How to shape the transformation towards a hydrogen economy

Everybody knows wind turbines, solar panels and electric cars – but since the German government passed the National Hydrogen Strategy in June this year, hydrogen as an energy carrier has become more and more important. Dr. Jörg Buisset is convinced that we must rely on hydrogen for a successful energy turnaround. With his startup Sustainable Hydrogen, which is part of the 5-HT network, he is working to establish a hydrogen economy in Germany. For this purpose he conducts lighthouse projects in which all steps from the production and storage to the use of hydrogen are to be mapped with various partners. In an interview with 5-HT, he also talks about his plan to establish a digital ecosystem around hydrogen, which in the future can also help chemical companies to become climate-neutral with the help of this alternative energy source.

Why is hydrogen so important for the energy turnaround?

The energy turnaround will not be possible with renewable electricity alone. For a long time, hydrogen as an energy carrier was not taken seriously because there have been a number of failed attempts in the past and the discussion focused solely on the car, where electric propulsion is often considered more efficient for certain applications. However, there are some areas of the economy that we cannot decarbonize with electricity, for example the production of ammonia or steel. Furthermore, if we rely on an All Electric Society that gets its energy exclusively from renewable sources, problems arise in storing and transporting the energy. For example, we have large amounts of solar and wind energy that can be produced in desert regions or in the North Sea, but transport via power cables is expensive, complex and less efficient than with gas molecules. This is why the realization is gradually seeping through that we need not only a new type of electricity to turn away from the fossil society, but also a redesign of value chains in industry and society.The energy turnaround will not be possible with renewable electricity alone. For a long time, hydrogen as an energy carrier was not taken seriously because there have been a number of failed attempts in the past and the discussion focused solely on the car, where electric propulsion is often considered more efficient for certain applications. However, there are some areas of the economy that we cannot decarbonize with electricity, for example the production of ammonia or steel. Furthermore, if we rely on an All Electric Society that gets its energy exclusively from renewable sources, problems arise in storing and transporting the energy. For example, we have large amounts of solar and wind energy that can be produced in desert regions or in the North Sea, but transport via power cables is expensive, complex and less efficient than with gas molecules. This is why the realization is gradually seeping through that we need not only a new type of electricity to turn away from the fossil society, but also a redesign of value chains in industry and society.

Dr. Jörg Buisset

What concept does Sustainable Hydrogen want to use to push forward this energy revolution?

Sustainable Hydrogen (s-H2) is an operating company for lighthouse projects with the aim of establishing a hydrogen economy in Germany and Europe. Along the entire value-added chain, the focus is on hydrogen production from renewable energies, the processing, transport, storage and supply of hydrogen, and the development of the corresponding application systems. We are convinced that it is necessary to address this entire cycle within one company in order to counteract the chicken-and-egg problem and enable a market ramp-up. The operating company s-H2 works closely with the engineering company HERE, which is responsible for the concrete project development for the lighthouse projects. To this end, we bring together politicians, funding and investment banks, research institutions, solution providers and young companies with innovative ideas to jointly develop business cases.

What concrete projects is Sustainable Hydrogen working on to establish a hydrogen economy in Germany?

On the one hand, at the suggestion of the German Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association, we founded the H2Finance initiative, an expert commission with financial service providers interested in investments in the hydrogen industry. H2Finance was born out of the realization that financial service providers, in contrast to politics, industry and research, have so far hardly been involved in the topic of hydrogen. However, the hydrogen economy is a promising option for financial service providers interested in alternative investments in infrastructure to invest capital in the long run.

On the other hand, we have launched the H2Berlin initiative, a network of utilities, waste management companies and commercial enterprises in Berlin, which is dedicated to building a hydrogen infrastructure in the Berlin/Brandenburg region. In a first step, we conducted a study in cooperation with the Jülich Research Center, in which we determined that Berlin will need at least 9,000 tons of green hydrogen per year by 2025 to become climate-neutral by 2050 within the cost-optimal path. However, the city is currently still far from this volume. H2Berlin has therefore set itself the goal of defining a cross-company and cross-sectoral lighthouse project (showcase) that will give a boost to the hydrogen economy in Berlin.

The first lighthouse project of s-H2 will be realized with consortium partners in the Lausitz region. An industrial plant for the mass production of green hydrogen and synthetic biomethanol will be built there. The planned electrolysis plant will produce over 30 tons of hydrogen per day. The CO2 from the exhaust gases of a nearby biogas power plant will be filtered out and used for methanol production. Bio-methanol is a mandatory additive for diesel and petrol in the EU. It can still be used as a chemical base material. In addition, the industrial plant will offer grid services by means of reverse power generation and by compensating grid fluctuations.

In which phase is s-H2 with its initiatives?

The H2Finance working group has set itself the goal of shaping the framework parameters with politicians by the end of the year, which are necessary to enable financial service providers to invest in a hydrogen infrastructure.

Our initiative H2Berlin wants to define a showcase by the end of the year to boost a water economy based on renewable energy for the capital. At the same time, we want to develop a roadmap for Berlin to show how the heating and transport sectors, the main emitters of CO2, can be converted to hydrogen step by step.

For the construction of the industrial plant in Brandenburg, we are currently in the process of filing an application for a feasibility study to determine the location, which we intend to complete this year. The Ministry of Economics, Energy and Labor in Brandenburg has already promised its support in a letter of intent. The project is part of the hydrogen strategy of Lusatia, which has been chosen as HyStarter region by the BMWi. The ground-breaking ceremony for the construction of the plant is scheduled for 2021. The consortium partners of this initiative form the nucleus of our digital ecosystem, which will serve as an accelerator for the development of a green hydrogen economy and infrastructure.

Due to the European Green Deal, that is the European development plan for the new EU budget beyond Corona, the provided funds for the structural change after Germany’s coal exit and the funds provided for the implementation of the hydrogen strategy of the Federal Government and the EU, we see very good prospects for comprehensive funding for our projects.

How should your digital ecosystem look like, a platform for starting up a hydrogen economy based on renewable energies?

We want to create a platform where the individual players in the hydrogen market can come together to combine their expertise and develop joint solutions. On the other hand, the platform is to form a virtual marketplace for suppliers and buyers of hydrogen solutions. It is important to provide digital support for the market ramp-up in the hydrogen sector, because in this industry it is not the money but the expertise that is the bottleneck. Therefore we need a digital platform to establish new contacts between the players. On this platform it will be possible to offer one’s own services or to search for the services of other providers and thus to forge the major projects necessary for a market ramp-up. To make such an ecosystem work, we need as many industry players as possible. To achieve this, we are first waiting for the further development of our lighthouse project in Berlin/Brandenburg, with which we will already have the first major partners on board.

For which players is it interesting to become part of this digital hydrogen ecosystem?

We are thinking of the big players that carry out hydrogen electrolysis in Germany, such as Siemens and Thyssenkrupp, but also of chemical groups such as BASF, energy suppliers, refineries, steel companies and logistics service providers, paired with the young startups of the “hydrogen scene”. In particular, I see the chemical companies as important partners, because the production of ammonia and methanol from grey hydrogen causes considerable emissions in this industry. If we manage to make this production climate-neutral with the help of green hydrogen, it will be a big step.

What do you expect from working with the 5-HT Digital Hub?

We hope to raise awareness of hydrogen in the 5-HT ecosystem and to get in touch with network partners who are interested in using hydrogen to work towards the goal of climate neutrality. We are also pleased to invite network partners to participate in our initiatives if they are interested.

Why was Sustainable Hydrogen founded?

First I worked as a physicist for the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, before I changed to management consulting, where I spent 23 years implementing major restructuring projects in the financial services industry. At the age of over 50, I came to a point where I started to wonder: What is actually important to me in life? While thinking about this question, I always came back to my European character. Because in my view the biggest challenge facing the EU is the transformation of energy systems, I asked myself how I could help to master this task. I quickly came to the conclusion that we need to replace fossil fuels as a whole with hydrogen as the energy carrier for renewable electricity. This idea was born at the beginning of 2019, from when I started to build up my networks until the foundation finally took place at the beginning of 2020.

In June the German government passed the National Hydrogen Strategy which aims to establish the use of green hydrogen in Germany. In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges that stand in the way of implementing this strategy?

The problem is that politics has recognized how important hydrogen is for the energy turnaround, but that clear quantitative targets are missing. The industry expects decisions to be made by law that give them a certain degree of certainty that the demand for hydrogen will be there and that investments in the field will therefore be worthwhile. Currently, with Corona, I see good chances, however, that even more will happen soon. Because when we get the economy going again, we don’t want to do it with fossil fuels, but in a sustainable way, and hydrogen will play a major role in this.

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