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Air quality: The devil you don’t see

Henri Winand

With one in eight deaths globally related to air pollution, investing in clean energy solutions is the healthy dose of medicine the world needs to alleviate social and economic burdens on families and national states alike, while powering a sustainable future, suggests Henri Winand.

As the global population and the demand for more and more energy has grown, so too has the detrimental impact on the air we breathe and, as a consequence, public health. Transportation, manufacturing, electricity generation and aviation are all aspects of modern human life which contribute to atmospheric pollution that is increasingly harmful to health and can be deadly.

Particulate matter (PM) emissions such as dust, fly ash, soot, smoke, aerosols, fumes – which can be suspended in the air for long periods – contain inhalable particles which can become trapped in lung tissue where they irritate and, over time, can develop into serious illnesses. Inhaled particulates can enter the bloodstream and can also impact heart health.

A 2014 World Health Organisation report found that one in eight deaths in 2012 globally were related to air pollution. Fast forward to 2015 and the UK shadow environment minister, Barry Gardiner, claimed that more than 1300 Londoners died prematurely due to toxic air in the first six months of the year alone. Furthermore, scientists have estimated that the annual death toll in the UK as a whole that is linked to particulate pollution is around 29,000.

The social and economic burden of this is clear to see in families, health-care systems and governments worldwide. Emergency hospitalisation, long-term treatment, pharmaceuticals and time off work and education come at a high cost.

Time to act

This state of affairs cannot and must not be allowed to continue, particularly when solutions are at hand to help remedy the situation. Alternative, cleaner and more efficient power is now increasingly available, from sources such as hydrogen fuel cells that produce low, or zero pollution and no PM emissions.

Intelligent Energy’s business in India, for example, aims to bring reliable and cleaner energy solutions to more than 26,000 telecom towers, an essential part of the country’s communications and therefore business infrastructure.

Intelligent Energy is responsible for the power management of these towers and is initially working to increase efficiency and reduce diesel consumption of the incumbent back-up generators while also increasing uptime. Over time, it is planned that more of these generators with be replaced with the company's hydrogen fuel cell technology. As hydrogen fuel cells emit only water vapour, their widespread adoption for critical infrastructure like phone masts can produce significant positive public health impacts in markets which are vulnerable to poorly performing power grids, such as rural India where power is regularly restricted to just 8-12 hours a day.

According to the World Health Organisation in June 2015, air pollution is the top environmental risk to the world. Three hundred million people of all ages, occupations and ethnic backgrounds suffer from asthma, widely believed to be associated with poor air quality. A recent study showed that 35% of schoolchildren in Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore and Kolkata have poor lung function. The survey, covering 2000 children, has linked poor lung function to rampant air pollution in metro cities.

The telecoms industry in India - the world’s second largest telecoms market - used more than three billion litres of diesel in 2012. To put this into context, particulate matter emissions from the telecoms industry in 2011 were three times larger than mega city Delhi’s entire PM emissions that year or around 4% of India’s total NO2 emissions.

From telecoms to transport

Intelligent Energy’s business activities in India represent just one industry in one market. Atmospheric particulate matter affects people around the world and road transport is a major source and another area ripe for the benefits that hydrogen fuel cells can bring.

Atmospheric particulate matter is highly regulated throughout Europe and the West, not least because of its strong link with lung disease. The London Borough of Islington caused huge controversy in 2015 with its vehicle penalties imposed upon diesel-engine cars. As the council’s Executive Member for Transport, Claudia Webbe, said in June: “Pollutants in diesel exhausts have been linked to heart and lung diseases, which are major causes of serious and long-term health issues and even death in Islington, and the surcharge will encourage a move away from diesel."

Governments in Germany, Japan, France, Scandinavia, the U.K. and the U.S. have drawn up plans to introduce hydrogen refuelling networks to support a new generation of fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs). Meanwhile, Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, has gone so far as to mandate that all new taxis must be zero-emission capable by 2018.

In alignment with such efforts, leading automotive manufacturers such as Toyota, Honda and Hyundai have announced their intentions to make their zero emission FCEVs available globally. This has already begun, with Hyundai’s Tucson and Toyota’s Mirai FCEVs already or soon to be available in various locations across the world. For example, the Mirai is presently only available to consumers in Japan but is expected to hit the roads in the US and the UK later this year, along with Hyundai’s Tucson, which is available for the public to buy in California already.

The pace of adoption and development with car manufacturers is accelerating quickly. Intelligent Energy developed partnerships with two major automotive OEMs over the space of eight years. Then in a matter of months, two further major car manufacturers signed deals with the company to develop fuel cell vehicles. The new clients are some of the biggest producers in Asia and Intelligent Energy’s current motive clients represent nearly a quarter of the global car market. The progress towards zero-emissions at tailpipe is unstoppable.

There is a high cost associated with doing nothing to improve the quality of the air we breathe, one paid by increased morbidity and mortality. But hydrogen fuel cells are now well positioned to make important contributions to the cause, and at Intelligent Energy our technologies for the automotive, distributed power generation and consumer electronics markets are ready to make a difference.


Henri Winand is CEO of Intelligent Energy



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