Hope for Hydrogen – Will Europe Capitalize on Its Potential?

Fabian Böck / 1 July 2019 / Read: 6m 48s

Why does hydrogen, as an energy carrier, keep being so fascinating? Because it's the most abundant element of the universe. This article covers some fundamentals on hydrogen and fuel cell technology—which appear to be overrated and underrated at the same time.

Hype for 30 Years

"Hydrogen is dead", various experts claim. The ever-upcoming technology for about 30 years has continuously failed to deliver on its promise. It seems investors and the market have lost faith in hydrogen solutions which could be connected to the uprise of battery-powered electric vehicles in the transportation sector. There have been statements from leading German car manufacturers that hydrogen is not part of their long-term strategy any longer. Regarding these companies being public, however, you never know what their Research & Development plans under the surface look like.

Even though this general sound might appear valid regarding the individual market, there is no reason why this should be the case for many companies' long-term prospects or investment considerations. Behind the scenes they know, that this promise which was made upon hydrogen, can become a reality at any moment. Not only on paper do hydrogen technologies suggest a viable option for the upcoming decarbonization of our entire energy system. Many people forget that hydrogen accounts for way more than transportation. Future energy use and storage will be needed in electricity, heating, industry, and transportation as well.

"all comes down to price and efficiency"

In the end, all comes down to price and efficiency. And today, we can see tremendous improvements in prize and efficiency due to decreased manufacturing costs and progress on performance. Hydrogen has quietly become part of the market as in forklift technology—even Amazon has invested in—or in microgeneration for residential heating. Finally, while green thinking around the world allows for some irrational decisions (read my article "Energy Beyond Future"), it might not be that irrational to still prosper on the idea of putting hydrogen into use for good.

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Beaten by Batteries?

When talking about hydrogen, one inevitably faces the topic of battery electric vehicles. Since the private transportation market is crucial in terms of both revenues and entering the general public, this field is a determinant factor for how these technologies could evolve. Between those two, basically, all that counts is efficiency, charging, range, infrastructure, and price.

We witness a global trend of going green with electric vehicles, which generally could be a good starting point for tackling the global warming issue. I don't want to point out the fact that this very process of building an all-electric environment is not carbon-free at all—I mean you have to start somewhere, right—but this fact has to be taken into account when evaluating different technologies based on their market perception. And it's battery electrics' most prominent representative that works on that perception saying hydrogen fuel cell technology was "mind-bogglingly stupid" (Elon Musk, Tesla). Indeed, fuel cells have a second process level to power the driving engine, which costs a fair amount of efficiency. However, hydrogen—especially as an energy carrier—has substantial benefits that come along, too. Quite apart from the fact that a battery electric car manufacturer might have some reason for a statement like this—other than technology.

Since there is an evident boom for electric vehicles going on, I will name a few parameters which could help to understand some hydrogen aspects. We will cover the battery-powered electric transportation in another article about the latest improvements in battery technology.

"Combine hydrogen from the tank with oxygen from the air and produce electricity–emitting only water vapor."

As for hydrogen, even though there are also concerns on whether hydrogen fuel cell technology is entirely green (and safe), the process sounds as clean as it could be: Combine hydrogen from the tank with oxygen from the air and produce electricity–emitting only water vapor. Sounds refreshing. But so far, not price-wise.

Prices of hydrogen cars are steep, which also applies to fueling them. However—as always—prices will have a direct correlation with growing demand. Additionally, there is another lack that battery electrics and fuel cells have both in common: infrastructure. More cars would be sold if there was a more reliable infrastructure. Still, expenses on the infrastructure, on the other hand, will only be made when there is more demand for cars. So, both battery electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel cells rely on government subsidies and new initiatives. Although there is a tremendous public effort in favor of battery electric vehicles, governments do still support hydrogen technology as well. For example, California—home of Tesla— is putting up more and more hydrogen refueling stations—aiming for 200 hydrogen stations by 2025; a test how far this technology can lead.

Another important fact is that hydrogen could fit better in urban areas. You cannot charge your battery electric vehicle so easily while parking on the street, as you would have at transformed gas stations. They say, it would be simpler to change the infrastructure into a hydrogen environment, because the fueling process at gas stations is comparable—just like the customer experience. Also, the fueling process is way faster than charging electric vehicles—one of the major problems alongside the range of battery-powered engines.

In the end, both technologies are price-intensive, both have risen ecological concerns, and both need great efforts to build a sustainable infrastructure. Electric vehicles are more efficient, whereas hydrogen fuel cells can be charged faster, reach more range, and could fit better into an urban environment. So, which technology is better?

Why decide—why discard either of them? In my opinion, this is typical thinking of technologies being exclusive of one another. I would say, hydrogen could easily make its way into the transportation market as battery electric vehicles do and claim its position in less than a decade. And, I am not talking about electric being used for short and hydrogen for long distance, or hydrogen just being a handy add-on, or used solely in B2B or B2C. Some even compare those two with gasoline and diesel. I mean, there might be a combination or a single solution waiting that we are not thinking of yet. Besides, there is much more potential for hydrogen than just for the transportation sector as a fuel cell component.

"Hydrogen Society"

There is even an entire nation making a bet on hydrogen technology: Japan. Since the Fukushima accident in 2011 occurred, Japan envisions a "hydrogen society" investing hundreds of millions of Dollars into an eco-friendly environment.

"Japan will highlight its technological progress by using hydrogen to fuel the Olympic torch"

Around 100 hydrogen fueling stations were already built by government subsidies and in cooperation with car manufacturers like Toyota. One goal is to have established 900 hydrogen fueling stations by 2030. The world will be able to witness Japan's approach to hydrogen even sooner at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo when Japan will deploy 100 hydrogen fuel cell buses and have set up a hydrogen-powered athlete's village. Also, Japan will highlight its technological progress by using hydrogen to fuel the Olympic torch.

Moreover, Japan initialized the Hydrogen Energy Ministerial Meeting in 2018, which 21 countries, organizations, and stakeholders participated—accounting for over 300 experts on hydrogen. This meeting has been the origin for further initiatives on the importance of hydrogen being part of the eco-friendly transition and becoming a relevant market. The next Hydrogen Energy Ministerial Meeting 2019 will be held in Tokyo as well.

Part of Japan's bigger picture is Toyota, which is maybe the leading car manufacturer in the field of hydrogen fuel cell technology. Especially in Tokyo's dense metropolitan area, hydrogen is a valid perspective, and, by the way, could as well be connected with another upcoming topic: autonomous driving. On top of that, Toyota and Honda are reaching out to the world building hydrogen infrastructures, for instance, in Canada and Saudi Arabia. Toyota's largest market so far is America—in California, of course. So, Toyota consistently proves its rock-solid belief in the scalability of hydrogen fuel cell technology.

Japan's approach could be more or less gambling, some analysts say. However, guess what happens, if this bet turns out to be right. By the way, there is another Asian country chipping in as of recently: China.

A European Domain

Speaking of stakeholders, we need to take a closer look at Europe. The incredible amount of 41% of Hydrogen Council's steering members is located in France and Germany–in the heart of Europe (55% total amount in Europe). The Hydrogen Council is a global initiative of leading companies that share a vision for hydrogen to be crucial for the energy transition—launched at the World Economic Forum 2017.

"This high competence of European companies in hydrogen technology should make this matter a priority in Europe's political framework."

Germany—due to its leading automotive sector—is represented in the Hydrogen Council by Audi, BMW, Bosch, Daimler, Linde (originally from Germany, now it's a multinational corporation), Thyssenkrupp, and Airbus (German-French). This high competence of European companies in hydrogen technology should make this matter a priority in Europe's political framework. Because in the end, it's not only about cars.

Daimler (Mercedes-Benz Research & Development North America), for example, together with Hewlett Packard Enterprise and Power Innovations, will test hydrogen as energy storage and fuel cell technology for applications other than automotive (e.g., power supply for computer centers).

Another relevant field could well be hydrogen powertrains, too. In September 2018, the world's first passenger train, which is only powered by hydrogen fuel cells, was deployed in Germany (Lower Saxony). The train was developed by French manufacturer Alstom (also Hydrogen Council member). So, this "train scenario" might turn out to be another field of application since hydrogen trains could use routes that were too cost-intensive to electrify regarding their sheer length or their lack of space (e.g., in urban environments). Another world record will be set in 2022 when 27 fuel cell trains will create the world's largest fuel cell fleet—located in the north of Frankfurt. These trains will be developed by Alstom, once more.

Other fields are airplanes, ships, even submarines, residential heating —already a significant market—, and implementing whole hydrogen technology environments. Other European companies, for instance, already enable wholistic hydrogen technology processes and value chains in various countries around the world.

So, since Europe is home to many great companies R&D-ing in the field of hydrogen, there's an enormous potential to thrive on this matter. Although there hasn't been a significant change over the past 30 years on hydrogen, this does not mean—especially in our fast-paced world—that breakthrough cannot happen literally overnight. Improve on cost and performance to be competitive: gear up Europe!

Official Outlook

So, what may be the outlook on hydrogen? Let's conclude referring to independent officials— whatever that means in this context:

"The world should not miss this unique chance"

The International Energy Agency, at least, assumes that hydrogen could be accounting for one-fifth of energy consumption in 2050. IEA's Executive Director, Dr. Fatih Birol, is quoted "Hydrogen is today enjoying unprecedented momentum. The world should not miss this unique chance to make hydrogen an important part of our clean and secure energy future".

One could wonder why the IEA speaks of "should not miss" as in the economy could influence the outcome. Doesn't technological revolution make its way into the market only by being revolutionary? No, it doesn't—Dr. Birol is right. To enter the market way more is necessary than a superior product. It's about the political framework, it's about the market, and it's about attention. In other words, hydrogen might have the potential to create its own success.

More articles on New Energy.

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