Exclusive interview with FCH JU Executive Director

Exclusive interview with FCH JU Executive Director

The Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking (FCH JU) has achieved a lot in the eleven years since its inception, as it strives to make hydrogen and fuel cell products an everyday reality.

The public-private partnership between industry, research and the European Commission has created low-carbon and sustainable solutions, enabled market entry for new products, developed ‘next generation’ products based on previous research, and opened new markets for European expertise in fuel cell and hydrogen technology.

Market uptake from public authorities, major companies and citizens alike has boosted confidence in these clean technologies, establishing hydrogen as a cornerstone of Europe’s energy transition.

In 2015, the 28 member states of the European Union (EU) signed and ratified the Conference of the Parties (COP21) Paris Agreement to keep global warming “well below two degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, and to pursue efforts to limit the temperatures increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius”.

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Source: FCH JU

The FCH JU’s Executive Director Bart Biebuyck (right) believes hydrogen will play a major and irreplaceable role in making both the committed and additional efforts succeed.

“For me it is very clear the time of hydrogen is now. The time has never been as good as it today,” Biebuyck said.

Back in February, the FCH JU released a report describing an ambitious scenario for hydrogen deployment in the EU to achieve the two-degree target.

Hydrogen Roadmap Europe: A sustainable pathway for the European Energy Transition says there is the potential for generating approximately 2,250 terawatt hours (TWh) of hydrogen in Europe across sectors in 2050, representing roughly a quarter of the EU’s total energy demand.

This amount would fuel roughly 42 million large cars, 1.7 million trucks, approximately a quarter of a million buses and more than 5,500 trains.

It would heat more than the equivalent of 52 million households (about 465 TWh) and provide as much as 10% of building power demand.

In industry, approximately 160 TWh of hydrogen would produce high-grade heat and another 140 TWh would replace coal in steelmaking processes in the form of direct reduced iron (DRI).

120 TWh of hydrogen combined with captured carbon or carbon from biomass would also produce synthetic feedstock for 40 Mt of chemicals in 2050.

Achieving this vision would put the EU on a path to reducing about 560 million tonnes of CO2 emissions annually by 2050 – as much as half of the required abatements needed to achieve the two-degree scenario.

“These are pretty impressive figures that we worked together with the industry to get.”

“We didn’t really have a clear roadmap for hydrogen in Europe and we thought it was important to make this document to firstly explain why hydrogen, and secondly show what hydrogen could bring and what the benefits would be in terms of environment, but also in terms of jobs and growth,” Biebuyck explains.

“It really can show the people and our policy makers this is the impact you can have.”

Biebuyck first became convinced of the role hydrogen could play in decarbonising industry during his time working for a big OEM in Research & Development.

“One fuel cell car was not going to move the hydrogen sector, we needed to work together in a partnership.”

“I was part of the fuel cell car development team, so for more than seven years I worked on actually developing a fuel cell car,” he recalls.

“This is when I really realised if this technology was going to move forward, we needed to work on a European level. One fuel cell car was not going to move the hydrogen sector, we needed to work together in a partnership.”

“After that I learnt about the FCH JU, a partnership between industry, research and public authorities, and knew it was the perfect position to be in to push things forward.”

Whilst working on hybrid vehicles, Biebuyck realised a big advantage – people’s habits would not need to change with this technology.

“You can just go to a refuelling station and refuel the car in a quick fill up, you can have long driving ranges, the same behaviours you have with today’s vehicles will remain with the hydrogen car.”

“For me this is a big advantage and why I truly believe it is one of the best technologies to decarbonise transportation.”

“Since taking up my current role, I am even more convinced because I can see how hydrogen can help to decarbonise the industry and the energy demand as a whole.”

Success stories – transport

Over the last eleven years, the FCH JU has funded a series of flagship buses, cars and refuelling infrastructure projects to demonstrate hydrogen fuel cell technology’s reliability and financial viability, bring down costs and build the investor confidence needed to upscale this technology use across the sector.

Small-scale bus trials have been taking place in commercial fleets around Europe thanks to FCH JU funding.

There are currently more than 50 FCH JU-supported fuel cell buses on the road around Europe and this number will rise to close to 400 with the FCH’s most recent projects JIVE and JIVE2.

“When we first started our work with fuel cell buses back in 2010 the first bus was €1.8m. It was very, very expensive and nobody really had an interest at that time because it was so expensive.”

“But we knew we needed to reduce the pollution and improve the air quality in city centres and so we needed to have zero emission buses.”

“Today we have reduced the cost to about a third of the original price and a fuel cell bus costs somewhere around €550,000.”

“Over the next couple of years, we will see that price going down as we do more scaling up.”

“There are now lots of European regions showing a huge interest in this technology. We have around 10 OEMs working on hydrogen and fuel cell buses now where in the past it was only one or two. We have created a lot of interest in it.”

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Source: FCH JU

The FCH JU has also sought ways to overcome the challenges to the uptake of fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs). The basic prerequisite is for car manufacturers and infrastructure providers to work hand in hand – one will not become established without the other.

To address these challenges, the FCH JU has funded a series of projects, including HyFIVE and Hydrogen Mobility Europe (H2ME).

HyFIVE put 185 hydrogen vehicles into operation, along with six hydrogen stations across three geographical clusters: London, Copenhagen and a southern area comprising Innsbruck, Munich, Stuttgart and Bolzano.

H2ME, which began in 2015 and runs to the middle of 2020, and H2ME2, which started in 2016, will create a pan-European hydrogen refuelling network, deploying 49 hydrogen stations and more than 1,400 vehicles.

At the same time, the FCH JU also focuses on improving consumer confidence through pre-normative research leading into standards for refuelling stations.

Success stories – electrolysers

The FCH JU is playing an important role in establishing green hydrogen as a viable approach to energy storage and clean fuel.

The development of more sophisticated electrolysis techniques is helping to optimise the integration of renewable energy, and the demonstration of applications in the transport and industry sectors is opening up new markets and advancing sectoral integration.

There are two distinct strands supported by the FCH JU. One encourages the development of more powerful and more efficient electrolysers. The other supports field demonstrations of technologies in transport and industrial applications to open up new markets.

To drive the first strand, the FCH JU supported a series of projects designed to improve electrolysers. 30 out of the 53 projects related to hydrogen production support the development of electrolysis for energy application.

Important areas of research include delivering advances in the initial alkaline electrolysers as well as in other types, including polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) and solid oxide (SOEC) electrolysers.

The second strand relates to FCH JU energy projects that have demonstrated the increasing power of electrolysers. This has risen from 100kW, with project Don Quichote in 2011, to 6MW in the 2016 H2FUTURE project.

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Source: FCH JU

Launch of the H2FUTURE project.

The increasing power will make electrolysers suitable for a growing range of applications, which is attracting a broader base of end users, including heavy industry.

The H2FUTURE project, for example, is injecting green hydrogen into steel production, thereby eliminating greenhouse gas emissions that would normally ensue.

Demonstrating that even energy-dependent sectors can rely on this technology will make for increasingly green industrial production.

“With all our research projects, we have brought down the price enormously and at the same time we have moved from kilowatt to megawatt scale,” Biebuyck highlights.

“By reducing the cost and increasing the capacity, a lot of big industries are now saying ‘I’m ready to try these electrolysers in my plan’.”

“At the same time, we also know we should not stop at megawatt, we have to go to gigawatt. That’s where we are working now internationally on moving to gigawatt scale electrolysers.”

Next focus

For Biebuyck, the FCH JU’s next big focus will be heavy duty vehicles, such as trucks, taking into account as well the new strict emissions targets brought in by the EU.

Earlier this year, the EU agreed to cut CO2 emissions from new trucks and lorries by 30% before 2030.

“Heavy duty transport needs to decarbonise, and hydrogen can help. We do not yet have a lot of hydrogen stations for trucks and that is definitely a point of attention that we will have to accelerate.”

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