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Hydrogen mobility – an effective alternative for LPT

Bolzano and Rome compared


How are Italian cities moving to decrease the impact on the climate and increase their sustainability? What action has been introduced by administrations to promote the European Green Deal, brainchild of Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission?
Public mobility is certainly one of the urban factors with a central role in this process. FLOWS started a discussion on these topics with Stefano Brinchi, Chairman and Managing Director of 
Roma Servizi per la Mobilità, and Petra Piffer, General Manager of SASA.

The National Recovery and Resilience Plan (NRRP) states that the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted “the need to adapt the current economic model towards greater environmental and social sustainability”. In December 2019, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, presented the European Green Deal with the aim of making Europe the first continent with zero climatic impact by 2050. So, how can the NRRP contribute to increasing investment in sustainable mobility, and hydrogen in particular, in Italy?

Petra Piffer –  The NRRP already clearly defines the areas to work on to impact sustainability. In 2022, everything that’s sustainable must also be resilient. Renewable energy, including hydrogen, the network and sustainable mobility appear among the points specified. In such a context, we’re asked to be courageous. We’re invited to look ahead even though we’re aware of Italian problems such as the creation of a new fleet of vehicles and unsuitable infrastructure. To do this, it would be useful to support projects that allow a restart and, above all, long-term sustainability. The aspect of infrastructure linked to the new technologies plays an important role.
There would also be the choice of which technology to adopt, thinking about the whole thing with a single system. Investments by the government should thus be in both the purchase of new buses and infrastructure as one depends on the other.

Stefano Brinchi – We can only share the President’s aims; by the way, the European association Polis, of which Roma Servizi per la Mobilità is a member, is working to make 100 towns climatically neutral by 2030. Personally, I believe that the inversion that the Ministry, now Ministry for Infrastructure and Sustainable Mobility (MIMS) had when the Urban Sustainable Mobility Plan (PUMS) was started radically changed the approach to financing and now, with the NRRP, this trend has been further confirmed. However, I think that the central role is still in the hands of local administrations. The courage referred to by my colleague must be shown by those who govern without thinking about the political consequences of the choices. At the beginning, most citizens won’t be happy to see an initiative in favour of sustainable mobility because they can’t understand the present use. Spaces available for parking private vehicles have to be eliminated to make way for a cycle path, a tram or an underground station. People don’t agree with this but compromises can’t be envisaged, especially now that the funds are actually available. The obligatory and essential sharing process can help but without losing sight of the aim of the end policy of mobility.
Thus, the NRRP will certainly bring great benefits to sustainable mobility; nevertheless, mobility policies regulating the use of private vehicles, especially those with a three-phase motor, must also be set out. On the other hand, there are absolutely no doubts about the fleet. Renewal towards electric has started. We have to be forward-thinking and expert and not just limited to the alternatives currently considered consolidated; we have to look to the future and choose the system powering the electric motor giving the best answer to local needs

What are or could be the advantages of using hydrogen-powered buses for the mobility of people in larger urban areas that are also very different, such as Bolzano and Rome?

SB – The main aim of administrations must be to have climatically neutral towns. Many European towns are already aiming for this by 2030; unfortunately, we’re still a long way off. Nevertheless, it’s important to work seriously to lay down the bases for it to happen. All the blame can’t be laid on the mobility sector but it certainly has a significant role in the final calculation of polluting emissions in the atmosphere. In my opinion, Rome, like Bolzano, must invert the trend and work to obtain completely green mobility in both the choice of means to move and motorisation of vehicles, with special reference to public transport. On the first point, we have to continue, with conviction and determination, with the implementation of the PUMS adopted in 2019 and now at the definitive approval stage. On the second point, I think that hydrogen-powered electric buses must be included in the vehicle fleets of transport companies. Rome is the city with the highest number of kilometres of planned surface service, more than 130 m km/year with about 2,000 outgoing vehicles. The green motorisation of LPT vehicles is also becoming an essential element to be credible in mobility policies limiting motor-driven private vehicles, a sort of ‘good example’ the administration should give. Hydrogen-powered buses are certainly the type of green transport that I prefer, then the bus with super-capacitators, which we’ve been testing in Rome for a few months, and then the battery-powered one, by far the most widespread and most consolidated.

I’m not convinced and not even a sponsor of the idea that it’s necessary to embrace just one of the three different electric motor power systems; I’m very inclined to having a vehicle fleet with all three in the right proportions, also depending on where the bus is in service. I see the use of hydrogen-powered vehicles in the central areas of the city, they weigh less than the battery-operated vehicles and have a greater transport capacity, the central depots have more limited space and so this must be optimised, something that’s not compatible with overnight charging. Lastly, they prevent the installation of pantograph charging columns in the city centre, necessary for buses with super-capacitators.
I think using the type of bus with super-capacitators would be ideal in the areas immediately outside the city centre yet still in the built-up town where the routes aren’t more than 12/15 km long in each direction. The external terminuses can be equipped with charging columns and the buses have even greater maximum capacity because the weight of the super-capacitator is considerably less than the battery pack. Lastly, I would use vehicle with batteries in the most external areas of the city, where fewer people go and are mainly concentrated in the rush hours. The spaces available to depots are also more generous and such that allow suitable organisation of charging points.
Therefore, I don’t make a distinction linked to the size of the town but, instead, to the demand for mobility to be served and the spaces available for the management of refuelling/recharging.

PP – Rome and Bolzano aren’t really that different because, like many other Italian towns, they’re historic. In this context, the great advantage of the hydrogen-powered bus is that it doesn’t need infrastructure on the route and isn’t restricted to certain routes. This enables a refuelling point

in the depot and management of the vehicle fleet in exactly the same way as the vehicles with conventional technologies. At present, the electric vehicle, however, needs recharging on the route and a higher number of vehicles to cover the route range effectively so the hydrogen bus is a more flexible answer.

Hydrogen-powered mobility is the synonym of sustainable mobility. To make this combination a winner, the hydrogen used must be green and come from renewable sources. What strategies could facilitate the production and use of green hydrogen for mobility in urban areas and how?

PP – There can be many answers, especially about hydrogen. The most important thing is to maintain a consistent approach and understand the value of the system as a whole. Now, when we talk of hydrogen, we think of the green hydrogen from renewable sources or, even better, from the share of energy obtained from the overproduction of other energy sources, such as electricity or photovoltaic, which would be lost if not used in hydrogen production. We have to think of the use and re-use of sources in terms of acceptable sustainability for the perfect situation, i.e. green gas from renewable sources. On one hand, intermediate projects and answers would allow the creation of the infrastructure that could be used for green hydrogen and, on the other, there’s hydrogen as such. In this system, we have to take local circular economies and the emerging research on micro-grids into consideration,

where this system, which drives towards autonomy and the reduction of energy consumption, is studied on a small scale. Adopting this approach is also essential for a large operator like us. We are responsible for reducing our consumption, aware that the demand for energy is constantly increasing. To do this, we have to start by asking ourselves what we can really do to reduce our requirements to the minimum, integrating the supply and production systems. It’s a very complex process which leads us to see that there’s no single answer. Hydrogen is the future but, as with every answer, it needs in-depth reflection on the system and context, on what can be done to self-produce energy and where refuelling can be from clean energy sources.
To reach this optimal situation, which we all want, we have to find intermediate answers that will allow us to achieve our objective.

SB – I agree with Petra Piffer when she analyses production and distribution. Hydrogen has different maturity compared to electricity for recharging a battery. We have to offer turnkey answers to administrations and transport companies to start the widespread and systematic use of hydrogen. Projects must be suggested that set out the production of certificated green energy which is then used for the production of hydrogen. Green certification is the guarantee that the process is healthy and will mean there is effectively ‘clean’ fuel for the bus fleet from the beginning to the end. In an urban context, the only possibility I see is the use of photovoltaic panels and there can be many spaces available to public transport companies – just think of the coverings on the terminuses, those of the interchange car parks, and the roofs of depots and workshops.

Clean energy production can also be widespread, what’s important is the certification of its use in hydrogen production.
The economics of adopting this model can already be demonstrated today in the comparison with a diesel-powered thermal bus and will be even more so when the purchase costs of hydrogen-powered vehicles can be equated with battery-powered ones. The comparison between battery power and (green) hydrogen power also shows greater economy in the use of the former without taking into due account the costs of longer refuelling times, the larger spaces required and ‘opportunity charging’ problems during daily use of the vehicle. The difference will be definitively eliminated in 2030 when it’s estimated that green hydrogen will cost Euro 5/kg compared to the 11/kg of today.

Stefano Brinchi – is a Transport Engineer. After working for engineering and transport companies for more than 10 years, he joined Roma Servizi per la Mobilità (Rome Mobility Services), where he is currently Chairman and Managing Director, in 2010. He has been working with the three main universities in Rome for the development and innovation of decision support systems and mobility planning algorithms for more than 15 years.

Petra Piffer – has a degree in law and she has gained professional experience in Human Resources working in both small companies and multi-nationals and government institutions. She has been General Manager at SASA (Società Autobus Servizi d’Area) since 2014.

Urban redevelopment – transformation and revalorisation of railway stations