Fuelling the future

Executive director of the Fuel Cells and Hydrogen 2 Joint Undertaking Bart Biebuyck met with Portal at the project’s stakeholder forum in Brussels in November

On 23 November 2016 the Fuel Cells and Hydrogen 2 Joint Undertaking (FCH2 JU) held its stakeholder forum in the Belgian capital, Brussels, where industry representatives and policy makers were invited to discuss the challenges currently facing hydrogen technology. Speaking with Portal, executive director Bart Biebuyck introduced the origins, outlined the achievements, and expressed his future hopes for fuel cells and hydrogen.

How did the FCH2 JU come about and what does it entail?

The joint undertaking is a public private partnership wherein the European Commission works together with the private sector. The private sector is composed of industrial stakeholders such as ENGIE and research organisations: around 63 universities and large research centres. In total, we have 160 real partners on a day-to-day basis, but we have around 600 companies linked to our scheme.

Funding-wise, we have about €100m per year, and we try to think about why it is strategically relevant to be supported with this amount of money: we support development, as a research and innovation structure, so we have to support the industry to quickly bring technologies to the market; we fund research and innovation projects, and sometimes demonstrations to gain experience. Every year, we grant €100m. At the moment, we have about 200 projects running, so it’s massive.

A public-private partnership is a fantastic tool because you bring the different stakeholders together. You force them to set priorities because the budget is limited. The 160 companies have their own wishes; that’s normal, but when you look at the sector, you have to prioritise, select projects and fund them. That means that the whole sector agrees to this direction. That’s the strength of this sort of undertaking.

How can hydrogen fuel cells compete with recent battery developments?

First, it is very simple: we don’t compete, we are complementary. Each technology has its own advantages and disadvantages. If we look at fuel cell cars today, we also need batteries. I would say we need to look at the bigger picture, which is that we have to decarbonise. If we just had electrical battery cars plugged in at the same time, a huge investment would be necessary and it would take a lot of time. We will never be able to do it within the timeframe that has been set by the European Union. Not so many people know that, but if you plugged in 10,000 cars, which is not so many if you look at cities such as Brussels, at the same time, at around six or seven pm when you arrive home, you would need one extra nuclear power plant to be able to charge them all; and we’re just talking about 10,000 cars. If we talk about millions of cars, can you imagine how many nuclear power plants we would need to build?

You also need electricity storage to be able to diversify your energy mix. Here you need hydrogen because you need to store electricity. It is very important to mention this. Regarding electrification, we need wind and solar, but these technologies don’t give electricity on a constant basis, because one day there is wind, but the day after there isn’t any. It is the same for sun. We need to be able to provide a continuous delivery of electricity because the consumer doesn’t think “Oh, now there is sun, so I will charge my car”.

So let’s use hydrogen. This is a very important point: you have to see the whole electricity mix, how we have to work, solve the issue and reach the targets of the European Union as soon as possible.

We need to work together.

If you look at the consumer’s perspective, it is also very interesting. For example, when a consumer buys a car, they do not know what to choose between diesel and petrol. A person chooses a diesel car thinking, “I am a salesman, I have to drive a long distance”; another person will think, “I don’t need to drive a lot; I just have to take my children to school”, so this person will choose a petrol car. This will continue to happen in exactly this way in the future, only the technologies will be different. If you only want to take your children to school, a battery car is probably enough, you don’t need 700km of autonomy; but for a salesman, if he has to cross the country and charge every 100 or 200km, that does not work. You cannot do fast charging, and you need to wait at least 30 minutes or one hour with an electric car.

Both technologies will be there. They are complementary. Otherwise, the energy mix will never work.

Fuel cells and hydrogen technologies are still quite expensive. How does the JU plan to get more into the market?

We realise that the technology is expensive – we cannot deny it – but we have achieved a reduction in the cost quite drastically already, thanks to our research projects. Let me give you an example: buses. The first buses we funded in 2008-2009 cost about €1.8m per bus. Today we have a big project to be signed with a cost of €600,000 per bus. So, we divided the bus cost by three. The next point is really a larger scale; it is the next step. If we look today at the hybrid buses, they cost about €300,000-350,000 per bus. We have indications that if we produce more than 100 fuel cells buses, we can reach €400,000. Then, you have to assess the impact. If you have hybrid buses, it is nice as you consume less, but you still consume and you put carbon dioxide in the air. They are still dirty.

Fuel cells buses, however, are not dirty at all. This has a value for society in terms of health and environment, and it can use money for something else. €50,000 or €75,000 can save some lives, I would say.

How does the JU plan to improve some of Europe’s least developed infrastructures in the coming years?

Infrastructure is an issue we are tackling at the moment. As a joint undertaking, we realise that each country is coming up with its own plans. It is good as they want to invest, but let’s make a co-ordinated approach. That is why we sat down with all the governments and looked together where good locations to build infrastructure are. We will have to build more and more infrastructure and we will have to develop partnerships. It is not ‘build first and then deploy cars’. You have to do it simultaneously.

We have some good successes; for example, in Denmark, 50% of the population has a hydrogen station at a distance of less than 50km from home. I think that’s very successful. It is not perfect, but it’s a good start.

By 2030, what share of the market is a realistic target?

That’s very hard to predict. We have to go to zero-emission cars and we all know that that is expensive. It actually depends on what governments will do. The policy has a huge impact on how a society moves, and we need policies to go faster. At the moment, it is very difficult to anticipate, but we could have 10% in 2030 maybe; that’s my estimation. Today, zero-emission cars represent, I think, 0.6% of market share, which is nothing, so if we can go to 10% in 2030 it will be a gigantic success.


Bart Biebuyck

Executive Director

Fuel Cells and Hydrogen 2 Joint Undertaking



This article first appeared in issue 13 of Horizon 2020 Projects: Portal, which is now available here.