Johan Blondelle is currently Policy Officer in the Advanced Energy Production Unit of DG RTD, where his main activity is to liaise with the Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking. Before that, he has contributed to the setting up of the Clean Sky JU and worked in rail research. He trained as an electrical engineer and holds a doctorate in opto-electronics from the University of Ghent, Belgium.
Fuel Cells and Hydrogen – part of the paradigm shift
Europe's ambitious political agendas for both 2030 and 2050 include challenging targets for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions, renewable energy sources, and energy efficiency, thus offering interesting opportunities for low carbon innovative technologies. In particular, the Energy Union strategy, unveiled in February 2015, aims at ensuring that Europe has access to secure, affordable and sustainable energy. To make this happen, Europe will need to undergo a paradigm shift, moving towards decentralised power generation coupled with energy storage to facilitate the integration of intermittent renewable energy sources such as solar or wind power. In addition, the decarbonisation of the transport sector will need to shift into higher gear and move steadily closer towards zero local emission propulsion.
Achieving these goals will require the development of a portfolio of new technologies, to be elaborated in the imminent update of the Strategic Energy Technology Plan (SET-Plan) as well as the upcoming Strategic Transport Research and Innovation Agenda (STRIA), in which both fuel cells and hydrogen play an important role: fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV’s) will coexist along battery EV’s in function of consumer needs, surplus renewable energy will be converted into hydrogen to power both transport and energy needs, and stationary fuel cells will play an increasing role in boosting the energy efficiency of power generation across Europe.
The EU role in reinforcing the Fuel Cells and Hydrogen sector – FCH JU
Recognising their potential to contribute to the decarbonisation of both transport and power generation, the EU has been supporting research on fuel cells and hydrogen technologies since the 4th Framework Programme (1994-1998) with ever-increasing intensity. In 2008, this led to the establishment of the Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking (FCH JU), a public-private partnership bringing together the European industry and research entities and the European Union. The overarching objective was to make Europe a worldwide leader in FCH technologies. With a total budget of €940 million, the FCH JU has proven itself highly successful in reinforcing collaboration and growing the sector amidst a shrinking market, hit by the economic crisis. This growth since 2008 is testified by, for example, a 6% increase in jobs, a 10% average boost in turnover and no less than 16% rise in the number of patents – more than 10 times higher than the average!
By co-financing 155 projects with well over 550 unique participants from Europe and beyond, the FCH JU has not only achieved significant technological progress at components and systems level, but it will also have put more than 260 fuel cell vehicles on the road, demonstrated more than 400 material handling vehicles, and installed more than 20 hydrogen refuelling stations (HRS). This effort led to a number of remarkable breakthroughs, notably in the area of FC buses, where Europe is now firmly in the lead: over 70 buses have been and are still being tested in various European cities, gathering a wealth of real-life usage data. In addition, hydrogen consumption of FC buses has been cut by half compared to previous generations over the FCH JU lifetime.
In the energy sector, similar efforts have taken place, which will culminate in the demonstration of more than 1000 micro-combined heat and power (µCHP) units for residential installation across 12 Member States by 2017, representing a significant step towards commercialisation of the technology. The units, with a system efficiency of >95%, help reduce CO2 emissions but also decrease the load on the electricity grid through distributed generation of electricity and heat.
Continuing the integration – FCH 2 JU
Given the successes achieved by the FCH JU, the decision was made in 2014 to extend the duration of the public-private partnership through the establishment of the FCH 2 JU, which will remain in operation until 2024. The 40% budget increase compared to its predecessor underlines the growing support for the sector, both from public and private side. The focus of this new JU has shifted firmly towards commercialisation of the technology and therefore 60% of the budget will be allocated to supporting close-to-market activities, including large-scale demonstrations exploring business models, financing options and tackling social acceptance, both in transport and energy applications.
Importantly, the FCH 2 JU will, among other activities, establish synergies with various H2 Mobility initiatives across Europe that look into deploying hydrogen as transportation fuel and thus pave the way for large-scale roll-out of FCEV’s. It will also continue to support the build-up of production capacities of µCHP’s with the aim of boosting Europe’s competitiveness in this sector. Another area of interest is power-to-hydrogen and storage in support of renewable energy integration.
It is also important to note that the FCH 2 JU will broaden its activities via links with other relevant EU initiatives: a very concrete example is a joint Workshop with the Clean Sky JU on aeronautical applications of fuel cells and hydrogen technologies hosted by DLR 15-16 September 2015, but future collaborations with the Bio-Based Industries JU on hydrogen production, or the Shift2Rail JU on rail applications for fuel cells are also under consideration.
Unlocking the potential – the way forward
Before the market potential for FCH technologies can be tapped, some important barriers must be overcome.
An obvious requirement is that products must be available, reliable and affordable, and that the necessary infrastructure for distribution and refuelling of hydrogen is in place. The related investments are huge and require a stable and supportive regulatory framework to build investor confidence in the market, and to ensure that business cases can emerge.
As successfully demonstrated in Japan, where government is strongly backing the deployment of FCEV's, refuelling infrastructure and has subsidised the installation of more than 100.000 domestic µCHP-units, a strong commitment is also needed in Europe to achieve a comparable result. The recent launch of the InnovFin Energy Demonstration Projects facility by the European Investment Bank and the European Commission is just one example of how investments can be financed in the pre-commercial stage.
Finally, and most importantly, it will be necessary to convince the end users that hydrogen is safe, and to demonstrate the benefits of using it on a daily basis. A very effective way to achieve this is to stimulate the deployment of fuel cell buses in European cities: moving quietly, reliably and safely, emitting nothing but water vapour, they are a perfect illustration of the many benefits fuel cells and hydrogen have to offer all of us.