Will the city of the future run on hydrogen?

4 minutes of reading

Hydrogen has been put forth as a critical “green” energy solution in the next decades. Between public and personal transport, power production and storage, the innovations are proliferating around the world to make hydrogen a central part of our daily lives.

In Europe, in the wake of the European Union’s announcement last July of its Clean Hydrogen Alliance, EU Member States have moved hydrogen to the top of their investment priorities lists as part of post-COVID-19 economic recovery plans. France and Germany announced they want to allocate 7 billion and 9 billion euros, respectively, of public funds over the next 10 years to building a hydrogen sector. For air and rail travel, just as for lorries and light vehicles, hydrogen is seen by some as the dream alternative to diesel, in particular.

Hydrogen, the most commonly occurring element in the universe, has been studied and employed for a long time. Hydrogen is found in water (H2O), biowaste, wood and fossil fuels such as coal, natural gas and oil. Today, 95% of the hydrogen used in industry is extracted from fossil fuels. Thus, it is imperative to decarbonise hydrogen production. Among the various hydrogen production techniques, electrolysis should be prioritised; this method uses electricity to separate the hydrogen and oxygen found in water molecules. When that electricity is generated from renewable sources, we arrive at green hydrogen with no carbon emissions.

So, what would a hydrogen-powered city look like?

Cities account for more than 70% of the world’s carbon emissions, although they only occupy 2% of the Earth’s land area. They also consume more than two-thirds of global energy output.

A hydrogen city can be defined as any city that integrates hydrogen in its economy and infrastructures to reduce carbon emissions. The key integration points include energy storage, transport and industry.

With its zero-emission potential and its applicability to all energy sectors, hydrogen should play a key role in the decarbonised economies of the future. Political decision makers are starting to support hydrogen as a tool in their energy policy toolbox. For example, France presented its hydrogen road map, Japan is transitioning to a hydrogen-powered society and South Korea is aiming to become a leader in developing hydrogen as an alternative energy source.

To develop an ecosystem for a hydrogen economy, South Korea is focusing on increasing production and the use of hydrogen vehicles, establishing an ecosystem to produce and distribute hydrogen and disseminate related technologies, and expanding fuel cell manufacturing. The government’s vision is backed by key manufacturing companies, including Hyundai Motors group, which plans to invest 7.6 billion wons (6.7 billion dollars) in the framework of its “FCEV Vision 2030” and is part of the HyNet consortium to build 100 new hydrogen fuelling stations in South Korea by 2022.

South Korea’s decision to invest in developing a hydrogen-based economy also aligns with its national needs. When he announced the South Korean road map for a hydrogen economy, President Moon Jae-in laid out three reasons to pursue a hydrogen-based economy: economic growth, energy security and the environment.

South Korea wants to create 3 hydrogen cities by 2022: those “hydrogen cities” will use hydrogen as their fuel for primary urban functions, such as cooling, heating, electricity and transport. With these pilot projects, South Korea is working toward its goal to have 40% of local governments converted to hydrogen cities by 2040.

In Japan, Toyota seeks to build the city of the future, fuelled by hydrogen

Toyota announced its plan to build the city of the future on a 71-hectare plot at the base of Mount Fuji in Japan. Known as “Woven City”, it will have a fully connected and sustainable ecosystem powered essentially by hydrogen energy.

The network’s organisation will resemble organic meshing, hence the city’s name. Only autonomous, electric, hydrogen and battery-operated vehicles will be able to drive on the main roads. Deliveries and transport will be provided by self-driving vehicles and drones.

The city will be a “living laboratory” with real inhabitants and real activity. It will house residents and researchers ‒ 2,000 at first ‒ who will live there continuously and will be able to test and develop technologies such as autonomous robotics, individual mobility with zero greenhouse gas emissions, fully connected houses and infrastructure, and real-time digital checks of all the city’s infrastructure.

Toyota emphasises that building an entire city, even on a small scale, is a unique opportunity to improve and develop 21st-century technologies. Thus, people, robots, buildings and vehicles will all be connected to one another and will communicate through sensors and data. This infrastructure will notably enable the automaker to test the artificial intelligence of its vehicles and the network in both real and virtual terms. Toyota intends to invite private and university partners and scientists from around the world to participate in the experience.

Woven City will be designed by Danish architect Bjarke Ingels. His firm, Bjarke Ingels Group, has spearheaded renowned projects, such as Tower 2 at the World Trade Center in New York City, the Lego House in Denmark and the Google headquarters in Mountain View, California.

Woven City will have three types of roadways: streets for fast vehicles; streets for slow vehicles, pedestrians and personal mobility; and streets for pleasure strolls and the mobility-impaired. The city will be completely sustainable and most buildings will be constructed in wood, using traditional Japanese methods and automated production systems. All the homes will be equipped with domestic robots to help perform household chores. The roofs will be covered with solar panels and, thanks to hydrogen-powered fuel cells, they will help supply energy to the city and its residents. Finally, the streets and parks will be planted with natural vegetation and hydroponic crops. The project is slated to begin in 2021.

Transport, heating, manufacturing, electricity production, energy storage…renewable hydrogen is now capable of playing a big role in the city of the future, in a world increasingly focused on zero carbon solutions. However, there are still many challenges to resolve, such as sourcing and transport for large-scale deployment…


Hydrogen in France

France currently consumes 1 million tonnes of hydrogen per year, which is mainly derived from fossil gas. It has adopted legislation which aims to decarbonise hydrogen production, but without adopting any measures to achieve that goal. The goals defined consist in attaining 10% “low-carbon” hydrogen by 2023 and raising that number to between 20% and 40% by 2030.