Over the next six years, the EU 'Fuel cells and Hydrogen' joint technology initiative (JTI) is to receive €470 million from the EU's current research budget (known as Framework Programme Seven, or FP7, which runs until 2013). This figure has to be at least matched by private sector contributions.
The Commission says the new structure will help to speed up the development and deployment of these still nascent technologies by at least two to five years, primarily by bringing public and private interests together and implementing a jointly defined research programme.
Fuel cells and hydrogen are widely perceived as having the potential to significantly contribute to the EU's energy security and climate change objectives by providing a clean alternative to traditional fossil fuels. But major doubts persist as to their viability, with technical difficulties and high costs currently holding back their development.
Nevertheless, according to EU Research Commissioner Janez Potočnik, the Joint Undertaking should succeed in bringing forward the commercial launch of early market applications such as portable generators to 2010, while 'stationary' applications should become available as of 2012-2015.
Transport applications are likely to take longer, with researchers only expecting them to become available after 2020. Paul Lucchese, chairman of the European Research Grouping for Hydrogen and Fuel Cells, stressed that this timeline would also depend on support from infrastructure managers. "There would be no point in having a car without having the filling stations that go with it," he told EurActiv.
Industry wants more
Despite the launch being praised as a "significant moment for industry," which "culminates six years of joint efforts to bring commercialisation forward" by the head of research and environment operations at Daimler AG Herbert Kohler, others were far less optimistic about the initiative.
Marcus Nurdin, the executive director of Fuel Cell Europe, told EurActiv that the majority of his association's members were "frustrated and angry at how the initiative has been dealt with and what will come out of it".
He points out that the European Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technology Platform, launched by the Commission in 2004 with a view to defining a common strategic research agenda on these technologies, had stressed that some €7.4 billion of public and private resources would be needed between 2007 and 2015 if the bloc was serious about deploying hydrogen and fuel cell technologies.
"But in effect, what we have got from the Commission represents no more money than we got before," he lamented, adding that even the minor increase in funding from FP6 (€315 million) to FP7 (€470 million) was offset by the fact that companies are being forced to pay an annual membership fee of €35,000 (€17,000 for SMEs) if they wish to qualify for some of the funds. "The bottom line is that industry is being told to pay if it wants to get any of the money and there's not even any more money than there was before."
"We thought this was going to be a genuine attempt to help the European industry to catch up with the US," he lamented, calling on the Commission to explain "how it intends to fill the gap".
But Potočnik was quick to remind that “the system we have to deal with in Europe is very different to that in the US” as at least 85% of European research funds are channelled through the member states.
“The EU’s goal is to avoid fragmentation and unnecessary duplication,” he stressed, adding that he was “very confident” that the technologies would become more economic in the near future.