f-cell: Exclusive interview with Patrick Huber, CEO of H2 Energy

f-cell: Exclusive interview with Patrick Huber, CEO of H2 Energy

Members of the hydrogen and fuel cell community gathered this week in Stuttgart, Germany for the annual f-cell event, which discussed what the future of hydrogen and fuel cell technology will look like.

To mark the two-day event, which finished yesterday, H2 View is bringing you an exclusive interview every day this week with f-cell speakers and exhibitors, as well as other members of the hydrogen and fuel cell community.

Today’s interview is with Patrick Huber, CEO of H2 Energy. Whilst not directly involved with the f-cell event, the Swiss hydrogen company is at the centre of a number of hydrogen and fuel cell projects currently going on in Switzerland, including rolling out 1,000 fuel cell trucks by 2023.

Huber has developed a true passion for hydrogen and is convinced hydrogen solutions can be very powerful. But as he tells H2 View below: “We need to focus on applications that are commercially viable and scalable, and we must be consistent.”

Q. It sounds like you have a very interesting role at H2 Energy. Could you tell us a little about it and where your passion for hydrogen comes from?

I do indeed enjoy my role at H2 Energy tremendously and I cannot think of a position which would provide me with larger fulfilment.

My background was initially in finance and I worked for a large financial institution for more than 20 years. Once I left the bank, I was looking for an occupation which offered me the opportunity to make an impact.

It was during this period my brother, Rolf Huber, who is the founder and Chairman of H2 Energy, approached me and asked me to have a look at some specific aspects of the business around hydrogen solutions.

The more I learned about hydrogen and its applications, the more evident it became to me that hydrogen does not only offer a wide range of technical solutions with a proven technology, but also that those solutions can be scaled. This is critical if you want to make an impact. In addition, hydrogen can offer solutions which can be truly sustainable. All this made me indeed develop a true passion for hydrogen, as such.

I would like to add though that I have learned a lot about other alternative technologies as well since I joined H2 Energy, and I often find it disappointing when most discussions are around the superiority and inferiority of one technology over another. This is the wrong discussion. The meaningful discussion is which technology is best suited for a specific application because no technology is superior, but every technology can be.

What I have also observed with regards to hydrogen solutions, is that there is still a deficit when it comes to discussions around the commercial viability. Maybe this lack of commercial focus is caused by the fact that subsidies drive a large amount of projects, but if we want the technology to succeed you have to make it compatible for the capital markets, and this is only possible if we manage to find solutions where investors can generate revenues. So consequently, this is something which I am working on a lot now and I believe this is also something I can add value to, thanks to my background.

Q. What is H2 Energy and how does it fit into a future hydrogen economy?

When you want to make an impact, you must be focused. Therefore, we restrict all our activities exclusively to fuel cell and green hydrogen solutions. But with regards to this specific field, we offer a wide spectrum of services.

“People have become less worried about whether hydrogen is a possible solution from a technical and safety point of view, and instead look for additional fields where fuel cells and green hydrogen can be of an added value”

The revenue model of H2 Energy consists of three activities: to provide hydrogen engineering services; to offer components and systems for non-automotive applications; and to generate activity is to provide hydrogen eco-systems.

An example of such an ecosystem is the Coop hydrogen cycle where H2 Energy provided for Coop the first commercially used 34-tonne fuel cell truck, a hydrogen refuelling station and a production site for green hydrogen from renewable energy. This system enabled us to prove the viability of a complete hydrogen concept for heavy-duty transportation.

Q. H2 Energy is involved in some exciting hydrogen projects, including Switzerland’s first commercial hydrogen production plant. Could you tell us about this and how things are progressing?

The project you are referring to is very closely linked to the Coop hydrogen cycle and is a scalable version of it.

We are currently working on rolling out 1,000 fuel cell trucks to Switzerland by 2023. The clients will have access to the trucks through a pay-per-use model where the costs for the trucks will be calculated from individual specifications, the number of kilometres driven and the amount of hydrogen consumed.

To implement the pay-per-use model, H2 Energy has entered into a joint venture (JV) with Hyundai Motor Company for the procurement, service and maintenance of the trucks. The initial roll out of the trucks will be in Switzerland, but the JV is covering the exclusive distribution and marketing of Hyundai’s eco-friendly commercial vehicles above five tonnes in all of Europe.

The hydrogen to fuel the fuel cell trucks will be produced and provided through Hydrospider. Hydrospider is a JV between Alpiq, a leading Swiss energy services provider and electricity producer in Europe, Linde and H2 Energy.

We are currently in the testing phase of the trucks and expect the first Hyundai fuel cell trucks to arrive in Switzerland in the fourth quarter of 2019.

The hydrogen for the first trucks will be sourced from H2 Energy’s current production site at the run-of-river power plant in Aarau, Switzerland.

In the first quarter of 2020, Hydrospider’s first 2MW electrolyser, at the run-of-river power plant, will be operational and provide enough hydrogen for the first 50 trucks. A second 2MW electrolyser will then become operational later in 2020.

So you are right, these are indeed very exciting times for all of us and we are extremely proud that we have been given the chance to work with such strong partners who share our commitment to green hydrogen.

Q. What changes have you seen within the hydrogen ecosystem in Switzerland in the past year?

In May 2018, the H2 Mobility Switzerland Association was founded. Its members include the largest Swiss retailers, petrol station owners, logistic companies and Europe’s largest importer of passenger cars.

The goal of H2 Mobility Switzerland Association is to promote and accelerate the establishment of hydrogen mobility in Switzerland and to establish a nationwide network of hydrogen filling stations.

The foundation of the H2 Mobility Switzerland Association was instrumental to accelerate the activities around the Swiss hydrogen ecosystem since it gave a strong signal from a group of very large and credible companies to join forces and solve the chicken and egg problem by investing and taking measures to strengthen Switzerland’s hydrogen economy.

“I don’t accept that green hydrogen is commercially not viable. We have plenty of opportunities to make it viable…”

Triggered by this, the number of requests for hydrogen solutions in the automotive and non-automotive sector has surged and the interested parties have been made aware that a profitable industry can be built around hydrogen, and that structural drawbacks, such as the amount of hydrogen being produced through steam reforming, can be changed and new sustainable solutions can be implemented.

Consequently, the coverage by the media and attention from political exponents has become more significant. People have become less worried about whether hydrogen is a possible solution from a technical and safety point of view, and instead look for additional fields where fuel cells and green hydrogen can be of an added value.

Q. Where do you feel the pinch points or challenges currently are in the hydrogen space?

The biggest challenges we are facing is that if we want the technology around hydrogen to become more dominant, we must be more careful where the hydrogen is being sourced from.

If we don’t find ways to scale the production of green hydrogen from renewables, we are not using the beautiful technology to integrate renewables in our energy system, and we are losing credibility because we don’t decarbonise to the extent the technology would allow us to.

In addition, I don’t accept that green hydrogen is commercially not viable. We have plenty of opportunities to make it viable – this might be through scalability or by optimising processes or business models.

I am aware that this might sound all very simple and I believe the concept is simple, but that doesn’t mean that it is easy to be achieved. But it is possible if politics focus on allocating external costs to the initiator.

Q. If you could communicate one hydrogen-related message to our readers, what would it be?

Hydrogen solutions can be very powerful, but we need to focus on applications that are commercially viable and scalable, and we must be consistent.

Don’t think religiously about specific technologies and don’t apply hydrogen solutions in situations where excessive amounts of subsidies are required, or other technologies are better suited.

If we focus on applying this technology reasonably and sensibly, there is no way around hydrogen becoming central in the path to decarbonisation and the integration of renewables.

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