Bert de Colvenaer Executive Director, Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking
Rather than spending more than one billion euros per day on importing fossil fuels from around the world to Europe, just to burn them, many European citizens, industries and politicians dream of a Europe that is self-sufficient in energy.
Fuel cells as an efficient, silent and clean energy convertor
A fuel cell is basically an energy convertor that converts a fuel, usually hydrogen, directly into electricity or heat. It can be integrated into all applications where electricity is currently used: in the transport sector to power cars, busses or fork-lift trucks, or in stationary applications such as home boilers or medium and large-sized power utilities. As this is a one-step conversion process, it is intrinsically very efficient, there are no internal moving parts in a fuel cell, so there is no noise or vibration and, if there is no carbon going in, there is no carbon or CO2 coming out.
Deploying hydrogen infrastructure
Recent activities in Germany, the UK, Scandinavia and France show that car original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), the petroleum industry and hydrogen gas suppliers are gearing up to conclusively resolve the chicken and egg problem through the simultaneous deployment of both fuel cell cars and hydrogen stations in a coordinated, smart, cost-efficient and committed way. This is a key step towards achieving real market deployment. Once a sufficient volume of fuel cell cars finds its way on to the road, public perception will improve drastically, costs will rapidly decline and more fuel cell applications will find their way to customers.
Green, blue, or grey hydrogen?
Hydrogen is abundant, but its production requires energy. That said, it is not difficult to make hydrogen: blue hydrogen is made by electrolysis from water (H2O), grey - by reforming from natural gas (CH4), and green - from biomass gasification. However, it is more of a challenge to make it cheaply, efficiently and to store it safely.
What does it take to get there?
The SET-Plan has seen renewables (solar and wind) become integrated into smart systems but, despite this, electricity has become more expensive because of difficulties in managing the intermittency inherent in renewables. This is where hydrogen can offer a solution, as it can act as a storage medium for large quantities of energy and at the same time link renewables to the transport sector. It requires political leadership and industrial commitment to get us there. If, over the next decades, a fraction of the money spent on buying fossil fuel is used to build a renewable energy harvesting and hydrogen storage system in Europe, this will bring us gradually closer to a Europe that is reliant on clean, sustainable and home-produced energy.
A dream? Not so long ago, flying to the moon was a dream…