In 18 years of managing the f-cell show, its organizers have seen many trends, and businesses, come and go. Some companies that used to exhibit at the event no longer exist. Some of the speakers at past events have worked for multiple employers in the meantime. And before last year’s decision to move back to Stuttgart’s Haus der Wirtschaft, the show itself took place on the city’s showgrounds. No change seemed to have had a negative impact on the growth of the hydrogen and fuel cell community. Judging by the mood at last year’s f-cell, quite the opposite has been true.
It seemed as if Peter Sauber and his team took up where they left off six years prior to the move to Stuttgart’s trade show premises. The mood of those coming to the Haus der Wirtschaft was as optimistic as it had been in 2011. The number of exhibitors was about the same as well, with 41 showcasing their products last year versus 46 in 2011. Attendees also received a warmer and friendlier welcome than at the Landesmesse showgrounds, outside the city, where all of it had seemed much more impersonal. In his opening remarks, Helmfried Meinel, who works at the state’s environment ministry, thanked the organizers for the warm reception he had gotten, stressing that the f-cell show had everything needed to make it a very special event. Klaus Bonhoff, the chief executive of NOW, agreed, saying it felt “good to be back in the Haus der Wirtschaft. I enjoyed coming here.”
Of note was that the event’s organizer, Peter Sauber Agentur Messen und Kongresse, had all but reinvented its business over the last years. A more up-to-date booth design was not the only new development. The biggest change came in the form of added opportunities for networking. For example, one area had been specifically designed for business matchmaking. Another became the location for roundtable discussions, with up to ten attendees coming together at one of three tables to have an hour-long debate about an issue suggested by a moderator. The tables had been set up in another room, away from the hustle and bustle of the show.
Another new feature: the workshops. While these were not limited in the number of people who could attend, moderators were still able to adapt the format to suit individual needs. For example, Frank Sreball gathered six attendees to host a debate similar to the one during a political talk show, an experiment that was well received by the audience despite the hot and humid air in the room. Other moderators seemed to have some difficulties finding their rhythm, but there was much more discussion and social interaction than there had been in previous years.
Input from all corners of the globe
Overall, the conference attracted a large enough audience. Most seats in the Haus der Wirtschaft’s König-Karl-Halle were taken during the morning session on both days, right before people spread out to attend follow-on sessions in other rooms. The presentations given by speakers from Europe, North America and Asia painted a vivid picture of current developments in the hydrogen and fuel cell sector and the Austrian city of Linz provided attendees with some breaking news, as it was the place where the Hydrogen Initiative was founded around the same time f-cell was taking place (see p. 9). Furthermore, it was said that 800 hydrogen fueling stations would be in operation across Europe by 2025 and the Hydrogen Council announced that it had grown to 54 members. And a report about Japan mentioned a Hydrogen Energy Ministerial Meeting, which had taken place in October 2018.
Consequently, Bonhoff said that the “time was ripe to turn to mass manufacturing.” He hoped for hydrogen to play an even bigger part in energy policy in the future. The demand was there, and commercial fleets powered by the gas would arrive soon, but “we still have work to do if our goal is to convince the government of a pro-hydrogen agenda,” he said.
Some intriguing news came from Norway, last year’s partner country. For example, in late September 2018, Nel opened a factory for manufacturing hydrogen fueling stations. Located at the headquarters of Nel’s subsidiary H2 Logic in Herning, Denmark, it will reportedly put out 300 H2Station® units a year. Jon André Løkke, the chief executive of Nel, said his company built the large facility not just to demonstrate to automakers that it had the production capacity to ensure the rollout of fuel cell vehicles would continue, but that the plant’s streamlined manufacturing operations could create the economies of scale required to meet demand in the future.
The need to deliver
A highlight of the show was the panel discussion near the end of the second day, though some attendees who left early missed this interesting and entertaining opportunity. The key question during the session was what politics can do to help along a stuttering market transformation process and ease the challenge of establishing an integrated energy system.
From time to time during the debate, Jorgo Chatzimarkakis raised his voice and lamented the lack of action by Europe’s automakers, which drew spontaneous applause from the audience. He emphasized that “too little is happening, I can’t stress that enough. German businesses act too cautiously. We need to deliver.” He also said that those who used to slow down the process had been replaced by staff more open to new approaches. And he acknowledged that “disruptive technology,” as he called it, would bring many changes to the market, noting what happened to Nokia. Once a cell phone giant, the company came under a lot of pressure in 2012. It was a rise-and-fall story that automakers would want to avoid repeating.
Chatzimarkakis sees profound change as an opportunity to seize rather than a risk to avoid and stated multiple times during the debate that “as a European industrial association, we are now calling for tangible results.” He believes there is great potential for hydrogen, especially in energy storage. In that context, he spoke about an alliance to build 40-gigawatt electrolyzers and large-scale projects that could provide jobs and energy security.
Another issue discussed by the panel was the German government’s missing guidance on the transformation of energy markets. Time and again, one could hear people saying that “what we need now is a strategy.”
The organizers offered a smartphone app created specifically for this event. While it was a modern approach to communication and logistics, frequent server errors and a rather non-intuitive graphical interface created some difficulties. Yet, the idea of digitizing the show has the potential to provide new opportunities for collaboration and networking. What needs to be kept in mind is that most attendees were, and most likely still are, not used to communicating in this way.
In 2018, the f-cell award ceremony took place in Stuttgart’s Stadtpalais building. Andre Baumann, who works at the German state of Baden-Württemberg’s environment ministry, noted in his speech that the “auto industry is experiencing disruptive change.” He spoke about both the many opportunities of electric transportation and its drawbacks, saying that “the extensive use of critical materials is riddled with issues. All too often, they originate in countries rife with conflict.” He added that fuel cell production was much less controversial.
Baden-Württemberg’s environment ministry supported the f-cell awards with EUR 40,000. Last year’s spotlight on Norway originated with a trip taken by the head of the ministry, Franz Untersteller, who could see in person how much progress the Scandinavian country had made in the hydrogen and fuel cell sector. What he observed left such an impression on him that he was intent on finding a way to recognize Norway’s achievements.
Daimler was part of the debate as well, albeit for a different reason. It seemed as if not a single Daimler staff member had made it to the show. Some may interpret this as having been a conscious decision to boycott the event, although once upon a time the automaker had been f-cell’s main sponsor.
An optimistic outlook for 2019
Speakers and attendees agreed that it was time to act. Never before have calls for politics to intervene been as detailed as they are today. More pressure needed to be put on market players and stricter emission limits had to be set, many were heard saying. Politicians would need to signal that they were willing to do something and create a stable environment for businesses and the ongoing energy market transformation.
The number of attendees – around 1,000 overall – was markedly below that of 2011, since this time around, no separate tickets were available to see only the exposition and no invitations had been extended to students or teachers, as in the years before. Still, most exhibitors were satisfied with how the show went.
Accordingly, nearly all attendees left f-cell in a good mood, certain that 2019 will see an engaging event return to the Haus der Wirtschaft. The one in 2018 had given everyone a lot of new ideas.
One heartwarming moment was Sauber’s speech at the end of the show, when he said how grateful he was to have a staff like his, and especially an assistant such as Silke Frank. Frank again proved her organizational skills in 2018 by preparing and managing the f-cell show, making it clear that if she needed to take over management of the company someday, she would be ready from day one.