In recent years, hydrogen technology has moved to the forefront of the environmental debate: it is expected to help achieve the increasingly stringent climate protection targets and, in particular, the low emissions targets for the transport sector. This is precisely why topics such as hydrogen law and regulation are becoming increasingly important in the automotive sector.

Hydrogen in the transport sector – Focus on the automotive industry

Although our article focuses primarily on the automotive sector, it should be mentioned that breakthroughs in hydrogen technology applications are also being made in other transportation sectors. Trains are now using so-called “hydrails” technology. The world’s first commercial hydrogen-powered passenger train in Germany, the Coradia iLint, was produced by French rail manufacturer Alstom in 2016. In Asia, East Japan Railway announced in late 2019 that it is investing four billion yen in the development of a two-car hydrogen train. In addition, in the U.S., Swiss rail manufacturer Stadler received an order from the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority in November 2019 to deliver the first hydrogen-powered train. The UK is also catching up, introducing the “Hydroflex” in 2020, the UK’s first hydrogen-powered train. 

In the automotive sector, innovative hydrogen technology is pioneering the most energy-efficient alternative energy source to internal combustion engines needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 60 to 80 percent by 2050, according to the European Strategic Energy Technology Plan

Major automakers in the EU and around the world are preparing for hydrogen propulsion and are already planning and implementing significant investments in this innovative propulsion technology of the future in automotive manufacturing, particularly in hydrogen-based fuel cell electric vehicles, or FCEVs.

The framework for hydrogen law is changing: An overview

  • Efficient and cost-effective implementation of hydrogen and fuel cell technologies requires appropriate laws, regulations, standards and procedures. 
  • Almost all relevant regulations for hydrogen and fuel cells are currently based on European regulations (directives or ordinances). These are and must be further developed and adapted.
  • Similarly, a large proportion of the standards applied today are based on international regulations.
  • Outside Europe, Japan, Korea, China and the USA in particular are increasingly standing out as pioneers in the development and market launch of hydrogen (H₂) and fuel cells.
  • The further development of international regulations and standards will be increasingly influenced by technology and market developments outside Europe.
  • It is therefore important that German and European interests continue to be taken into account and that RCS activities (RCS = Regulations, Codes and Standards) are followed by German players in international bodies.
  • Currently, German expert representation in international H₂-RCS bodies is declining – in stark contrast to France, Japan and the USA.
  • This is worrying, as greater representation of German experts in all relevant European and international standardization bodies is essential in order to meet the requirements of the EU’s New Legislative Framework (NLF) concept, so that standards suitable for Europe (ISO, IEC, CEN – Comité Européen de Normalisation, CENELEC – Comité Européen de Normalisation Électrotechnique) can in turn be referred to.
  • This effort will be borne primarily by industry, even if it involves regulatory work or support, which is not the primary task of private actors.
  • In the past, Germany was able to conduct approval procedures for new technologies by analogy, which is now less and less possible due to the NLF. To improve the internal market for goods and strengthen the conditions for placing a wide range of products on the EU market, the new NLF legal framework was adopted in 2008. It is a package of measures designed to improve market surveillance and enhance the quality of conformity assessment.
  • Complicating matters further, China is developing many H₂- and FC-specific standards on a national basis, some of which come into force directly (GB standards), and China is stepping up its participation in international standardization.
  • By participating in RCS panels, it is possible to some extent to help shape the future technology and its suitability for one’s needs. Not participating is tantamount to leaving this sphere of influence to other international competitors.

EU framework conditions for hydrogen applications in the automotive sector

To shape the transition to a green energy strategy, the European Commission has launched a Hydrogen Strategy for Europe in 2020, to be further implemented by the European Alliance for Clean Hydrogen. Within this framework, the European Commission aims to introduce common standards, terminology and further certification to make renewable or low-carbon hydrogen more competitive and facilitate its use as an alternative fuel resource. 

The current EU regulatory framework provides flexibility in relation to the introduction of hydrogen technology in the automotive sector (e.g. environmental regulations on the greenhouse gas intensity of hydrogen, technical requirements for refueling stations) with limited regulations that have only an indirect impact. 

Impact of the EU framework beyond the EU

At the international level, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (“UNECE”) is developing harmonized regulatory requirements that serve as the basis for national regulatory standards for hydrogen vehicles and, in particular, for the safety of FCEVs in North America (led by the United States), Japan, Korea and the European Union. UNECE Regulation No. 134, establishing requirements for the approval of motor vehicles and their components with regard to the safety-related performance of hydrogen-powered vehicles, is currently in force and is recognized as equivalent to the corresponding separate directives or separate regulations of the EU. 

Regulatory gaps slow down rapid implementation

Many of the barriers to hydrogen deployment are due to regulatory gaps caused by a lack of harmonization of regulations and concepts or an unintended mismatch between regulations adopted at the national level, rather than high legal and regulatory barriers at the EU level. A major problem is the lack of standardization of the refueling process for heavy freight transport, the target sector for hydrogen technology. Without a harmonized framework for the refueling procedure, countries run the risk of incurring additional costs for retrofitting. To promote and secure expansion and funding in the hydrogen sector, member states should develop a harmonized refueling regulation.

Nevertheless, steady progress through numerous initiatives

Nevertheless, steady progress is being observed worldwide, in particular through the so-called “Fit for 55” legislative package in the EU and through the introduction of automotive-specific or clean air legislation in other countries. This is also because countries are taking initiatives to change their national policies with the aim of decarbonizing vehicle transport, with several countries taking concrete steps to invest in and develop hydrogen-based vehicles in public and private transport (including heavy road vehicles).

magility’s view on H2 rules and regulations

There is no doubt that FCEVs are already changing the automotive landscape, and hydrogen-based technology is no longer a novelty for the future, but rather a current reality that stakeholders must adapt to. Although the road ahead will present financial, regulatory and technical challenges, hydrogen technology is an important alternative energy source in the automotive sector. The industry must adapt to the ever-changing economic and environmental realities. 

Only with the right regulations it is possible to build a new infrastructure that forms the basis for new business models. In particular, sustainable mobility, the expansion of renewable energies and efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will be key factors influencing the implementation of hydrogen projects. Political decision-makers must create the necessary regulations for hydrogen production, infrastructure and applications so that the envisaged H2 business models can be successful. Without these regulations, the H2 initiative will fail. You can find more about our position in our paper Hydrogen – Just a Part of the Big Picture Energy Transition, Business and “Climate Action Failure”

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