Where to go from here?

When discussing current advances in hydrogen and fuel cell technology, people often start by talking about transportation, along with success and failure in the automotive industry (see Cautious or clueless? and Fuel cells certain to gain traction after 2025). In the past several months, however, other applications have begun to move into focus.

No, I’m not referring to stationary systems. Like passenger cars, both residential fuel cells and fuel cell power plants (see Power Plant to Substitute H2 for CH4) have yet to make a mark, not to mention that they continue to rely on natural gas, a fossil fuel, to meet much of the demand.

A better example is the market for electrolyzers, which has experienced notable growth in the past few years. Ever since one industry after another began viewing hydrogen as an effective means to store renewable power, that is, ever since energy systems integration and power-to-gas came to be talked about all over Germany, manufacturers have seen a lot more requests for their products (see report about Hannover Messe).

But the ones that have really grabbed the spotlight are railroad and commercial vehicles. Regarding trucks, Nikola is generating all the buzz, and, this time, it has large orders to back up its claim (see United States: More R&D Money Than Expected). In early 2019, we will also find out whether Germany’s northernmost state, that is, Schleswig-Holstein, has what it takes to pioneer the use of fuel cell trains and make them part of regular runs. It will all depend on which of the bids to operate portions of the state’s rail system are going to make the cut before the process will end at the turn of the year. By then, it will have become clear if fuel cells are able to compete with diesel hybrid systems and battery-powered locomotives. We will get to that in the October issue.

Surprisingly, hydrogen is also making a splash in places that are often less willing to leave traditional methods of production behind: the steel and refinery industries. Starting up demonstration systems may be a small first step to take. But at the same time, politicians, business leaders and association members have come together for intense discussions on the subject. Studies have been conducted and factories toured to explore what kind of potential hydrogen has for meeting exceedingly stringent environmental regulations.

All sectors mentioned above could make use of enormous quantities of hydrogen. Producing the gas entirely from renewable sources would mark a significant milestone on the route to transforming the energy system and represent a big leap toward a low-emission industry.

First, however, we need to be clear about what is possible and wanted. We need to make sure that hydrogen isn’t used for greenwashing, so that only prestige projects will see the light of day – while, elsewhere, huge amounts of energy go to waste.

The potential is there. All we need to do now is to unlock it.

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