Hydrogen-powered planes will be cheaper to run than those burning fossil fuel by 2035, if the EU moves ahead with its plans on taxation, carbon pricing and mandates, according to a new report.

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Brussels-based non-profit Transport & Environment (T&E) says in its study, Analysing the costs of hydrogen aircraft, that even though fuel costs would increase by 82% when using green H2 rather than fossil-based kerosene, the latter is on course to be more expensive in 12 years’ time — for three reasons.

The first is that the EU institutions have reached a political agreement that jet fuel must contain at least 20% sustainable aviation fuel (SAF, made from biofuel) by 2035, with 5% synthetic e-kerosene (made by combining green hydrogen with captured CO2) — which will inevitably drive up the cost.

Secondly, the fossil part of that blend is expected to pay a carbon price of €127 ($137) per tonne of CO2 by 2035; and thirdly, the European Commission has proposed a kerosene tax amounting to about €0.37 per litre — and a Boeing 747 burns through about four litres of fuel every second.

“By 2035, the operating costs of a 1,000-nautical-mile flight for a hydrogen aircraft would be 7.7% higher than for a jet aircraft using an untaxed SAF/jet fuel blend, but 2.1% lower if the SAF/jet fuel blend is taxed,” explains a T&E briefing note accompanying the report.

The study finds that it would cost €299bn ($322bn) to develop and run the hydrogen aviation value chain in Europe between 2025 and 2050, with 83% of that cost coming from green hydrogen production (54%), distribution (23%) and liquefaction (6%).

By contrast, the development of hydrogen aircraft would only cost about €15bn, while the necessary changes to airport infrastructure would cost more than double that, at €36bn.

T&E — which is highly sceptical of using green H2 or its derivatives as road transport fuels — says: “Hydrogen-powered aircraft are one of the key technologies that can help the aviation industry achieve its ambition of sector decarbonisation by 2050.

“The direct use of hydrogen on aircraft holds a lot of potential, as it can be more energy efficient than using e-kerosene, and more scaleable than bio-based Sustainable Aviation Fuels.”

However, T&E points out that each litre of kerosene contains four times as much energy as a litre of liquefied hydrogen, meaning that larger fuel tanks are needed to provide the same amount of energy.

“This factor limits the range of these aircraft compared to their kerosene-powered counterparts, but hydrogen planes can still provide a viable alternative to decarbonise regional and short/medium haul routes, which represent 50% of total CO2 aviation emissions in Europe,” it explains.

“A number of companies are currently developing technologies for hydrogen aircraft. Universal Hydrogen and Zero Avia are working on retrofit solutions for existing regional planes, and aim for an entry into service by 2025.

“Airbus, on the other hand, has announced the goal to explore three different concept designs under its ZEROe project, and to develop one of them for entry into service by 2035.

“The selected aircraft design for this study is a hydrogen jet engine aircraft, with a range of 2,000 nautical miles (3,700 km), and an energy efficiency assumed to be the same as existing turbofan aircraft. This representative design is similar to one of the three Airbus ZEROe concepts, and it would be able to operate 99% of intra-European routes.”

The T&E study assumes that there will be 127 hydrogen planes in service in Europe in 2035, rising to 3,521 in 2050, under a baseline scenario.

In conclusion, the report — which was written for T&E by London-based consultant Steer — makes four recommendations.

1) For the EU to include kerosene taxation in the Energy Taxation Directive, and aviation carbon emissions in the Emissions Trading System (ETS) — both of which are already planned ­— to make fossil kerosene more expensive and foster the uptake of cleaner solutions;

2) Recycling part of the carbon and kerosene tax revenues to support the development of zero-emission aircraft;

3) Strengthening the EU’s green taxonomy criteria for aviation to focus on truly disruptive solutions such as zero-emission aircraft;

4) To set progressive decarbonisation targets for routes suited for hydrogen aircraft operation, using instruments such as the Air Services Regulation or Public Service Obligations (PSOs).