UN Report: Why Private Sector’s Use of Hydrogen a Possible Bright Light in Coal Phase-Out

by | Nov 14, 2018

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The alarming report produced by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made major headlines this month, giving a specific timeline of as little as 12 years to act on global warming to prevent irreversible damage. The same report argued that transforming the global energy system would require a virtual elimination of coal as a power source.

While private sector corporations alone cannot stop this damage, they can play a major role in progressing toward coal phase-out outcomes agreed to in 2017 UN climate talks in Bonn. If corporations in massive coal-burning industrialized nations including the US and China take the UN report seriously, they can make up for a lack of global governmental alignment and action plans.

The rest of the industrialized world should consider following the lead of the UK and Canada’s environment ministers to phase out unabated coal by 2025 and 2030, respectively. However, it does not seem realistic that similar action will be taken in the US, given a general lack of agreement when it comes to prioritizing “clean coal” vs. coal elimination altogether.

Fortunately, the private sector can take direct and measurable action today. For example, any organization that operates a tethered industrial fleet vehicle that relies on fossil fuels can transform operations by embracing hydrogen fuel and electrification to drive CO2 emissions down to zero. What’s more, facilities that rely on battery electric vehicles (BEVs) can achieve greater efficiency and uptime with hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCVs), while reducing the environmental impacts of relying on electric charging alone.

As compared to a BEV, a FCV takes minutes to refuel, allowing more continuous runtime. For organizations that require a continually operating fleet or operate heavy equipment, FCVs can provide both efficiency and environmental benefits needed to justify the up-front investment of a transition from CO2-emitting fossil fuels. However, it’s not an either/or proposition. For example, BEVs have been extremely effective in passenger vehicles without a need for continuous runtime.

In terms of a fuel cell success story, Amazon is operating one of the world’s largest fleet of industrial vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells within its fulfillment centers. This growing fleet currently includes 3,782 forklift truck vehicles operating at 17 sites, across 14 states, and growing. Today’s fleet alone will reduce the amount of carbon released by 6,860 tons. Combined with its more than one million megawatt hours of clean energy each year through its wind farms, Amazon is taking clear action to reduce its environmental impact.

These impacts get even more exciting when you consider the use of hydrogen and clean energy beyond the facility and onto the roadways. Hydrogen-powered vehicles (including hydrogen-powered fleet and passenger vehicles) have the potential to reduce some of the damaging effects of using diesel and conventional gasoline.

According to a 2014 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, full lifecycle “well-to-wheels” global warming emissions analyses show that early hydrogen-powered FCVs reduce emissions by over 30% compared with conventional gasoline vehicles and under California’s renewable hydrogen requirements, reductions are over 50%. Promising efforts such as Tokyo’s commitment to build a “hydrogen society” for the Olympics by 2020 may be some of the most effective proofs-of-concept of embracing hydrogen at scale.

While these ambitions are exciting to ponder, let’s begin with immediate action by corporations to phase out their use of coal and other CO2-emitting fossil fuels by using hydrogen and other viable forms of alternative energy. It’s one of the most direct ways to help our society avoid the outcome of waiting 12 years to realize the even more catastrophic effects of global warming on the other side.

As Winston Churchill once said, “I never worry about action, but only about inaction.” Truer words were perhaps never more relevant than today.

By Andy Marsh, CEO, Plug Power

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