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Germany: building one of the world’s most advanced hydrogen infrastructure

Germany is pursuing one of the world’s most aggressive programs of transition to clean energies: it launched the world’s first hydrogen-powered trains last year, and renewables recently surpassed coal as the country’s main energy source. As the CEO of H2 MOBILITY Germany, Nikolas Iwan is thrilled to take part in the tremendous wave of clean energy initiatives sweeping through Germany. In fact, as the country has set some of the world’s most ambitious climate targets, H2 MOBILITY has developed a roadmap to match these lofty but urgent goals: the organization plans to establish the world’s first nationwide network of hydrogen filling stations, enabling hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles to reach every corner of Germany. To achieve this goal, the organization relies on a unique operating model: nowhere else in the world have major corporations handed over control and funding to a centralized organization to implement hydrogen infrastructure as rapidly as possible. With H2 MOBILITY well on its way to building its first 100 stations, Nikolas Iwan lifts the veil on the latest developments in hydrogen infrastructure and the promise of green hydrogen.

What is the current state of the Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle market in Germany?

Hydrogen is no longer a fuel of the future, as the future has already begun in Germany. Outside Germany, the market is at various stages, but Germany is clearly in the spotlight, as we are building the most advanced nationwide infrastructure in the world.

Nikolas Iwan, CEO of H2 MOBILITY Germany

What makes the German hydrogen network strategy unique is that it is designed for a future mass market. We are building hydrogen stations in seven German metropolitan areas (Hamburg, Berlin, Rhine-Ruhr, Frankfurt, Nuremberg, Stuttgart and Munich), and along the connecting arterial roads and motorways. With just 100 stations, we will make it possible for up to 6 million people out of a total population of 80 million to switch from an internal combustion car to a fuel cell electric car. That means our 100 stations are well placed on the map and proves that our strategy can support a mass market.

Our ultimate goal is to have 400 stations in operation; the intermediate goal is to build the backbone of the nationwide network.

Going forward, I see the market development in fleets, i.e. cars driving along specific routes or within defined spaces, such as a ride-pooling companies or delivery fleets. By 2021, we predict that 80% of the market will be driven by fleets (40% delivery fleets, 40% passenger cars).

What goals has H2 MOBILITY Germany set?

Our mission is to ensure a short transition from the R&D phase to the mass market phase, by bundling critical activities and accelerating the entire country.

The hydrogen movement is growing from the bottom up, but the journey ahead is still long.

Our ultimate goal is to have 400 stations in operation; the intermediate goal is to build the backbone of the nationwide network, which consists of 100 stations that will be built unconditionally, regardless of how many cars there are in the market. This is our next milestone and we are on track to complete it by the end of this year, or early next year.

What is the current state of the hydrogen infrastructure in Europe, and how do you see it evolving?

All across Europe, especially at the level of the political decision-makers in Brussels, there is growing momentum and insight into the essential importance of hydrogen to a successful energy transition. On the supply side, we are seeing important projects for green hydrogen production, as well as a linking of the power sector and other sectors.

The future reputation of hydrogen will increasingly depend on a solid pathway and credible progress towards green hydrogen.

On the infrastructure side, momentum is growing at a moderate pace in many countries. Germany has the biggest ambitions with its nationwide network for fuel-cell vehicles. Next, Denmark, Switzerland and the UK are relatively advanced. France is also part of the mix, with its hydrogen taxi project in Paris and other regional projects, including 350 utility vehicles. Many other countries are also launching their first single-station projects, such as the Netherlands, Belgium and Poland. The hydrogen movement is growing from the bottom up, but the journey ahead is still long.

What are the main obstacles to the development of hydrogen infrastructure in Europe?

There are three main obstacles. The biggest is not infrastructure itself, but the availability of affordable cars. CleverShuttle, the biggest ride pooling company in Germany, has one of the world’s largest fleets of fuel-cell electric vehicles (FCEVs). But they have had to turn to battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) because of availability.

Green hydrogen will arrive through collaboration and strategic workshops between producers and future customers like us.

Many customers turn to BEVs simply because they are available and more affordable, not because they are the best option. For me, this is the biggest obstacle to more dynamic investment in hydrogen infrastructure.

The second obstacle is that hydrogen stations are still a challenging product, requiring a lot of effort and investment to keep them reliable.

The third and more strategic obstacle is the availability of truly clean hydrogen — e.g. produced with renewables by electrolysis. The future reputation of hydrogen, and thus its support from politicians, will increasingly depend on a solid pathway and credible progress towards green hydrogen.

What factors could help overcome these obstacles and accelerate the roll-out of the hydrogen infrastructure across Europe?

The first challenge — more hydrogen cars — can only be overcome by car manufacturers. We need to establish strong relationships with existing car manufacturers and demonstrate a viable market.

As for the reliability of hydrogen stations, this will depend on station manufacturers and operators like us. We need to invest and find collaborative solutions to move forward, instead of fighting amongst ourselves.

Our recipe for success is keeping our efforts customer-centric.

Green hydrogen will arrive through collaboration and strategic workshops between producers and future customers like us. We have to show producers that there is demand in the pipeline. This should help to unlock investment on the production side.

How does H2 MOBILITY work to promote the expansion of the hydrogen infrastructure in Germany?

Our recipe for success is keeping our efforts customer-centric. For example, compressed natural gas (CNG) notably failed because of its engineering-driven approach: Operators simply expected customers to adapt, despite having a staggered network with little promotion and no unified app. We need to offer customers a value proposition that convinces them that hydrogen mobility is the best option out there. That’s why we developed H2.LIVE, which is our key interface to customers. It is available online and as an app. It allows users to locate hydrogen filling stations and ensure that a given station is currently available.

H2 Mobility’s refueling hydrogen mapping

What is the initial feedback from customers concerning H2.Live?

Overall, the feedback is very positive. We have an ongoing dialogue with customers about how to develop the app. One trend we’re seeing is that we have more “normal” customers, not just early adopters.

Hydrogen is by far the most cost-effective choice for storing large quantities of energy over long periods.

These people are switching from their internal combustion cars, knowing that they will have to drive a bit farther to reach a hydrogen station on the one hand, but wanting the station to be 100% available on the other. As we see more demanding customers like this, we have had to improve our technology to meet their high standards.

Hanover fair 2018

What role will hydrogen play in achieving Germany’s ambitious environmental goals?

Without hydrogen, Germany and other industrial companies will not achieve their CO2 emission reduction goals. Germany’s transportation sector has seen little progress since the Kyoto Protocol in 1991. Both BEVs and FCEVs will be required to solve the challenge, because battery will be either too difficult or too costly for SUVs and heavy-duty vehicles. With hydrogen, it will be easier and less costly to solve the challenges posed by large vehicles.

In other sectors, hydrogen is by far the most cost-effective choice for storing large quantities of energy over long periods. Long-term storage in particular will be needed in the future, as more wind and solar come into the grid. That is why hydrogen is a crucial element in achieving the drastic emissions reductions objectives over the next thirty years.

What other applications will hydrogen offer to drive the energy transition in Europe?

There are many options in the pipeline, from industry feedstock and storage, to power, heating, and mobility. In terms of the hydrogen pathway to market, the first major applications we will see are in refineries and fuel production, driven by the Renewable Energy Directive II, which is to be implemented by 2021.

Our main challenges are no longer technological, but reaching industrialized production and bringing down costs.

For example, Germany’s biggest refinery requires nearly 200,000 metric tons of hydrogen per year. Considering that our network sold just 70 metric tons of hydrogen last year, this is clearly a much larger market. I think we will also see hydrogen stored in pipelines and underground caverns in the early 2020s, at which point it will spread to other industry applications, like the chemical or steel industries.

How do you see the development of green hydrogen in the coming years?

Green hydrogen production will happen on both a centralized and decentralized level. I think there is a lot of momentum on the small scale right now. For example, some of the wind farms in North Germany are reaching the end of their subsidy schemes, so they will not have the same rights to feed power into the grid at any time or to receive compensation.

That means we can either dismantle the wind farms or use this renewable energy to produce green hydrogen. Once offshore projects get underway, I think we’ll also see onshore projects to build larger electrolysis plants, including in refineries, such as the Rhineland refinery in North Germany. Our main challenges in this area are no longer technological, but reaching industrialized production and bringing down costs.

How do decision-makers and the general public in Germany perceive hydrogen today?

If you look at polls, opinion remains quite favorable. A recent survey of global automotive executives found that hydrogen is seen as one of the top trends shaping the industry through 2025.

Another recent poll showed that most German consumers see hydrogen fuel cells, and not battery, as the key drivetrain technology of the future. But we need more educational initiatives to break the harmful pattern we have seen in the past, of different technologies fighting against each other. I think it’s important to stay positive and find ways to work together.

Hanover fair 2018

What hydrogen projects are you most excited about?

I recently saw that drones and unmanned vehicles will come to play a larger role in transporting goods and passengers in the next 5 years. I think hydrogen will play a key role in these areas, because batteries cannot solve the issue due to their constraints. In terms of vehicles, I’m most excited about StreetScooter in Germany, because they will bring the industry to an entirely different level. I call them the Tesla of utility vehicles because they are so disruptive. It’s a startup that was bought by DHL, one of the top 3 global logistics companies, and they are now implementing hydrogen in large transport vehicles. If they show the world that hydrogen makes sense and is affordable in this sector, it will trigger a huge dynamic. I’m very excited that this is happening in Germany!

What are the next steps for H2 MOBILITY Germany?

Our next step is to make progress on our three main challenges. We have a pipeline of business development projects, such as our project with StreetScooter, aiming to get more cars on the road and generate more demand. Secondly, we need to improve technology, so we will soon launch a tender for the next generation of stations, to be built in 2020–2021. Thirdly, we’re working on a strategic level with suppliers to increase the share of green hydrogen supplied to our stations.

But our next big milestone will come in early 2020, when we celebrate our first 100 stations!