Why is Hydrail important?

By exporting hydrogen fuel cell technology to Europe to support railway electrification, Hydrogenics is playing a central role in decarbonizing a major mode of transportation on the global stage. As demand for Hydrail systems increases worldwide, the prospects for economic growth and employment expand accordingly. The success of Hydrail is a clean technology success story for Ontario, and for Canada.

Interest in Hydrail

Railway using overhead wires for electrification

Interest in Hydrail stems from challenges to traditional electrification involving direct contact with overhead power lines.

In Germany, for example, approximately half the regional rail network is electrified, whereas the other half relies on diesel-powered trains. There is strong interest in achieving 100% electrification of the railway network (consistent with national policy objectives on air quality and climate change) but the traditional direct contact approach is prohibitively costly and would take many decades to complete.

Photo Credit: Rail Engineer. New Wires for Old. 2012.
Overhead wires on a railway

Hydrail offers a much more cost-effective way to electrify rail service. It can be deployed quickly and seamlessly – running concurrently with diesel trains while progressively displacing them from service. Hydrail also sidesteps the passenger service disruptions that would need to occur if railway corridors are retrofitted with overhead and wayside infrastructure (e.g., power transmission stations) [1][2]

Photo Credit: Metrolinx

Benefits of Hydrail in North America

The benefits of Hydrail could also be realized in North America. If Hydrail is proven to be a viable option to achieve electrification of Ontario’s GO rail network, it could mean that the benefits of cleaner air and less noise would be realized sooner and at a lower cost. Since overhead power lines are unnecessary, bridges and tunnels need not be altered, nor would hundreds of trees need to be cleared along the corridor. The Government of Ontario has announced a study to investigate the feasibility of Hydrail as part of the Metrolinx Regional Express Rail initiative, which includes GO rail electrification.

In addition to eliminating diesel combustion emissions from commuter and regional rail service, and removing the need for elaborate overhead and wayside power transmission infrastructure, Hydrail systems can generate valuable services for the electricity grid in Ontario.

Hydrogen can be produced with electricity generated off-peak; that is, when other demands for power are low. Under such conditions, available green power production is often curtailed and nuclear power is exported to neighbouring jurisdictions, such as the State of New York, at low or negative prices, creating cost pressures on Ontario’s electricity system.

Zero-Carbon Hydrogen

Grid-power electrolysis, called Power-to-Gas, can use this generating capacity to produce valuable, zero-carbon hydrogen fuel that can be stored for later use. This allows more value to be created from existing green power and transmission assets, benefitting electricity consumers throughout the province while decarbonizing a major part of Ontario’s commuter rail system.

Power-to-Gas systems help make more productive use of low-emission sources of power, by:

  • allowing the energy produced to be stored and used in other valuable ways, like powering trains.
  • easing cost pressures on electricity systems.

By contrast, generating on-demand power for electric trains can increase pressure on the grid, especially during on-peak periods, when the demand for electricity is highest.

Some 40 Power-to-Gas systems are already operating in Europe – many supplied by Hydrogenics’ electrolyzer systems.[3] Ontario is preparing to launch its first Power-to-Gas electrolysis plant in Markham, as a grid-scale energy storage and grid balancing services pilot. This pilot could generate valuable experience that promotes further use of Power-to-Gas systems throughout North America.