Japan Leads the Way – Germany Stays Behind

FC_Expo
Birgit Scheppat (r.) with Silke Frank, © Peter Sauber Agentur

The German pavilion at the 13th FC Expo held from March 1 through 3 this year in Japan’s capital was packed with exhibitors. One of the members of the joint booth was again the H2BZ-Initiative Hessen. Birgit Scheppat, board member and professor at RheinMain University of Applied Sciences, traveled for the fair to Tokyo and reports for H2-international on her experiences.

The exposition took up about the same space as last year – according to the organizers, there were around 280 booths, although several by first-time exhibitors. In addition to the German exhibit, there was one by Norway, France and Taiwan. North America was represented by both the United States and Canada, although there was nothing new to report from the booth of either. China and Taiwan showed much more confidence this year than in 2016, when they had made only vague statements about availability of supply and prices.

The trade show presented attendees with various types of fuel cells, particularly small- and large-capacity PEMs, and differently sized hydrogen storage units, both metal-hydride ones and clever replacement systems for scooters or electric wheelchairs. Additionally, attendees could take a look at small H2 production units based on methanol or electrolysis. Conversely, components for high-pressure applications – which had been numerous the past year – had dwindled in number.

An important item on Japan’s agenda is

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China wants H2 and fuel cells

There are many, many expectations, although Japanese carmakers believe that the advance of the technology cannot be stopped. China, too, seems to have adopted this belief. Professor Jin Liu from Tsing Innovation Capital reported about the 300 H2 buses that are to be delivered within two years’ time. It remained unclear, however, how to cope with the logistic challenge of refueling 100 buses per station. Jin said that the reason for the great interest in fuel cell buses was the “substantial” support of the government, which pays two-thirds of the cost. China wants the technology – the price doesn’t seem to be a factor for the time being.

During the keynote session, Air Liquide’s Pierre-Etienne Franc, spokesperson of the Hydrogen Council (see Hydrogen Council Founded), was added to the program schedule. He stressed the importance of the technology – but remained very vague about timeframes and implementation. Then, Masaru Yamazumi from Japan’s economy ministry METI reported that hydrogen was to be produced from brown coal in Australia before being shipped to Japan, at least in the first stage during which hydrogen as a byproduct would be virtually non-existent. It was planned to commercialize the technology first and switch H2 production from “black” to “green” hydrogen later. In the last stage, the ministry sees hydrogen being generated on a large scale from renewable sources only. The reason for the three-step model is an insufficient number of storage units to date and not enough capacity by producers of energy in the country. Additionally, Japan does not have a gas grid as far-reaching as the one in Germany.

Christian Mohrdieck from Daimler offered a clear direction when starting his speech: “Yes, hydrogen is a good solution.” – not for today’s market, not for tomorrow’s, but for some time in the future. The potential of combustion engines had not been tapped entirely; first, there should be hybrid vehicles and one would see how to go from there, that was his main message. Daimler would indeed offer a small number of GLC cars this year, but this sentence was followed by one “but” after another – the Japanese attendees understood and left the room in droves.

It is a déjà vu for me: The situation was the same as in 1992, when the then-chair of the RWE board explained that solar modules would always remain a niche product and that renewable sources would never endanger existing market structures. You can and are allowed to be wrong – this will again have dramatic consequences for Germany – but where is the courage to the many funds that not only this one company has invested in hydrogen and fuel cells, but all citizens?

It is really a miserable situation, to see all this timidness, all this despondency. Oh Germany, your businesses, they administrate, not innovate!

Problem-solving

Greatly intriguing were the speeches by Björn Simonsen from NEL and Kristian Vik, secretary general of the Norwegian Hydrogen Forum: In Norway, ships and “zero-emission tourism” had been the latest trend, which is why electric and emission-free transportation was planned for ships crossing sensitive habitats (sightseeing, ferries, etc.), cruises and buses (coaches). Market surveys have shown that there are “financially well-off customers” who – because of environmental concerns – are willing to pay much more for solutions that are effective in preserving the environment. Obviously, the idea to equip electric buses with diesel heating is out of the question. What about long-distance buses equipped with hydrogen systems instead?

A greatly irritating issue are the compressors for filling stations: Some of the businesses on the market do not want or cannot be aware of the …

Anyone actively engaged in a field of technology knows that there are always issues at the start. One can only hope that the attitude toward these problems will change. In dismay, I think of the idea that we in the Rhein-Main region may have eleven fully functional buses which cannot be refueled for weeks – a truly horrendous situation that will put a stop to the technology for a long time. I would wish for a solution that helps both suppliers of refueling units and operators of filling stations. Pushing aside criticism is not an option and being offended is no alternative either.

What about Germany’s role?

The attendees visiting the joint booth often asked what the situation was in Germany and where the country intends to go from there. It received much …

All cities in China have a stake in passenger transportation: They purchase additional know-how from abroad because they strongly believe that this will compensate for the country’s disadvantageous position on the combustion engine market. What remains in the dark is the motivation behind the shift toward hydrogen. Several times, however, one could hear about problems related to ageing battery systems, their recycling and – surprisingly – their charging infrastructure cost as well as the required grid adjustments.

The proper framework

Sugarcoating the reality will not help – German carmakers must rethink their timid approach toward fuel cell vehicles. Where are the leaders to pull people off the fence? The question to politicians is: After all this money has been spent, when do you lay down objectives organizations need to fulfill, targets that would also provide a sense of security for these businesses? Maybe a law stipulating a share in zero-emission vehicles – like the one in California – would help.

Japan offers a great many subsidies: …

There is much we do not know about the development in China. Korea, in contrast, has established a transparent framework like Japan and manages all relevant technological aspects with great focus. In the United States, the driving forces can be found at state level. We will see when and if the rest of the world will follow.

Germany squanders away head start

Europe, however, is drifting apart: There are several activities in France, a similar number in the UK and, of course, many in Scandinavia. Personally, I think that Germany has squandered away its technological lead.

Maybe my outlook is too gloomy – which would be a relief – but if there is one thing I have taken away from Tokyo it is that hydrogen and the associated fuel cell technologies are being turned into products with which manufacturers and suppliers earn money – slowly, but steadily. In my opinion, the question about where the technologies will originate has almost been decided: They will come from places with a concentration of know-how in component manufacturing and, consequently, systems. Will that be Europe? Perhaps the trade show in Hanover will prove me wrong – which I would very much like to be in this case …

Report on the Mood at Tokyo’s FC Expo by Professor Birgit Scheppat from Hochschule RheinMain, Germany

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