Can Flanders take the lead with hydrogen?
By 2030, it would be up to 80% cheaper to use electrolysis to produce green hydrogen from water. That’s what researchers from Bloomberg New Energy Finance conclude in a new report.
Hydrogen will, therefore, be one of the most radical technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions economically. It is a special opportunity for Flanders because the region has many of the world’s leading hydrogen technology companies, from the Colruyt Group to E-Trucks.
Reduce the climate impact
Hydrogen gas (H2) is a clean and emission-free fuel, which can thoroughly various green sectors, such as shipping, and steel or cement production, or that, within the car industry, can ensure that the hydrogen car still will win from the battery car.
One by one, these are sectors that are currently finding it difficult to curb their CO 2 emissions and climate impact. For the sake of clarity, a hydrogen car is an electric car, and on the road, they both count as ‘zero-emission’, even though the latter still has a particular CO2 emission due to the production of batteries and the energy they consume when they are charged.
But where the ordinary electric car draws its power from a battery, the hydrogen car draws it from the fuel cell. There, electricity is produced on the spot from the conversion of hydrogen gas and oxygen from the air to pure water.
According to the researchers, by 2050, the price of green hydrogen would fall further and come on an equal foot with the cost of natural gas. However, as the report emphasizes, sufficient support from governments will, therefore, be needed in the coming years.
This awareness is also alive in Flanders, even though the region is now lagging far behind in comparison with the Netherlands and Germany, for example, where there must be 400 hydrogen filling stations by 2023.
In his starting note for the Flemish government negotiations, N-VA chairman, Bart De Wever, writes: “We have the ambition to become the European leader in hydrogen, and are committed to a 100% circular economy.”
The reality is that anno 2019 there are only 30 hydrogen-powered cars on the road in Flanders, compared to 23 in 2018. And there are only two public filling stations, although there will be three more by 2020.
However, natural gas-powered vehicles are produced in Flanders. The only thing is that today, they are mainly sold abroad. Bus manufacturer Van Hool from Koningshooikt (Lier) has already supplied dozens of hydrogen buses to Germany, Scotland, and the Netherlands, but only five of them went to the Flemish public transport company De Lijn.
No time to lose
For Mark Pecqueur, lecturer of car technology at the Thomas More Academy, there is not a moment to lose. According to him, we’d better invest today than tomorrow if we want to maintain our technological lead. “China is already making its mark on hydrogen. Beijing wants more than 100.000 hydrogen vehicles on the market by 2025 – over the next ten years, one million vehicles will be built in China – and will even phase out support for electric vehicles from next year.”
Moreover, Flanders is in a unique position. There are many possibilities for cooperation with the Netherlands. Our northern neighbors have high ambitions because they want to stop the production of natural gas by 2030. Hydrogen should partly fill that gap.
The petrochemical industry in Flanders also produces a lot of residual hydrogen. “With a consistent policy, including in the license of filling stations, we can tap into this great potential,” Pecqueur says. “Unlike for batteries, we are less dependent on other countries in terms of production and raw materials for hydrogen.” And unlike electricity, hydrogen gas can be transported with tanks or through existing pipelines without loss of efficiency.
Expensive and low efficiency
However, not everyone is convinced that Flanders needs to make the most of hydrogen. Ronnie Belmans, CEO of the EnergyVille research center, finds it “expensive, and the efficiency is low.” Because you first have to convert electricity into hydrogen, and then turn it into electricity again, there is a huge loss of efficiency. Belmans sees the point of hydrogen only to store energy.
They are also less enthusiastic at Transport & Environment, the green organization that is lobbying in Brussels for zero-emission transport. They recognize the potential of hydrogen for heating homes or in industry, for example, because the loss of efficiency is much smaller there than in a fuel cell. “But now you have to produce much more green electricity for a hydrogen car than for a battery car, which is simply not optimal.”
Faster than we think
The point is, it can go faster now than we think. After all, more and cheaper renewable energy will become available to produce climate-neutral ‘green’ hydrogen. Aldwin Martens, director of WaterstofNet, a platform that brings together companies working on hydrogen in Flanders, sees another change. “Where in the past you mainly saw interest from the research world, now the industry worldwide has also jumped on the bandwagon.”
For example, there is the ‘Hydrogen Council’, a rapidly growing coalition of major car manufacturers, such as BMW, GM, and Toyota, and energy companies, such as Shell, that want to promote the hydrogen economy. It makes sense if you know that research by the international consultancy McKinsey & Company shows that 5,5 to 6,5 million fuel cell systems will be needed worldwide by 2030.