Smart cities and clean energy: how hydrogen shapes urban sustainability

Published

1. Introduction: the rise of smart cities and the need for sustainable solutions

In the relentless march of global urbanisation, smart cities emerge as a beacon of progress and innovation. Defined by their integration of digital technologies, data analytics, and intelligent infrastructure, these cities aim to enhance the quality of life for their residents while addressing pressing challenges such as traffic congestion, energy consumption, and environmental degradation.

As populations flock to urban centres in unprecedented numbers, the strain on resources and the environment becomes increasingly apparent.

The need for sustainable solutions has never been more urgent, with climate change, pollution, and resource depletion threatening the very fabric of urban living.

Smart cities, emphasising efficiency, connectivity, and sustainability, offer a promising response to these challenges.

The smart city vision encompasses a broad spectrum of advancements, from intelligent transportation systems and energy-efficient buildings to robust data analytics for urban planning.

However, at the core of this vision lies the imperative to adopt clean and sustainable energy sources.

This brings us to the focal point of our exploration: the role of hydrogen in shaping the sustainability of smart cities.

2. Hydrogen as the cornerstone of clean energy

Hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe, holds significant potential to revolutionise the energy landscape, particularly in the context of smart cities.

One of hydrogen’s defining features is its adaptability, showcased through diverse production methods.

Electrolysis, which splits water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen using electricity, is clean and renewable when powered by solar or wind.

Versatility in applications

Hydrogen’s versatility extends beyond its production methods to its wide applications.

In the context of smart cities, hydrogen can be utilised as a fuel for transportation, a means of storing excess renewable energy, and a clean energy source for building heating systems.

This versatility makes hydrogen a crucial player in the quest for a comprehensive and integrated approach to urban sustainability.

Clean and efficient energy carrier

Hydrogen serves as an excellent carrier of energy. Whether utilised in fuel cells or burned, it reacts with oxygen to produce electricity, emitting only water vapour as a byproduct.

Hydrogen mobility encompasses fuel cells and internal combustion engines (ICE). While fuel cells remain the primary product for mobility solutions, including ICE expands the horizon of hydrogen mobility options.

The focus is not on the combustion engines being problematic but rather on addressing the issue of the type of fuel used.

This approach provides a viable alternative to conventional fuel sources for powering vehicles in smart cities.

As cities aim to reduce their carbon footprint and combat air pollution, hydrogen emerges as a viable and efficient energy carrier.

Global initiatives and investments

Around the world, governments, research institutions, and private enterprises recognise hydrogen’s potential and invest in its development.

Initiatives such as the European Clean Hydrogen Alliance and national hydrogen strategies in countries like Japan and South Korea underscore the global commitment to harnessing hydrogen’s potential.

These initiatives focus on production and emphasise the importance of creating a robust hydrogen distribution and utilisation infrastructure.

3. Hydrogen-powered transportation: a zero-emission revolution

Hydrogen-powered transportation, driven by hydrogen engines and fuel cells, stands at the forefront of this revolution, offering a zero-emission alternative to conventional fossil fuel vehicles.

Fuel cells and zero emissions

Integrating hydrogen fuel cells into vehicles represents a paradigm shift in the automotive industry.

Unlike internal combustion engines that rely on burning fossil fuels, fuel cells generate electricity through a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen, emitting only water vapour as a byproduct. It’s important to note that the issue lies not with internal combustion engines but instead with the fuel used.

This fundamental shift eliminates tailpipe emissions, making hydrogen-powered vehicles a clean and environmentally friendly option for urban transportation.

Advantages for smart cities

Smart cities, grappling with traffic congestion and air quality challenges, find an ally in hydrogen-powered transportation.

The rapid refuelling capabilities of hydrogen vehicles address concerns related to charging times for electric batteries, offering a practical solution for urban areas where efficiency and convenience are paramount.

Moreover, deploying hydrogen-powered buses, trucks, and trains contributes to a comprehensive and sustainable urban mobility strategy.

Infrastructure development

Developing a robust infrastructure is imperative for hydrogen-powered transportation to become a widespread reality.

Smart cities investing in hydrogen must establish a network of hydrogen refuelling stations, mirroring the existing gasoline and electric charging infrastructure.

Governments and private enterprises are pivotal in facilitating this infrastructure development, fostering collaborations to ensure a seamless transition to hydrogen-powered mobility.

Case studies and real-world implementation

Several cities worldwide are already making strides in integrating hydrogen-powered transportation into their urban fabric.

Cities like London and Tokyo have introduced hydrogen-powered buses, reducing emissions in their public transportation systems.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as Germany’s H2.City Gold demonstrate the viability of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in urban delivery services.

These case studies provide valuable insights into the practical challenges and benefits of adopting hydrogen in transportation within the dynamic context of smart cities.

Overcoming challenges and looking ahead

While the potential of hydrogen-powered transportation is significant, addressing challenges such as the cost of fuel cells, limited vehicle models, infrastructure development, and the inclusion of redesigning existing internal combustion engines (ICE) to run on hydrogen is essential.

Governments, industry stakeholders, and researchers are working collaboratively to overcome these hurdles and pave the way for a future where hydrogen-powered transportation becomes a mainstream reality in smart cities.

4. Energy storage and resilience: hydrogen’s crucial role

Hydrogen is crucial in energy storage and resilience, offering a solution to bridge the energy supply and demand gaps.

Addressing intermittency

Renewable energy sources such as solar and wind are abundant but inherently intermittent. The sun does not always shine, and the wind does not consistently blow.

Hydrogen, through electrolysis, provides a means to store excess energy generated during peak production periods.

This stored hydrogen can then be utilised during periods of low energy production, ensuring a continuous and reliable power supply for smart cities.

Hydrogen as a green battery

Considered by many to be a green battery, hydrogen storage facilities act as reservoirs for surplus renewable energy. Electrolysis systems, powered by excess electricity, split water into hydrogen and oxygen, storing the energy within the hydrogen molecules.

When energy demand peaks, fuel cells can convert this stored hydrogen into electricity. This process creates an effective and sustainable energy storage cycle, addressing the inherent intermittency of renewable sources and contributing to grid stability.

Enhancing energy resilience

Energy resilience is critical to smart city planning, especially in natural disasters, grid failures, or unforeseen disruptions. Hydrogen storage offers a resilient energy solution, enabling cities to maintain a stable power supply even when traditional sources may falter.

This resilience becomes increasingly important as cities transition to decentralised energy systems, relying on a mix of renewable sources and storage solutions to ensure uninterrupted energy services.

Integration with existing infrastructure

Smart cities aiming to incorporate hydrogen storage solutions face the challenge of seamlessly integrating them into existing energy infrastructure.

However, advancements in hydrogen storage technologies, including advanced compression and storage in Metal Hydrides, are making it more feasible to integrate hydrogen storage into urban energy grids.

Collaborations between energy providers, governments, and technology developers are crucial to navigating this integration and maximising the benefits of hydrogen storage.

Global examples of hydrogen storage projects

Several cities and regions worldwide already implemented hydrogen storage projects to enhance energy resilience.

For instance, the US has initiated projects like the Advanced Clean Energy Storage (ACES) Program, exploring the use of hydrogen for long-duration energy storage. Such initiatives showcase the real-world applications of hydrogen storage in bolstering urban energy resilience.

5. Revolutionising urban heating systems with hydrogen

Hydrogen emerges as a transformative force promising to revolutionise urban heating and cooling systems, essential building infrastructure components.

Fuel cells in combined heat and power systems

Integrating hydrogen fuel cells and turbines into Combined Heat and Power (CHP) systems represents a groundbreaking approach to urban energy efficiency.

CHP systems simultaneously generate electricity and capture the waste heat produced.

By incorporating hydrogen fuel cells into these systems, smart cities can maximise energy utilisation, reduce overall energy consumption, and minimise environmental impact.

Decentralised energy systems

Hydrogen facilitates the development of decentralised energy systems within smart cities.

By enabling hydrogen production on-site through electrolysis, cities can create localised hubs for clean energy production.

This decentralisation enhances energy resilience and minimises energy loss during transmission, promoting a more efficient and sustainable energy model.

Case studies in sustainable urban heating

Cities like Copenhagen, pioneers in sustainable urban development, provide insightful case studies.

The Danish capital has been actively transitioning from fossil fuel-based heating systems to renewable energy sources.

Such examples inspire other smart cities seeking to implement similar sustainable practices in their heating infrastructure.

Another notable potential use is vertical farming in cities. Vertical farming presents a forward-looking approach with well-insulated, airtight buildings, hydroponic systems, and artificial lighting.

According to research, this method, with its synergy with the hydrogen economy, not only reduces water usage by 98% compared to open-field agriculture but also offers increased productivity, potentially 200 times more productive than conventional methods.

Hydrogen serves as an energy source for heating and balancing the grid. Meanwhile, green oxygen generated during water electrolysis for green hydrogen production can be utilised as a valuable resource supplied to plant roots through the circulating nutrient solution, maximising efficiency and sustainability.

6. Global initiatives: leading the way towards hydrogen adoption

As the world transitions towards sustainable energy solutions, smart cities take centre stage in pioneering initiatives to integrate hydrogen technologies into their urban fabric.

European clean hydrogen alliance

In Europe, the Clean Hydrogen Alliance represents a concerted effort to accelerate the development and deployment of hydrogen technologies.

This initiative, part of the European Union’s broader Green Deal, aims to make Europe a global hydrogen production and consumption hub.

Smart cities across the continent are actively participating, fostering collaborations between industry, government, and research institutions to drive innovation and establish hydrogen as a critical player in the energy transition.

National hydrogen strategies

Several countries have formulated comprehensive national hydrogen strategies to guide their efforts in harnessing the potential of hydrogen.

For instance, Japan’s Basic Hydrogen Strategy envisions hydrogen as a versatile energy carrier, addressing challenges in transportation, power generation, and industrial applications.

South Korea’s Hydrogen Economy Roadmap similarly outlines ambitious goals for the widespread use of hydrogen in various sectors. These national strategies provide a roadmap for smart cities within these countries to align their efforts with broader national objectives.

Hamburg’s green hydrogen for Hamburg

In Germany, the city of Hamburg has embarked on the “Green Hydrogen for Hamburg” program, aiming to establish a green hydrogen economy by 2035.

This initiative involves collaboration between government agencies, industry partners, and research institutions to create a comprehensive hydrogen production, distribution, and utilisation ecosystem.

Hamburg’s efforts illustrate how cities can proactively drive the transition towards hydrogen and sustainable energy solutions.

7. Collaboration for success: public-private partnerships in hydrogen adoption

In pursuing a sustainable and hydrogen-powered urban future, smart cities recognise the importance of collaboration between the public and private sectors.

Government incentives and policies

Governments play a pivotal role in fostering an environment conducive to hydrogen adoption.

Governments can encourage private enterprises to invest in hydrogen research, development, and infrastructure through incentives, subsidies, and supportive policies.

Incentives may include tax credits, grants, and regulatory frameworks that facilitate the integration of hydrogen technologies into intelligent city planning.

Private sector innovation

The private sector is instrumental in advancing hydrogen technologies with its innovative capacity and financial resources.

Energy, transportation, and technology companies bring expertise and solutions to overcome technical challenges.

Collaborations between public institutions and private enterprises enable the development of scalable and commercially viable hydrogen applications.

Research and development collaborations

Smart cities benefit from collaborations between research institutions, universities, and private companies engaged in hydrogen research and development.

These partnerships drive innovation, advancing hydrogen production methods, storage technologies, and fuel cell efficiency.

By fostering a culture of collaboration, smart cities can leverage cutting-edge research to address specific urban challenges.

Infrastructure development

Establishing a hydrogen infrastructure is a significant undertaking that requires coordinated efforts between public and private entities.

Governments may initiate infrastructure projects, such as building hydrogen refuelling stations or integrating hydrogen pipelines, while private companies contribute through investments in equipment, technology, and operational expertise.

This collaboration is essential to create a seamless and accessible network for hydrogen utilisation.

International cooperation

The global nature of the hydrogen economy necessitates international cooperation.

Smart cities collaborate with other cities, countries, and international organisations to share insights, best practices, and technological advancements.

Joint projects, knowledge exchange programs, and standardisation efforts contribute to a harmonised global hydrogen adoption approach.

8. Conclusion: a sustainable future powered by hydrogen in smart cities

As smart cities navigate the challenges and capitalise on the opportunities presented by hydrogen technologies, they pave the way for a future where sustainability is not just an aspiration but a reality.

Hydrogen, with its clean and abundant properties, has the potential to redefine urban living, making cities more resilient, efficient, and environmentally friendly.

In conclusion, the integration of hydrogen into smart cities heralds a new era of urban sustainability. As cities worldwide embark on this transformative journey, the vision of a hydrogen-powered urban future becomes more apparent.

Yvonne (Ivon) Ivanova is Marketing Manager at Hydrogenera

This article was originally published on 29th January 2024 in Hydrogenera’s blog  

Feature Image Source: Freepik

Sign up to Smart Classes Digest to receive the latest thought leadership, innovation insights and event updates straight into your inbox. You can also follow us on LinkedIn or follow us on Twitter.

Stay in touch

Sign up to Smart Classes Digest to receive the latest thought leadership, innovation insights and event updates straight into your inbox.

We offer great opportunities for our sponsors, and would love to hear from potential speakers, contributors or new partners.