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All choked up – a clean power solution is needed to overcome poor air quality

Dennis Hayter – Vice President of Business Development, Intelligent Energy

Poor air quality is lethal, with outdoor pollution now recognised as a leading environmental cause of cancer deaths. A clean power solution is needed, and London is leading the way by introducing hydrogen fuel cells for clean power in transportation.

Don’t breathe now

On 17 October, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a department within the World Health Organisation (WHO), classified outdoor pollution as a leading environmental cause of deaths from cancer.

IARC cited data indicating that 223 000 deaths from lung cancer worldwide in 2010 directly resulted from air pollution, and said there was convincing evidence that it increases the risk of bladder cancer.

IARC has now classified air pollution in the same category as well known health threats such as tobacco smoke, ultraviolet (UV) radiation, and radioactive plutonium emissions. It also noted that exposure to poor air quality has increased significantly, particularly in 'rapidly industrialising countries with large populations' such as China.

An unenviable record

A few days later on 21 October, Harbin, one of northeastern China's most populous cities, broke a record previously held by Beijing, for the highest level of air pollution ever recorded. The levels of fine particulate pollution reached 1000 microgrammes per cubic metre – 40 times the recommended safe level.

Motorways, schools, and an airport were closed as the city was enveloped in a suffocating shroud of pollution, and visibility dropped to less than 10 metres.

Europe suffers too

While more than half of the deaths related to air pollution were thought by IARC to have occurred in China and East Asian countries, air pollution is a global, not just a regional issue.

The health effects of poor air quality impact high-density cities and conurbations in all parts of the world. The European Environment Agency has reported that more than 90% of people living in European cities breathe air that leads to respiratory problems, heart disease, and shortened lives.

The transport effect

Road transport is one of the main contributors to air pollution; for example, 33% of emissions in the UK result from road transport. The WHO classification is a stark reminder that all regions must address air pollution arising from transport – and its carcinogenic impact on their citizens.

Significant technological improvements in reducing CO2 emissions have not always led to a commensurate reduction in the tailpipe emissions that impact air quality – especially the particulates associated with diesel fuel, which is widely used in Europe.

While not intended to directly drive or support legal moves to change air quality measures, the WHO classification that poor air quality is lethal will no doubt serve as a conclusive point of reference for others to launch such challenges.

This has been demonstrated previously in the UK, with campaigns to highlight the dangers of passive smoking. In the UK, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) is the government department responsible for air quality. Until now it has allowed regions to set their own arrangements for managing air quality – this will now need to change, as it is both a local and a national issue.

A London way

Air quality has been high on London’s agenda for some time, with a large number of diesel-fuelled vehicles (buses, taxis, delivery vehicles) on its roads. For some time now, the city been looking closely at the requirement to implement local measures to improve air quality.

London has taken a lead in reducing transport emissions, with the following initiatives:

  • Implementing the Congestion Charge Zone in 2003.
  • Establishing the world’s first Low Emission Zone in 2008.
  • Retiring the remaining 900 oldest Euro III buses in the Transport for London (TfL) fleet, and replacing them with super-clean Euro VI buses at a cost of £18 million.
  • Accelerating the rollout of hybrid buses, with 1700 to be on the road by 2016, including 600 of the iconic New Buses for London, which are the cleanest and greenest buses of their type – this will be equivalent to around 20% of TfL’s bus fleet.
  • Trialling new fleets of zero-emission fuel cell buses and taxis.
  • Installing more than 1400 publicly accessible electric vehicle charging points.
  • Introducing a new £20 million Mayor’s Air Quality Fund to support the London boroughs in tackling local air quality hotspots.
  • Retiring 3000 of the oldest, most polluting taxis on London’s streets through the introduction of taxi age limits.
  • The Mayor has proposed a new Ultra Low Emission Zone for central London in 2020, subject to a feasibility study, which would mean a step change for the uptake of low-emission vehicles in the city.

Clean power for transport – an intelligent choice

Eliminating the internal combustion engine is an unrealistic target for megacities and regions to achieve today. But zero-emission electric and fuel cell powered vehicle technology has progressed to the stage where they can be successfully introduced as a direct replacement for today’s diesel and petrol-powered vehicles – and particularly for city-based fleets.

An example is where Intelligent Energy and London Taxi Corporation (formerly London Taxis International, LTI) worked with the Mayor’s Office and Transport for London to introduce a fleet of fuel cell powered London taxis for the London 2012 Olympics, to transport the Mayor’s VIP guests around the Olympic sites.

The fuel cell taxis are still running in London, as part of the wider European HyTEC programme. These 'Cleaner Air for London' taxis have proven they can perform the duties required of a traditional Black Cab, carrying the same number of passengers, while producing zero pollution at the tailpipe. Fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) are a technology that is safe, effective, and ready to deploy.

'London's hydrogen economy is bounding ahead,' says Kit Malthouse, London’s Deputy Mayor for Business and Enterprise, and Chair of Hydrogen London (formerly the London Hydrogen Partnership).

He continues: 'The fuel cell taxis operating with the HyTEC project have been a terrific success in showing the benefits of zero emission and low noise running, and it provides great lessons for others to get ahead in the most exciting new industry of the 21st century.'

A breath of fresh air on the way

Global automotive companies will be introducing hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles from 2015 to the motoring consumer, in addition to those on the roads now. In tandem, work to progress the introduction of hydrogen refuelling networks is proceeding rapidly, with plans under way or already being implemented in Germany, Japan, the US, France, the UK, and elsewhere.

In Germany, a national programme recently announced commencement of a nationwide network of hydrogen fuelling stations to support FCEV rollout from 2015. And the UK H2Mobility programme is working towards the UK’s hydrogen refuelling station network, to support an estimated 1.6 million FCEVS on Britain’s roads by 2030.

UK H2Mobility points out that this is a significant number of zero air polluting vehicles. They will noticeably improve air quality at a local and national level, improve the quality of life, reduce the drain on health services and the number of avoidable deaths, and lay the foundation for more sustainable economic growth in our cities.

So the way is clear for China to adopt fuel cell powertrain technology, which is now well understood. Different technology supply options are available, first for city-based taxis, vans and buses, and then moving on to passenger vehicles. Better that, than accumulating more records for increased fine particulate emissions.

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