Jorgo Chatzimarkakis – Mr. Hydrogen in Brussels

Jorgo
Interview with Jorgo Chatzimarkakis

Georgios “Jorgo” Chatzimarkakis was born in Duisburg, Germany, in 1966. He holds German and Greek nationality, a degree in agriculture and politics from the University of Bonn, and even back then, he had already showed a strong interest in economic history and international and European law, making his entry into politics an easier one. He went on to work for Germany’s Foreign Office, as a business consultant, as an associate professor in the field of European Politics and until 2014 for Germany’s Free Democrats – as member of the national party’s executive board from 1995 through 2011 and as secretary general of Saarland’s state party from 2002 through 2010. From 2004 to 2014, he was a member of the European Parliament and was appointed special envoy for the Greek government during the financial crisis. In 2016, he became head of the European industry association Hydrogen Europe.

H2-international: Mr. Chatzimarkakis, is it true that it was the idea of storing solar energy in the form of hydrogen that prompted you to go into politics in the 1980s?

In fact, I had already taken notice of hydrogen when I was still a student. I just couldn’t stop reading “In the beginning, there was hydrogen” by Hoimar von Ditfurth. The subsequent Chernobyl catastrophe in 1986 was the driving force behind getting involved in politics as a student. I followed the call of a new, small party that wanted to use Saharan solar energy to create hydrogen via electrolysis and transport It to Europe. Hydrogen was thought of as an alternative to nuclear power and the people putting forth the idea were members of the Ecological Democratic Party, founded by Herbert Gruhl, a former member of the Christian Democratic Union of Germany. It was indeed the fuel that had me going into politics. Years later, the youth organization of another political party “won me over,” which is how I ended up at the Free Democrats.

H2-international: After joining a new party, you first concentrated on your political career before coming back to hydrogen. What were the reasons for your “return” to the energy sector?

Not only on my political career, no. I had been given the opportunity to work for Klaus Kinkel, Germany’s then-foreign minister and vice chancellor, from 1996 through 1998. Shortly thereafter, I represented Infineon Technologies in Brussels for several years. It was a job that required me to “interpret” between the realm of technology and politics. Even now, I’m partly relying on the experience I gained during this crucial time in my life. One of my main tasks nowadays is again to explain complex technical issues in a way that is understandable to political decision makers. My expertise also impacted my time as a member of the European Parliament, where I was part of the industry, energy and research committee. One of my first activities as a committee member was to support the first FCH JU, which the parliament had to approve. I was very pleased that I could actively assist in the development of my “old passion” – hydrogen – in my new role as an MP in Brussels.

H2-international: What exactly did you like so much about hydrogen that you switched jobs, from politician to political consultant?

I think you can easily see based on my job history that I don’t care much for the widespread notion of a straight-line career path. I am suspicious of people who went from school through student parliaments right into politics and have made it their only job since then. That’s where I favor the American system – it pretty much drives you to switch continually between business, research and politics. It’s the only way I see to get to know how businesses work and how complicated political decision-making can be.

What I find so interesting about hydrogen is that since encountering the vision of a hydrogen economy more than 30 years ago, we now do have a big opportunity to realize it. The “sector integration” people are talking about these days is basically an energy transformation process that has the use of hydrogen at its core. It’s really fascinating to think that using the technology could allow us to skip entire stages of development and utilize renewables for the decarbonization of many industries. Our objective is not just to offer political consulting in the sense of “advocacy,” but primarily to establish new partnerships to advance our goals. That’s where we see much progress being made in Brussels right now.

H2-international: What exactly does your association stand for?

In short: We intend to make the use of hydrogen and fuel cells a normal part of daily life. First and foremost, we need to close gaps in knowledge. One crucial message is that you get an alternative fuel that produces zero emissions while you don’t have to compromise on anything. The current aim in the wake of the European energy transformation and particularly considering the so-called “winter package” [Clean Energy for all Europeans] is to showcase the versatility of hydrogen as an energy carrier, fuel and raw material to advance decarbonization. What poses a crucial dilemma for EU stakeholders is the slow winter season and the fact that we need to store the excess energy from the summer months. When it comes to seasonal storage, we as Hydrogen Europe need to communicate a clear objective and are, of course, pleased that storage systems have finally been specified at EU level.

H2-international: Hydrogen Europe succeeded the industry initiative New Energy World Industry Grouping (NEW-IG) in late 2015. Did only the name change or are we talking about a completely different organization?

NEW-IG had been established based on a hydrogen and fuel cell platform, the first FCH JU. This new kind of collaboration between the public, research and industry had meant that the latter needed to undergo some changes. Many SME manufacturers joined forces with some well-known hydrogen and fuel cell businesses, a first essential step toward the creation of an “eco-system” of hydrogen use. The ties that were established over those many years will be crucial in the ramp-up of many market-ready products. But NEW-IG tended to focus on internals, meaning on strengthening the industry itself. When we made the transition to Hydrogen Europe, we also wanted to improve the public image of a now established sector.

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