
“That’s why we don’t see a 100% replacement of diesel trains with hydrogen,” according to Charpentier.
Furthermore, hydrogen is not necessarily carbon-free: only “green hydrogen”, produced with renewable energies, is considered sustainable by experts.
There are other manufacturing methods, much more common, but which emit greenhouse gases because they are made from fossil fuels.
Proof that the resource is missing: the Lower Saxony line should initially use hydrogen as a by-product of certain industries, such as chemicals.
According to the French research institute IFP, specialized in energy issues, hydrogen currently “derives 95% from the transformation of fossil fuels, almost half of which from natural gas.”
However, Europe is already facing tensions over its supply of Russian natural gas, in the context of a standoff with Moscow over the war in Ukraine.
“Political decisions will have to prioritize which sector hydrogen production will or will not go to,” Charpentier said.
Germany will also have to buy the resource from abroad to meet its needs. Berlin signed a deal with Toronto on Tuesday to massively import Canadian-produced renewable hydrogen from 2025.
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