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The European Green Deal is essentially another name for the hydrogen revolution

As Neil deGrasse Tyson once said, “Give a kid a book, and you change the world.” This was certainly the case for Jorgo Chatzimarkakis, Secretary General of Hydrogen Europe, whose fiery commitment to clean hydrogen power was first sparked by a book he read as a child at school. Galvanized even further by the shock of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, Jorgo went on to champion the production of hydrogen from solar power in the Sahara Desert as a university student, before laying the foundation for the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking (FCH JU) as a member of the European Parliament. In his current role at the head of Hydrogen Europe, Jorgo seeks to accelerate the energy transition through what he sees as a versatile and game-changing energy vector: hydrogen fuel cells.

Jorgo Chatzimarkakis, Secretary General, Hydrogen Europe. Copyright: Hydrogen Europe
Jorgo Chatzimarkakis, Secretary General, Hydrogen Europe. Copyright: Hydrogen Europe

What are some of the achievements of Hydrogen Europe?

"The idea of using hydrogen for long-term, affordable storage has become mainstream in Europe. Today, very few still doubt the role of hydrogen in the energy transition."

I’ll start with one targeted achievement: the Renewable Energy Directive II (RED II), which sought to integrate even more renewable energy into the grid. Unfortunately, it was based on an outdated narrative, which falsely believed that you can decarbonize the European economy simply by electrifying it with batteries only. Although we were quite late in influencing this policy, our main hydrogen activity in refineries had grown large enough for us to introduce renewably produced hydrogen to help achieve GHG reduction targets. This is extremely important now for a lot of big names in our energy world, like Shell and BP, who have become our members. Another important achievement is our promotion of hydrogen as a day-based and seasonal storage medium for renewable energy. The idea of using hydrogen for long-term, affordable storage has become mainstream in Europe. Today, very few still doubt the role of hydrogen in the energy transition.

You have advocated for hydrogen from a variety of roles throughout your career. How have you seen the policy landscape and attitudes towards hydrogen change over the years?

"Our role at Hydrogen Europe is to show how this good idea that was once relegated to science fiction has now become a very concrete and practical technology that can enable us to build a real circular economy."

Hydrogen has always sparked interest ever since Jules Verne. Though he may have opened the conversation in a romantic way, it was still widely received by the public. It was always seen as a way out, but one that was so expensive it was placed into the sphere of science fiction. Since then, influencers like Jeremy Rifkin have managed to promote hydrogen as a realistic solution, but now we are the ones who will implement these ideas. Our role at Hydrogen Europe is to show how this good idea that was once relegated to science fiction has now become a very concrete and practical technology that can enable us to build a real circular economy.

Historically, we have seen some hype around hydrogen, but I don’t like the hype cycle because it leads to what is called the “valley of disillusionment”. If dissatisfaction with the current situation, combined with a powerful vision and promising first steps, can overpower the resistance to hydrogen, then we can achieve something big. We now have the vision and have taken the first steps, and we also profit from the dissatisfaction that people live in when it comes to climate action. Not just Greta Thunberg, but also the signatory partners of the Paris Agreement: we all live in a world of climate dissatisfaction. That is why I feel our time has come. I was thrilled to see the biggest German economic daily publish a 30-page dossier on hydrogen. For me, it’s fascinating to see that the broader public now has access to dossiers and storylines saying that hydrogen is the way forward. It took some time, but now we are on a good path.

How do you work to create a favorable regulatory environment for the deployment of hydrogen?

"Battery electric is sometimes vulnerable because of the challenges to its long-term success. Because of this vulnerability, battery electric supporters tried to take down hydrogen as one of their biggest threats, though we should be one of their best partners."

Our mission is no emission! That shows why we are so important. In a world where people are searching desperately for a technology that will solve the emissions issue, if you have the possibility to lower emissions, then you are king. That is why our goal of no emissions is so important. But it took some time to get to this point, because we have counterparts who should really see us as their partners and not as competitors. Battery electric is sometimes vulnerable because of the challenges to its long-term success. Because of this vulnerability, battery electric supporters tried to take down hydrogen as one of their biggest threats, though we should be one of their best partners.

Once people drive an electric car, whether battery or hydrogen, they will understand why the electric drive train is superior: it’s smoother, nicer to drive and so much fun. Then if you compare a battery electric car to a fuel cell electric car running on hydrogen, you will also understand why fuel cells are superior, because they offer the same everyday convenience as people had before. We don’t want to fight with battery electric; we just want to underpin that we can make battery cars even more efficient with a range extender or help battery electric cars succeed in cities.

Let battery electric cover urban environments, and we will handle long-haul and heavy-duty applications. That is what we are striving for now: an understanding that a variety of different technologies will combine to build a strong system.

What are your main arguments for promoting hydrogen?

"I think it’s important to understand hydrogen not just as an industrial gas or technology, because it’s so much more than that."

I think it’s important to understand hydrogen not just as an industrial gas or technology, because it’s so much more than that. Our biggest challenge is no longer to show that it works: we have already done that through more than a decade of our work with the Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking (FCH JU), a public private partnership aiming to promote hydrogen technology.

"Now the challenge is to scale it up and make hydrogen a very perceptible aspect of daily life – or even an imperceptible one!"

Now the challenge is to scale it up and make hydrogen a very perceptible aspect of daily life – or even an imperceptible one! For example, everyone remembers the famous picture of New York in the late 19th century with horses in the street. Then ten years later, you see a picture of the same street, but now with cars instead of horses. Within ten years, there was a huge, dramatic change, though the people on horses in the original photo would have thought, “No, we’ll have horses for the next hundred years!” Things can happen so fast. In our case, I would show the same street ten years from now: it would basically be the same picture, only you wouldn’t see any chimneys or exhaust pipes anymore. Our disruption is that you just change the content, but you can continue your everyday life. That’s why I said it’s imperceptible: it’s only perceptible by the clean air, but everything else stays the same.

What levers do you use to bring hydrogen to scale?

That is our big challenge now, and it’s even more difficult than anything else. However, we have found some instruments to help us make it happen. One lever is the IPCEI – Important Project of Common European Interest. This is a tool whereby the EU lets member states and regions finance huge projects to help close the massive financial gap facing disruptive technologies. For example, Austria recently reserved €300 million for a battery electric IPCEI. But then they took the money and directed it to hydrogen. That’s what we want. We don’t want to take money out of battery, but we want to convince member states to invest in hydrogen.

How do you see the development of hydrogen taking place across Europe, especially between different countries?

The most advanced country at the moment is the Netherlands. There is a simple reason for that: as humans, we are funny beings, because we need pressure in order to act. The Dutch had the pressure for an energy transition because they needed to get out of coal and nuclear, but they had gas. They are the second biggest producer of natural gas per capita. But they have earthquakes, because of the extraction of natural gas in the North Sea and the northern region of the Netherlands. That made the Dutch people say enough with natural gas! But what’s left? Renewables, and the possibility to use the country’s dense natural gas network by switching the pipelines over to hydrogen. Out of this pressure, they used this threat of the earthquakes as a challenge to rebuild their economy. They will be the fastest by far in Europe. They have already dedicated an L-Gas pipeline over to hydrogen. Other top performers are Austria and Germany. Denmark is quite active, too. Now we are seeing new interest from big gas transmission countries in the Mediterranean, like Italy and Spain. They are looking into transporting renewable energy from North Africa to be used in their countries and around Europe. In Central European, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary have become logistical centers of European long-haul fleets. For that reason, they are looking into switching their diesel or CNG-based mobility to hydrogen. It’s fascinating to see.

An example of residential fuel cell.
An example of residential fuel cell. Copyright: PACE project/Viessmann

Across Europe, what are the main hydrogen applications in development?

"It’s obvious that hydrogen technology can help making our entire mobility system more efficient."

Other than the familiar applications, the new ones are electrolysis as the basis for power-to-hydrogen, which can be used by today’s clients, like refining, or future clients, like steel. Steel companies are becoming more interested in using hydrogen to produce low-emission – and eventually no-emission – steel. We also have applications in mobility. Two big OEMs in Europe – Iveco and Daimler – decided to turn their truck production from diesel or CNG to fuel cells. That’s very promising. Of course, as a driver of NEXO for my daily life, I really enjoy the pleasure of driving a hydrogen car. Knowing that it costs less than half of the Tesla sticker price and refuels in a fraction of the time, I always have fun whenever I see Tesla drivers waiting for hours for their cars to charge. It’s obvious that hydrogen technology can help making our entire mobility system more efficient.

But the pressure in terms of long-haul and heavy-duty applications is so high that OEMs have concentrated mostly on trucks. It’s a start, but let’s use the momentum to build up the hydrogen fueling infrastructure and have it ready for passenger cars.

IVECO, FPT Industrial and Nikola Corporation unveil their first battery electric vehicle (BEV) for European markets, the Nikola TRE.
IVECO, FPT Industrial and Nikola Corporation unveil their first battery electric vehicle (BEV) for European markets, the Nikola TRE. Copyright: Hydrogen Europe

What hydrogen applications are you most excited about?

"We have an issue with high electricity use not only by battery chargers, but even more so by data centers."

Let’s talk about something very exciting: residential fuel cells.

We have an issue with high electricity use not only by battery chargers, but even more so by data centers. If you watch a Netflix movie it’s like firing up your electric oven and leaving it on for ten hours. One Netflix movie consumes a lot of energy at the data center. Amsterdam decided to kick out a big data center because it consumes so much energy. Data centers require high voltage electricity, just like Tesla chargers, which you don’t find in city centers because cities use low voltage electricity. But now we can produce all the electricity needed by data centers or Tesla chargers, using any blend of gas and hydrogen, and eventually just hydrogen. This is something that will become more and more important so you can have more data centers and battery-electric cars.

Finally, can you tell us about the European Green Deal?

The European Green Deal is two things: on one hand it’s a regulatory issue. The goal is to reopen legislation dealing with the energy transition and to accelerate some new legislation, such as the new gas package. It will be connected to all the circular elements in the energy transition, which is the second main point. The Green Deal is about making the European economy grow, by using renewables to decouple growth from the use of fossil energy. This is something that we can already do in many fields, such as agriculture or zero-emission mobility. Going forward, the aim is also to adapt all our legislation in order to pivot to non-fossil or non-emitting industries. In all these applications, hydrogen has a crucial role to play as an energy carrier, as a fuel – for mobility and more – and as a chemical feedstock in this switch to a circular economy. In short, the European Green Deal is essentially another name for the Hydrogen Revolution.