Fuel-cell cars once looked to be the future of green mobility, but with electric vehicles now set to dominate the market, the EU’s hydrogen joint undertaking was rebranded this week to signal a shift in priority towards the production of low-cost green hydrogen from electrolysis.
[This article has been changed to reflect statements made by Transport Commissioner Adina Valean]
Rather than personal mobility, the EU’s hydrogen strategy today focuses on the decarbonisation of heavy industries like steelmaking and chemicals, which cannot fully electrify and need liquid and gaseous fuels as feedstock or for high-temperature heat.
This shift in priority is reflected in the third iteration of the European Commission’s hydrogen joint undertaking, launched on Monday (29 November). Formerly called the “Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking”, it has now been renamed the “Clean Hydrogen Partnership”.
“This new partnership builds on years of cooperation promoted by the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking,” said Commission President Ursula von der Leyen as she unveiled the new partnership on Monday.
“Clean hydrogen will have a central place in the climate-neutral economy of the future,” von der Leyen said, citing the EU’s leadership position in the manufacturing of new-generation electrolysers designed to be powered by renewable energy.
“We have to scale up clean hydrogen production, expand its applications, and create a virtuous circle where demand and supply feed each other and bring the prices down,” she said, adding that the EU’s objective is “to bring the cost below €1.8 per kilo by 2030”.
Gniewomir Flis, hydrogen expert at German think-tank Agora Energiewende, says “the change of name reflects the shifting of priorities away from mobility towards the less controversial no regret applications”.
No regret applications for hydrogen are in industrial use as reaction agents and feedstock, long-haul aviation, maritime shipping, back-ups for renewable energy and in large-scale heating grids, the German think-tank wrote in its recent “12 Insights on Hydrogen” paper.
Their no regret scenarios were derived from an analysis of multiple hydrogen studies and research papers. Should most sources agree on a use case for hydrogen, it would be classified as a no regret application.
“Just a decade ago, fuel-cell electric cars seemed to be the future of the automotive industry. Today, the dream is over,” writes Flis.
While hydrogen-fuelled cars would remain niche, he identified clear market opportunities for hydrogen-based fuels in the shipping and aviation industry.
EU not giving up on hydrogen mobility
The shift in focus away from personal mobility in the public-private partnership is also clear from the wording of the regulations that established the second and third iterations of the joint undertaking in 2014 and 2021.
The regulation establishing the second iteration of the FCH JU 2 in 2014 had its “particular aim” to “reduce the production cost of fuel cell systems to be used in transport applications” while increasing their lifetime to be competitive with conventional technologies.
On the other hand, the regulation establishing its successor states that its primary goal is to improve “the cost-effectiveness, reliability, quantity and quality of clean hydrogen solutions” with a view to “more efficient and cheaper hydrogen electrolysers and cheaper transport and industrial applications.”
However, the EU has not given up on hydrogen-based transport: in the new Alternative Fuels Infrastructure Regulation, hydrogen “refueling stations must be accessible at least every 150 kilometers along our car Trans-European Transport (TEN-T) network by 2030,” explained Adina Valean, the EU’s transport commissioner.
Furthermore, every node on the TEN-T must have one hydrogen refueling station “to serve both trucks and cars,” she said at the EU Hydrogen week on 1 December. The TEN-T network is an EU project to build a system of roads, railways, airports and water infrastructure.
“This would create a sufficiently dense network of hydrogen refuelling stations to ensure adequate cross-border EU connectivity and to support the 60,000 hydrogen lorries that we envisage seeing on the EU roads by 2030,” she added.
The details of the new partnership
In her speech, von der Leyen said that the Clean Hydrogen Partnership “is a new big step forward to bring innovative technologies from the laboratory to the factory and, ultimately, to European businesses and consumers”.
The aim is to bring the cost of clean hydrogen “below €1.8 per kilo by 2030,” the Commission President said. “And this goal is within reach,” she added.
The new public-private partnership objectives are similarly lofty but less concrete: It aims to “produce clean hydrogen at ~€1.5-3/kg” and to reduce the distribution “costs to less than €1/kg at scale,” reads the establishing regulation.
The different price targets for hydrogen production in Europe would have quite different effects on how successful the nascent hydrogen market is.
“Hydrogen production and storage with distribution at €1/kg respectively would mark the tipping point for hydrogen market success,” Flis told EURACTIV.
To achieve all the newly launched joint undertaking sets out to do, it will be equipped with a significant sum of money: €1 billion from the EU’s Horizon research funding and another €1 billion from industry partners.
These industry partners will likely be represented by the hydrogen industry association Hydrogen Europe. Heavyweights like Airbus, BMW, BP and Spanish utility company Iberdrola are included in the 315 members of the association.
[Edited by Alice Taylor and Frédéric Simon]