Hydrogen expert Dr van Hulst talks to BaxEnergy about the possibilities of the ground-breaking technology

International consensus is growing around the potentialities of clean hydrogen as the vector and the other leg of the energy transition, alongside other forms of renewable energy, by replacing coal, oil and gas across different industries.

The European Green Deal aims to reach climate-neutrality by 2050 and investments to favor the energy-transition are expected to range from €200 to €500 billion by 2030. Yet, the rapid development of clean hydrogen technologies is not only important to meet the EU’s climate objectives but also to reinforce the EU’s industrial and economic competitiveness.

Clean hydrogen is considered to be the magic bullet to decarbonize energy-consuming industries yet, as it occurs for any disruptive technology/solution, it has to go through some phases of regulations, applications and improvements to really be efficient. But in which phase are we right now? To answer the question, BaxEnergy interviewed a leading expert of clean hydrogen in the energy transition, Dr Noé van Hulst. 

Mr van Hulst is Chair of the International Partnership for Hydrogen and Fuel Cells in the Economy (IPHE), Hydrogen Advisor to IEA & Gasunie and a Senior Fellow at the Dutch energy think tank Clingendael International Energy Programme. Prior to that, Mr van Hulst was the Hydrogen Envoy at the Ministry of Economic Affairs & Climate Policy in the Netherlands.

Q: What do you think the state of hydrogen is right now and what do you think the limitations are right now for hydrogen to be fully employed?

A: From where I see the world at the moment, I think the main challenge is that we need very strong common policies, creating necessary regulatory frameworks around the emerging hydrogen market. In Europe, we can see there’s a huge momentum, we can see that so many companies are coming up with new hydrogen projects almost on a weekly- basis. I think it amazing how much companies are willing to go forward and to invest and seize the opportunities towards decarbonization.

Q: What are your considerations about the economic push European countries are putting on hydrogen to decarbonize hard-to-abate industries?

A: It is great that a lot of governments have already committed significant public funds in many countries like in Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Portugal. So, there’s also a strong commitment from Governments to invest. Yet, the big challenge is how to channel that money in the right way and spend it wisely.

In many ways, clean hydrogen is right now where solar and wind were 10/15 years ago, so we have to go through the same kind of phase of bringing down the costs, putting in place appropriate support measures by the governments but also getting rid of many regulatory barriers.

We have to also be smart about immediately creating a European market so that not every single state is just doing their own thing, which might make sense in a national context, but we have to think immediately of the larger European market because in 10/15 years from now we want to be able to also transport hydrogen from southern Europe to northern Europe and vice-versa, which can only happen cost-effectively by large-scale repurposing of gas pipelines.

Q: Do you think it is possible to repurpose gas lines to transport hydrogen? Because some researchers have pointed that it is a bit more complex than what it is expected.

A: Yes, it is completely possible to repurpose gas pipelines but we need to do some minor investments to make it happen. Companies, like Gasunie and SNAM in Italy, have presented a very concrete plan on how to make that happen in the next 10/15 years and I think it is a critical element of creating the European hydrogen backbone and integrate the European market which will help us go faster in getting down the costs, getting a larger market so all the companies can benefit from standardization. This would mean that companies won’t have to sell their products only in their local market but immediately across Europe, that would help companies enormously to scale-up and bring the costs down.

Q: So, are you suggesting more of a cooperation rather than a nationalization of hydrogen?

A: It’s not either/or, when we are implementing these national plans and strategies, at the same time, we need to work on the start of the European market by developing a plan for cross-border trade, for the common standards of hydrogen quality or refueling stations, so that standards are not too much different from one state to the other and, consequently, for instance zero-emissions trucks can go anywhere through Europe and be able to refuel similarly. So, it is important to build “hydrogen corridors” where trucks and vehicles can refuel.

Q: On the other hand, what do you think about R&D in hydrogen?

A: I was mentioning the importance of scaling-up, of creating a European market and of standardization and I can’t stress that enough, because some people are saying that we should not do that now and that we should first wait for the R&D and technology to push improvements, but that’s not my view. The technology is ready to scale-up right now but at the same time that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t improve on the technology, so at the same time we should push advances of the technologies as well, so we can continue to improve the efficiency. On an international scale, for example, recently during the Clean Energy Ministerial Meeting, Mission Innovation 2.0 on hydrogen was launched with the aim of pushing the frontiers through technological development. Though R&D projects, they’re aiming to drive down the costs to 2$ per kilo of hydrogen in 2030 and actually some of the producers like Nel have aggressive targets already and they’re aiming at 1.5$.

Q: Just out of curiosity, between the USA and Europe, which continent do you think is advancing the most on hydrogen technologies?

A: I would say Europe, because we started much earlier on a larger scale and a lot of European companies are at the forefront of electrolysers technologies. So, there’s no doubt about it, we are a couple of years ahead of the game. But it’s not only about the US, because there’s also Asia, Japan, Korea, China going fast, so we have to look east and west. The competition is healthy, but everyone  in Europe wants to stay ahead of the game, at the forerunner position, and in that case they have to go  faster because things are accelerating around the world. So, Europe needs to put all these measures in place fast, such as regulatory frameworks, focusing on common policies, on cross-border trades in order to keep that front-runner position.

At the same time, I also take in consideration companies and people: they want to see things done, they want to see the first hydrogen trucks on the road and the first electrolysers. Not to mention that making things happen from the bottom-up is also extremely important from the point of view of employment all over Europe.

Q: Considering the hydrogen push both from private and public sectors, how important is it for utilities to have an Energy Management System to manage and control hydrogen production and refueling stations?

A: It is extremely important to know, when you start applying hydrogen, what is exactly going on and to measure within the entire value chain so to be as efficient as possible. Because what hydrogen is facing at the current state is huge opportunities in decarbonization of industry and for heavy-duty transportation in particular, but at the same time the challenge is that costs to produce clean hydrogen are still very high, so it means that the big challenge is how to get the costs down with technologies improvements and scaling up the applications and deployment of hydrogen.

But in the entire process, obviously, since the cost is such an important challenge, everything that helps to control better the costs and to help improve efficiency is going to be very important.

So, on a general background, I would say yes, I think that a comprehensive Energy Management System would be extremely important.

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