Ssmoking once put money in the pockets of the people of Ballymena. Gallaher’s factory in the Northern Irish city employed more than 2,000 people to make Benson & Hedges and Silk Cut cigarettes. Shifting consumer preferences and globalization gnawed at the company; the last workers were laid off in 2017 when production moved to Poland. Now the former tobacco factory is at the forefront of a completely cleaner industry.
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The site is owned by Wrightbus, whose buses all had diesel engines four years ago. By 2022, 60% of the buses it made were clean, at least in terms of tailpipe emissions; this year, 90% fall into that category. Most of those buses run on batteries, but Wrightbus’ most notable bet is hydrogen.
The company has bet on the fuel by building the world’s first double-decker hydrogen bus. A hydrogen fuel cell, which converts the pressurized gas into electricity, powers the engine; water is the only by-product. Wrightbus already has 144 single and double deck hydrogen buses on UK and Irish roads – almost the entire UK hydrogen bus fleet – and orders for a further 53 buses that will even go to Germany and Australia.
Wrightbus is an unlikely pioneer. Due to mismanagement, the 73-year-old company had gone bankrupt in 2019. 56. Now the company has 1,000 employees and the main barrier to growth is recruitment (apparently it takes two years to paint a bus) in an area of near full employment.
Buta Atwal, who oversaw the company’s green transformation before stepping down as CEO late last year, said hydrogen will overtake batteries as the most effective investment for most buses. The technology requires about eight minutes of refueling time, much faster than the hours spent charging batteries. Hydrogen buses have a much longer range than battery-powered buses, which is important for rural or interurban transport. The technology can also be applied to similar large vehicles, such as garbage trucks. Mr Bamford is an evangelist: another of his companies produces the fuel and JCB has already released its own hydrogen digger.
Others are much less convinced simply because of how much needs to be done for the hydrogen economy to work. Clean versions of the gas are scarce. More than 95% of current hydrogen production worldwide is made from natural gas, but does nothing about the carbon dioxide that is emitted. “Blue hydrogen” requires this carbon to be captured and stored; “green hydrogen” is produced from water, using an electrolyser to be powered by renewable energy. The fuel must be stored and transported using purpose-built infrastructure, unlike electricity, which is already supplied to every home and business. Building a hydrogen filling station alone can take an estimated 18 months.
Government subsidies will be crucial in this respect. President Joe Biden’s green spending in America includes plans to reduce the cost of clean hydrogen to $1 per kg within a decade (from about $5 today). The EU says hydrogen could make up 13-20% of the bloc’s fuel mix by 2050 (Wrightbus is benefiting from the Windsor Framework, the newly renegotiated part of the Brexit divorce deal that will give Northern Ireland both the UK and the US European Union holds a market for goods). This is an environment made for lobbying; JCB’s political connections to the Tories are unlikely to hurt.
In the race between battery-powered buses and hydrogen-powered buses, there is no certainty about the winner. Users may not care. Clean energy buses from both stripes bring an unglamorous form of transportation closer to the comfort of trains. Quiet, vibration-free travel is more likely to lure commuters out of the car than a noisy car spewing out diesel fumes. And whatever technology has the upper hand, a company that went bankrupt three years ago hopes to take advantage of it. ■
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