Hydrogen-powered work equipment: does it have a future?

Contractors looking to make their work and construction equipment more sustainable often look first at battery-electric solutions. But hydrogen can also be a good option. In fact, some pioneers are already experimenting with it. Does it have a future? 

Hidde Middelweerd

Family business Jos Scholman from Nieuwegein has now been active in the infrastructure and green sector for almost 50 years, employing 300 people and with an annual turnover of 40 to 50 million euros. When the contracting company decided several years ago to start working on sustainability, work equipment was logically high on the agenda. Small equipment and hand tools, from chainsaws to brush cutters, were electrified. But for heavier equipment, the hydrogen route was chosen. 

"We soon noticed that our heavier implements were less suitable for electrification. You need a substantial electricity connection for it and that is not always available at the (often remote) locations where we do our work," explains Dik Raadgever, project manager at Jos Scholman and responsible for hydrogen activities within the company. "A crane at a fixed location, for example, can run fine on electricity. But with a mobile crane, which you want to be able to deploy anywhere, that is quickly a more difficult story."   

Tracktors and work vans running on hydrogen

So Jos Scholman opted for hydrogen - and it is going well. The company now has fourteen passenger cars (Hyundai Nexus) that run entirely on hydrogen and two mobile cranes were also recently fitted with a fuel cell. Earlier this year, Jos Scholman also purchased seventeen hydrogen-powered work vans from Stellantis. Next year, the company also hopes to add two large hydrogen-powered trucks to its fleet. 

Together with British New Holland, Jos Scholman also developed a hybrid tractor, equipped with a so-called dual fuel system. This means that the tractor runs on both diesel and hydrogen. "Equipment running on hydrogen in many cases didn’t exist yet, so we started working on it ourselves," says Raadgever. "We now also sell the tractors to third parties so that they can also make their fleets more sustainable using hydrogen." 

Thanks to the dual fuel system, up to 50 percent of the tractor's diesel consumption can be replaced by hydrogen (depending on the power required). The associated CO2 reduction: 35 to 65 percent compared to a tractor with Stage 5 diesel engine. A great result, but above all, Raadgever calls the tractor a transition vehicle: "Is this the end point? No. But it is an indispensable step towards equipment that does run 100 percent on hydrogen." 

Filling up with hydrogen at Scholman

Even outside its own operations, Jos Scholman has been working hard for years to roll out the hydrogen economy in Nieuwegein. In 2019, it founded HySolar to shape that with partner Allied Waters. Hysolar's goal: to produce and supply green hydrogen. Hysolar has been supplying it since 2021, when it opened a hydrogen refuelling station on the Jos Scholman property. There, users can refuel hydrogen at a pressure of 350 bar (for trucks and buses) and 700 bar (for passenger cars). 

"We have now built up a decent clientele for passenger cars," says Raadgever. "But what has been disappointing for the time being is heavy transport, such as trucks and buses. On the one hand, that just takes time, that's the way it is. On the other hand, we hope the municipality and province will soon put their money where their mouth is and invest in hydrogen buses to make public transport more sustainable. That would help us tremendously." 

Producing your own green hydrogen

Furthermore, the production of green hydrogen is now at an advanced stage. In the first quarter of next year, an electrolyser will be installed on KWR's site, right next to a solar panel field. When the sun is not shining, the electrolyser will use green electricity from the grid to produce hydrogen. The plant will have a capacity of 2.5 megawatts, good for producing 300 tons of green hydrogen per year. "KWR's site is about a kilometre from our hydrogen refuelling station. The hydrogen lines between the two are currently being constructed," explains Raadgever. 

The electrolyser is also important for making their own operations more sustainable. This is because the hydrogen Jos Scholman currently uses is supplied by Air Liquide, a company that makes hydrogen using electricity that is partly green and partly grey. Not ideal, says Raadgever, but (like the hybrid tractors) an indispensable step toward a hydrogen model that is indeed completely green. "If you set the bar very high right from the start, nothing will happen in the end. You have to be realistic about what you can achieve in the short term, and then take small steps to set a change in motion." 

Mainly electric equipment

Once the electrolyser produces green hydrogen, Jos Scholman will be sound, both environmentally and commercially. After all, it will no longer have to buy (expensive) hydrogen from a third party. However, for now the family business is one of the few contractors to choose the hydrogen route. Vincent Swinkels, independent consultant in the construction and infrastructure sector and part of the 'Buyer Group zero-emissions construction equipment' working group, illustrates: "The subsidy pot of the Clean and Emission-free Construction Equipment Subsidy Scheme (SSEB) was empty within a day last year. There were hundreds of applications for the purchase of electric equipment. And as many as zero applications for hydrogen-powered equipment." 

Why is that? There are several (possible) reasons, says Swinkels. "First, the development of electric equipment is proceeding much faster than expected. Many suppliers are now entering the market with battery-electric models. That is not yet the case with hydrogen." In addition, green hydrogen is currently of limited availability and relatively expensive. Especially compared to electricity: after all, green hydrogen is made using electricity and that process involves energy loss. 

The limited availability of green hydrogen is also an environmental problem, Swinkels continues. Anyone who invests in electric equipment now and buys only green electricity is immediately making a major sustainability push. "But those who buy hydrogen now are in most cases relying on hydrogen made from (partially) grey electricity. Then the environmental gain is zero. The overall picture of electric equipment is then more attractive - to most anyway." 

Advantages of hydrogen-powered equipment

Raadgever agrees that hydrogen is currently relatively expensive, although it will become progressively cheaper in the future. "Especially if we soon produce our own hydrogen. Besides: what is expensive? Anyone who really wants to be cheap will only buy used equipment that runs on diesel. But in view of climate change, that is simply no longer an option. If we want to become more sustainable, we have to get used to the fact that we will have to set aside a little more money for transport in the coming years." 

In addition, hydrogen-powered equipment does have its advantages. The range, for example, is considerably greater than that of electric equipment. Refuelling hydrogen is also a lot faster than recharging a battery. Especially if, like Jos Scholman, you have your own hydrogen filling station. And hydrogen is often a lot more readily available on a remote construction site than electricity. "It can just be brought in, so the equipment can basically refill within minutes," says Swinkels. "That's a big advantage, saving you a lot of time (and therefore money)." 

Does hydrogen-powered equipment have a future?

So Swinkels does expect that there will be a market for hydrogen-powered equipment, especially for heavy applications and construction sites without charging facilities. But whether there will ever be as much investment in it as in electric equipment? "That's hard to predict. What Jos Scholman is doing is very interesting and will probably yield cost benefits in the long run. But it does require a substantial pre-investment, not everyone has the resources for that." 

According to Raadgever, hydrogen is certainly also interesting if you do not have your own electrolyser and hydrogen filling station. "Once our electrolyser is operational, you can fill up with green hydrogen at our fuelling station. In addition, we can deliver it in bulk to third parties, to their hydrogen buffer on their site or directly to the construction site. There are plenty of opportunities."