Hydrogen may have been something of a nearly-man in the renewables race so far (with wind and solar now streets ahead), but for the inhabitants of 'EcoIsland' - that's the UK's Isle of Wight to you and me - it has finally arrived as the transport fuel of 'now'. Hydrogen from the island's burgeoning low-carbon sources of generation could be powering cars and catamarans by 2015, thanks to a £4.6m grant announced by the government-backed Technology Strategy Board (TSB).
The use of hydrogen, produced from the electrolysing of water, has long been a promising green fuel technology; one which for equally as long has struggled to deliver. The high costs of its production and storage have prevented the fuel from becoming a contender for a mainstream transport solution. But the UK's TSB has high hopes for hydrogen and fuel cell technology, and the potential for practical demonstrations to bring costs down. It is placing a significant £75 million of investment into a slew of projects that will bring hydrogen to the street.
Saving the world 'one island at a time'
And what better place to get the hydrogen economy kick-started than the self-proclaimed 'EcoIsland', a slice of green-sward a few miles off the southern coast of the UK. The Isle of Wight is in the midst of a concerted effort to become fully self-sufficient in renewable energy by 2020, as the first member of a burgeoning EcoIslands movement - their motto: 'saving our world one island at a time.'
What's fascinating about this project is that it is seeking to bring hydrogen in as an integrated part of the island's overall energy ecosystem. So the low-carbon electricity to power the electrolyser will be part of a Demand Side Management 'service' to the island's Smart Grid - soaking up the excess energy supply that comes with variable wind and solar power production. The hydrogen is, in effect acting as an energy store.
From Catamaran to Cars
The fuel will be supplied through two hydrogen refuelling units to two separate modes of transport - boat and car. A 15kg per day refuelling unit will be built on the south coast, to serve a specially adapted catamaran. And a larger 100kg per day unit will handle the fuel needs of a fleet of hydrogen-powered Hyundai's, Microcabs and River Simples. Those cars will be operated on a shared basis by local companies and utilities.
All parts of the system are being woven together by an energy management and smart card system, to make sure hydrogen supply and demand are properly balanced together with the smart grid. So can the Isle of Wight be the venue to make the hydrogen dream real? The CEO of EcoIsland,David Green, sees the potential in the project to be an ambassador for hydrogen:
"EcoIsland is delighted to have been selected as the location for this exciting hydrogen trial, the first of its kind in the country. As the UK’s leading sustainability project it is appropriate that the refueller trial is going to be based here... the refueller will mean that people living here and visiting Ecoisland will get the chance to share the hydrogen experience first-hand."