Melbourne-based bus manufacturer Volgren is planning to build what may be Australia’s first domestically-designed hydrogen fuel-cell bus within the next two years, saying it believes both battery electric and hydrogen buses will have a place in a zero carbon world.
The Australian-founded company, which is owned by Brazilian giant Marcopolo, says it is on the cusp of a huge boom in demand for “zero emission” buses, and only this week delivered four new electric buses to New South Wales and Queensland.
It will also deliver Australia’s first Volvo chassis electric bus to Perth later this year, and is expecting 40 to 50 new orders from state governments over the next few months.
So far, all of its zero emission buses – it refers to them as “ZEBs” – have been battery electric vehicles, and there are currently no hydrogen fuel-cell buses in action in Australia. That’s unsurprising given hydrogen infrastructure is virtually non-existent in Australia.
There are currently only two public hydrogen refuelling stations in the whole of the country – one in Canberra, one in Melboure – supplied by minuscule green hydrogen-making facilities.
But Arnaldo Sanchez, ZEB specialist at Volgren, says fuel cell buses have two major advantages over battery electric vehicles: a much longer range, and a much faster refuelling time. He says he believes the refuelling infrastructure will quickly take off.
Volgren’s battery electric vehicle design comes out of Brazil, but Sanchez said the hydrogen fuel-cell design would come out of Australia, and would hopefully be exported to the other countries Marcopolo operates in.
“We are not partnering with anyone at this stage. We will develop our own Volgren vehicles. It could [work with] any chassis that comes from any OEM [original equipment manufacturer]. And then on top of that we put all the power train system, all the hydrogen system, and the bus body, and all the technology,” he said.
“We expect to build a few prototypes for demonstration to customers, but also for evaluation, to develop the technology. Probably the first prototype is going to be available in two years time.”
Asked whether battery electric and fuel-cell buses would compete, he said: “It’s horses for courses. Battery electric buses and hydrogen buses complement each other. One is a range extender and faster refuelling, and battery electric is slow charging.”
The biggest advantage battery electric vehicles have over hydrogen fuel cells is cost. While zero emission battery electric vehicles charge directy from a renewably generated electricity supply, zero emissions fuel-cell vehicles require hydrogen that has been made from water with a renewably-powered electrolyser.
That puts several layers of cost between the electricity and the vehicle, including the cost of the electrolyser, the cost of the water – which could include the cost of desalination – and the cost of storing and transporting the hydrogen.
Asked about this disadvantage, Sanchez was sanguine. “Refuelling stations probably at the beginning are going to be expensive,” he said. “But later on it is going to be common. Any petrol station will supply hydrogen.”
While Volgren’s bus may be the first Australian-designed hydrogen bus, it won’t be the first on the road. Clean technology investment group True Green has created a joint venture with Chinese company Foton, called Foton Mobility, which will import four hydrogen buses to Australia next month.
In an interview with The Driven in January, Foton Mobility CEO Neil Wang was optimistic about the growth of hydrogen buses in Australia, saying he hoped to be building them in Australia from 2022, producing as may as 200 a year.
“The bus we’ll bring to Australia will do 450km on a single refuel,” he said at the time. “It’s a standard Australia city bus – 46 passenger plus 20 standing.”
Like Sanchez, he was confident that the total lack of hydrogen refuelling infrastructure was a temporary problem, pointing to the exploding interest in green hydrogen manufacture among state governments and big companies like Andrew Forrest’s Fortescue Metals.
Demand for electric buses is being driven by state governments, most notably NSW, which plans to switch its entire fleet of 8,000 mostly diesel vehicles to zero emissions buses by 2030. That means it will need 800 new vehicles over the next 10 years.
James Fernyhough is a reporter at RenewEconomy and The Driven. He has worked at The Australian Financial Review and the Financial Times, and is interested in all things related to climate change and the transition to a low-carbon economy.