Britain has the chance to lead the world into an energy revolution – but it can only do so with the right public policy environment.
As party members, businesses, journalists and politicians descended on Brighton for Labour party conference, and prepare to do so for the Conservative party conference in Manchester, they will likely have been breathing in air than breaches EU safety limits. It does not need to be this way.
Britain has a proud history of leading the world in new technologies, with some of the world’s brightest and best working on solutions to our air quality crisis. As a British entrepreneur in the low-carbon economy, I firmly believe that, given the right policy landscape, the UK can be a global leader in developing new technologies and products to tackle climate change and to help clean up our air.
Riversimple is pioneering the design and manufacture of lightweight, highly efficient hydrogen fuel cell cars. I founded the company Riversimple with a simple mission: to pursue, systematically, the elimination of the environmental impact of personal transport. Our cars are powered by hydrogen fuel cells that only emit water. We are based 75 miles from Swansea, the birthplace of the hydrogen fuel cell, created by William Grove in 1842 and are continuing in the tradition of creative ingenuity that he exemplified.
The burning of natural gas, coal, petrol and diesel shaped the 19th and 20th centuries, powering heating, industry and transport. But as we wake up to the effect that climate change is having on our world today, there is a new impetus to change the way we power our economy. Britain has the potential to lead this change, but to do so it needs public policy to support it in the right way.
It’s not just climate change, but also the impact that pollution is having directly on our health. In February the EU gave the UK a “final warning” on air pollution, with 16 air quality zones breaching their limits. The breaches were for NO2 pollution, which has serious health risks that mostly stem from road transport. Germany, France and Italy are all in breach of their air quality limits too – with Germany the worst offender, breaching limits in 28 different air quality zones. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has taken a leading role in this fight to improve our environment by investing in new technology, through his transport strategy, environment strategy and by bringing forward the introduction of an Ultra-Low Emission Zone.
The last seven years have seen radical change in the automotive industry. From a near-standing start in 2010, by 2015 there were over 1 million electric vehicles include battery-electric, plug-in hybrid electric, and fuel cell electric passenger light-duty vehicles on the roads globally. By 2016 this had doubled to over 2 million, with sales rising 60% in a year.
There are two kinds of fully electric vehicles, and while battery electric vehicles have stolen many of the headlines, the revolution now in progress is much bigger. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are also on the roads today – you can see them on the streets of London as bus operators use them to overcome range and charge time limitations associated with battery electric vehicles. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles present none of the challenges associated with battery electric alternatives - they are refilled with hydrogen at a pump in c.3 minutes and their range is very similar to everyday combustion engine cars.. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles only emit water, and the lighter they are the less particles they produce from tyres and brakes, so they can contribute significantly to minimising the air pollution from road transport.
The technology we need to develop a low-carbon economy exists today; we just need to invest in it and scale it up. The Government should aim to create a level playing field between different technology solutions, and whilst battery vehicles have already received considerable subsidies and government support, the same support has so far not been granted to hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, despite their advantages.
The UK has a unique opportunity to be at the heart of the low-carbon automotive industry, with centres of hydrogen and battery expertise across the country. The UK is sending out a message that it believes in these new technologies and wants to support their growth, but in reality there is more that needs to be done. The Government has thrown its weight behind battery electric cars, and that risks holding back investment in hydrogen technology. If the UK wants to optimise its opportunity for decarbonisation, it must adopt a technology-neutral approach.
People will only buy electric cars – both hydrogen fuel cell and battery electric – if they are confident that there is adequate refuelling and charging infrastructure. Scaling the refuelling infrastructure for hydrogen cars is actually much easier and cheaper than it is to scale battery charging infrastructure – each hydrogen pump can support hundreds of vehicles whereas a charging point can only support a handful – but Investors will only build this infrastructure if they believe in the future of the technology. Both the Government and the opposition have crucial roles in building this confidence, by supporting all technologies equally in order to secure the best deal for the consumer and to provide incentives for investors.
The UK’s future trading relationships are important. Climate change is an international problem and finding the solutions to carbon emissions from transport will be an international effort. The technologies that my business is working on in Wales, indeed innovations from the whole of the UK, could be exported round the world.
In a post-Brexit world, if the UK doesn’t invest in creating new solutions for de-carbonising our transport sector then we risk falling behind other countries that are already racing ahead. I believe that the UK could therefore benefit most by encouraging the commercial success of these two complementary technologies: battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles.
Looking at the statistics and the determination from across political parties, civil society and business, I believe a revolution has already begun. It might force us to change our ways, but the future will not wait, and neither should we.
As the political party conferences season marches on, let’s make sure that the low carbon economy is firmly on their radars. We have an opportunity to create a world-leading green economy, and our Parliamentarians will be pivotal in making that happen. It will give us economic growth and a better world. Together it is a future we can achieve.
Founder and Chief Engineer of Riversimple, Hugo Spowers began his career designing racing cars before environmental concerns led him away from motorsport. After a feasibility study on hydrogen vehicles during his MBA at Cranfield, he concluded that a step change in automotive technology is both essential and possible. Riversimple have now developed their first car designed for type approval, the Rasa, and are trialling 20 vehicles in Monmouthshire in 2018.