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Hydrogen: an efficient way for isolated regions to reach energy independence

In isolated areas, such as islands or mountainous regions, connecting to the power grid can prove to be a complex task. One of the technologies most used today to supply these territories with electricity remains generators, which are highly polluting. However, alternative and environmentally friendly solutions do exist, making it possible to guarantee energy independence to inhabitants. Jean-Marie Bourgeais, an electronics engineer, has developed a hydrogen battery system that can store and produce clean energy for the long term. He first launched his activity in the Airbus Defense and Space nursery before co-founding PowiDian in 2014, a company offering smart grid, isolate site and smart building solutions. In this interview, he tells us more about the role of hydrogen in the energy transition of isolated territories.

Jean-Marie Bourgeais, electronics engineer, co-founder of PowiDian. 

Why did you choose hydrogen to develop your solution?

"We developed a hydrogen generator solution called SAGES (Smart Autonomous Green Energy Station) which delivers energy independence to users while also protecting the environment."

We started looking at the issues facing isolated areas after realizing that these geographical zones were not connected to reliable electricity networks. Locals use generators, but these also produce a lot of pollution. We wanted to develop innovative and clean technologies to replace them. As we were looking for a way to reduce CO2 emissions, hydrogen quickly emerged as a strong alternative. We found that this gas was ideal for storing electricity produced by renewable energies (via solar panels, wind turbines, hydroelectricity or biomass. Based on this observation, we developed a hydrogen generator solution called SAGES (Smart Autonomous Green Energy Station)which delivers energy independence to users while also protecting the environment,unlike fossil fuels.

SAGES, hydrogen generator which delivers energy independence. 

What advantages does this solution offer to isolated areas?

"Our hydrogen generators offer one great advantage: temperature has no impact on their lifetime. Another positive aspect is that our system is 98% recyclable."

Our solution is ideal for areas affected by seasonal energy fluctuations. In places that get sunshine all year round, all you have to do is install a few batteries and solar panels: everything works very well. If, on the other hand, your area experiences three consecutive weeks of bad weather, those batteries will no longer do the job. In this case, it becomes necessary to install a generator, and that is where our solution comes into play. It makes it possible to store the surplus energy produced by the solar panels or wind turbines by transforming it into hydrogen using an electrolyser, then to redistribute the electricity all year round via a fuel cell. Using this hydrogen generator, we can obtain an energy output ranging from 1 kWh to more than 500 kWh depending on the needs.

In addition to our hydrogen solution, we have also integrated lithium-ion batteries into our device to store short-term energy. These are sensitive to cold and temperatures above 25°C, which adversely affect their performance. By contrast, our hydrogen generators offer one great advantage: temperature has no impact on their lifetime. Another positive aspect is that our system is 98% recyclable. Hydrogen equipment such as fuel cells, electrolyzers and tanks are partly made of plastic, metal and electronic compounds, which are recycled through specialized channels. As for lithium-ion batteries, we work directly with our suppliers, who handle their end-of-life management.

What about maintenance?

"Fuel cells now last three to four times longer than conventional generators equipped with an internal combustion engine. The risk of failure and wear and tear to our systems is indeed reduced by the absence of rotating mechanical parts."

Fuel cells now last three to four times longer than conventional generators equipped with an internal combustion engine. The risk of failure and wear and tear to our systems is indeed reduced by the absence of rotating mechanical parts. Hence the need for virtually no maintenance, with the exception of a simple air filter to be replaced once a year. This is another advantage of our solution, with performances extended over almost 20 years.

Can you give us an example of a facility you have operated in an isolated area?

Yes, of course. We commissioned our solution at the Mafate circus on Reunion Island, a UNESCO World Heritage site. It's a place where you'd think there's sunshine all year round. However, in January and February, a thick fog appears every morning due to the heat and the evaporation of water in the forest. In order to guarantee energy independence for the inhabitants of this area, the EDF (Electricité de France) group installed solar panels and batteries about twenty years ago. However, this infrastructure failed to deliver electricity in a homogenous manner. As a result, a helicopter was sent out every week to supply the local population with diesel to power backup generators. To eliminate this pollution and ensure greater comfort for the inhabitants, EDF has since decided to test out our technology by setting up a "microgrid", meaning a reduced electricity network. Since 2016, the village of La Nouvelle has received electricity 24 hours a day via our hydrogen generators.

PowiDian installation at Mafate Circus on Reunion Island. 

How cost-effective are hydrogen-powered generators?

Economically, remote sites offer the greatest potential for the installation of our solution. Indeed, the electricity market is very competitive in Europe with, for example, an average cost of 15 cents per kWh in mainland France. In these pricing conditions, our device would not be profitable because in 98% of cases, you can receive electricity easily and at a reasonable price wherever you are in Europe. On the other hand, we are competitive in isolated areas such as French Guiana where the cost price of electricity is 4 euros per kWh due to supply difficulties. Supplying electricity to a school located along the Maroni River requires, let's not forget, several days of dugout canoeing to transport fuel oil and power the generator.

Who are your clients?

"Our customers include French institutional organizations such as EDF, the Ministry of Defense and the French Civil Aviation Authority. We have also worked for property developers on energy self-sufficient buildings [...]."

In general, we work for individuals as well as with the private and public sector. For these customers, we install our green solutions in isolated territories such as the Froan Islands in Norway or the Glorious Islands in the Indian Ocean to ensure their energy independence while curbing pollution. To give you a few examples, our customers include French institutional organizations such as EDF, the Ministry of Defense and the French Civil Aviation Authority. We have also worked for property developers on energy self-sufficient buildings such as Delta Green in Saint-Herblain, near Nantes in France. As well as with major builders such as Bouygues and Vinci, whose objective is to reduce their CO2 emissions on construction sites.

Your company was recently selected in the framework of a call for projects concerning the decarbonation of the port of Rotterdam. What are the major challenges in the maritime transport sector?

In all major ports, when ships arrive at the dock, they need power to continue to operate their onboard equipment. That is why they leave their engines running or use a diesel generator 24 hours a day. The gantry cranes used to move the containers also need electricity, again supplied by generators. This causes a great deal of pollution with a direct impact on nearby homes, but also on the planet as a whole. In this context, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) has drawn up a 20-year plan to decarbonize maritime transport. This energy transition starts with ports. In 2018, the port of Rotterdam launched a call for bids to drastically reduce their CO2 emissions. Five companies were selected, including ours which is the only one to propose a 100% hydrogen solution. And it's also an approach that makes sense in this area, as it lies in the immediate vicinity of large offshore wind farms.

Finally, in your opinion, how can we change the way people think about hydrogen in order to accelerate its deployment?

"It is important to educate people, particularly on the issue of safety, to encourage the wider adoption of hydrogen. It is the only clean energy carrier that will allow us to consume without changing our habits."

It is important to educate people, particularly on the issue of safety, to encourage the wider adoption of hydrogen. We have been using pressurized gases for more than a hundred years. Hydrogen is not a toxic gas. It is less dangerous than butane or propane. To be honest, I would rather sleep on a hydrogen tank than on a battery, because nobody knows how to stop a lithium-ion battery fire! Hydrogen is also the only clean energy carrier that will allow us to consume without changing our habits. If we take only the example of mobility, it takes only a few minutes to refuel a hydrogen-powered car compared to a battery-powered car.

"I believe lawmakers must intervene to develop the market and make it more attractive from an economic point of view. Moreover, equipment costs are set to fall, as a result of their increasing industrialization, which should make it possible to offer more affordable solutions in the short term."

We are also beginning to see the emergence of fuel cells with a reduced platinum content, which has a definite economic advantage. However, the cost of producing hydrogen is still a major barrier. That is why I believe lawmakers must intervene to develop the market and make it more attractive from an economic point of view. Moreover, equipment costs are set to fall, as a result of their increasing industrialization, which should make it possible to offer more affordable solutions in the short term.