Europe’s future: fuel cell and hydrogen energy technologies

Europe’s future: fuel cell and hydrogen energy technologies

The Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking’s (FCH JU) Executive Director, Bart Biebuyck, discusses the progress in both the policy and research spheres towards bringing fuel cell and hydrogen energy technologies to market.

The Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking (FCH JU) is a unique public private partnership supporting research, technological development and demonstration activities in fuel cell and hydrogen energy technologies in Europe. Its aim is to accelerate the market introduction of these technologies, realising their potential as an instrument in achieving a carbon-clean energy system.

Fuel cell and hydrogen energy has a great potential to help fight carbon dioxide emissions, to reduce dependence on hydrocarbons and to contribute to economic growth. This is because fuel cell is an efficient conversion technology, and hydrogen is a clean energy carrier. The objective of the FCH JU is to bring these benefits to Europeans through a concentrated effort from all sectors.

Speaking to SciTech Europa, the JU’s Executive Director, Bart Biebuyck, discusses the progress in both the policy and research spheres that has taken place towards bringing fuel cell and hydrogen energy technologies to market.

Since the European Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technology Platform was established under FP6 to the establishment of the JTI under FP7, what would you say have been the biggest changes to the hydrogen fuel cell landscape in Europe?

We have made huge steps forwards in each of these areas. For example, we have been able to solve many of the big challenges we were experiencing in making sure things work, and we have made significant progress in terms of performance, efficiency, and durability. This progress has been the result of the numerous research projects that have taken place in recent years.

For example, electrolysis (splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen) has had a huge impact on the industry environment. The costs of this technology have reduced dramatically, and, at the same time, performance levels have gone from the kilowatt to the megawatt scale.

Because of that, and thanks to the research that has been done in these areas, the big industries are now starting to become very interested in applying electrolysis in areas such as steel, in that steel factories are now using electrolysis to decarbonise the metal. While this technology has not been completely validated yet, industry players are already willing to consider it as a solution.

This is a big difference to where we were just a few years ago, where many such solutions were nowhere near being attractive enough to industry because they were too low scale and not reliable enough.

On the policy level, the potential of fuel cell and hydrogen energy has begun to be recognised. In the past, policy makers were concerned with what role hydrogen could play in society. Now, it has become apparent that this role will be a double one: firstly, it will play a role in energy storage. By building new wind and solar farms, policy makers have realised that the existing grids are starting to become unstable due to the levels of energy being produced via renewables (often, solar farms generate so much energy when it is sunny that they have to be turned off, and the same is true of wind farms when it is windy).

Using hydrogen for energy storage is a solution to this problem. Wind and solar farms can remain switched on even when the grid is full as the energy can be used to produce hydrogen, which can be used later. Policy makers have also learned that hydrogen is one of the best means to store renewable energy in large quantities over long periods. This is known as ‘seasonal storage’, where the energy is captured in the summer and used in the winter, when we use most of our energy.

Secondly, hydrogen is great for sectorial integration; by using fuel cell and hydrogen energy we can bring renewable energy to any sector by using hydrogen to store renewable energy.Because these roles have been defined, policymakers are really starting to engage with them. For example, a recent declaration will see Member States signing up to support hydrogen with an emphasis on more research, collaboration, and standards. This is the first time we have seen that happen at this level.

What do you feel are the biggest barriers to an accelerated market introduction of fuel cell and hydrogen energy technologies in Europe, and how can they be overcome?

We have now reached a point where several new products are reaching the marketplace. Fuel cell and hydrogen energy technology moves faster than regulations, and we now know that in order to accelerate the market we need to have some regulations in place, and these are now being agreed upon by policymakers; it just takes time. The Renewable Energy Directive and the Clean Mobility Directive are two examples of regulations that will, of course, support the acceleration of the market.

There are also other ways we can help to accelerate this market introduction. To take the maritime sector as an example, the International Maritime Organisation’s (IMO) decision to decarbonise the sector by 50% by 2050 made it clear that hydrogen will have an important role to play. However, there is no regulation there. A prototype regulation can work, but typically it can take many years for changes in a regulation to take place. This, then, is an example of the type of barrier that exists.

We now have a first generation of hydrogen technology, but we are in the very early stages, and so while we can now demonstrate that the technology works and people can buy cars which include this technology and the first buses using this technology are already on the streets, those first products are expensive (as is the case with every new technology of this sort), and so the next logical step is to continue to do more research in order to bring the costs down. This could involve looking at new materials or new ways of fuel cell construction, while at the same time we need to be able to increase efficiency.
We also need to show how fast we can replace the current amount of hydrogen we produce in an environmentally unfriendly way with ‘green hydrogen’, which is produced in a more sustainable way.

The FCH 2 JU programme of research and innovation is structured around two research and innovation pillars dedicated to transportation and energy systems. Could you outline some of the priorities here – and perhaps any cross-cutting activities – and why they are important?

This comes down to the aforementioned sectoral integration; basically, energy systems need to be decarbonised. We have different sectors (transport, heating, cooling, etc.) which we tackle in our programme, and we work on each of these sectors under the transportation or the energy pillar.

Under the energy pillar, we are focusing on electrolysis. There are many large industries which need to be decarbonised – not only the steel industry, but also the ammonium and fertiliser industry, for instance – and to produce the hydrogen we will need for this we must develop high-performance, cheaper electrolysers.

Under the transportation pillar, our first priority has been buses. We are concerned that many local authorities are closing down their city centres because of air pollution – which is more of a problem to local authorities than CO2. Indeed, several cities are not bringing their air pollution down to levels deemed acceptable by the EU, which means that these city centres are being closed, and so local authorities are looking for solutions, meaning that there was a huge interest to start with.

Hydrogen buses can drive longer distances and they are more flexible to use. When we unveiled the first buses they were very expensive, and we have since worked hard to bring down the costs. Now, we have been able to bring the costs down to a level where public authorities are really starting to consider this solution.

We are also focusing on hydrogen refuelling stations because zero emissions vehicles need the right infrastructure in place, and building up infrastructure across Europe just takes time. We are thus trying to do this in an organised way: we launched Hydrogen Mobility Europe, where we bring together all the relevant stakeholders in order to reach the necessary agreements and to map all the stations and discuss how to work best across borders, and so on.

Because our research has significantly enhanced the performance of hydrogen fuel cells – which were initially only envisioned to have applications in cars and buses – we are also now seeing them being applied to heavy duty trucks, trains and also in the maritime sector. As such, we have also recently focused on trucks, which contribute quite significantly to air pollution, in order to help those segments to decarbonise.

How would you characterise the support at EU and Member State levels for the advancement of fuel cell and hydrogen energy technologies? What more would you like to see being done?

The EU has invested heavily in fuel cell and hydrogen energy technology, and rightfully so because we needed to have solutions for the areas that other technologies had been unable to decarbonise. We are now bringing the first products to the market, and moving forwards we need to focus more on bringing the costs down. It is thanks to the level of EU support that Europe has become a leader in several elements of hydrogen fuel cell products.

Looking at Member States, it is clear that there is a lot of variety. There are Member States who are really investing in this technology, such as Germany and, more recently, France, and the UK is ready to follow suit, as is the Netherlands. These countries have realised that hydrogen will play a key role in their future transition. Some Member States, however, are not yet active; there really is a huge difference in the levels of support available at the national level. What is also very interesting is that Eastern Europe is seeing a lot of basic research into this technology taking place, which is great.

In a general sense, then, in terms of policy, we are seeing that both European policy and, to some extent, Member State policy, is starting to be drafted in order to support the exploration of hydrogen, but the degree of support in different member states for fuel cells and hydrogen differs a lot.

Moving forwards, how do you expect the work and role of the JTI will evolve alongside the developing landscape that we are seeing in Europe?

While it is not down to me to decide how the role of JTI will change, I do believe that the future role that the JTI should play is threefold:

  • We have to go back to basic research in order to develop the second or third generation of the products and so bring down costs;
  • We need to accelerate and scale up in order to be competitive. As such, we need to see what instruments the JTI could access in order to help here, as the current instrument is not appropriate to support scaling up. Because we are a research instrument, we need to think about other instruments and how we can combine them within the JTI; and
  • We need to work on the supply chain, Tiers 1-3, in order to ensure that we can generate jobs and growth in Europe.

Europe has a strong leadership position, and we need to maintain that by accelerating and scaling up and, at the same time, by developing our supply chain in Europe.

Bart Biebuyck
Executive Director
Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking (FCH JU)
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