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The Dutch government has great ambitions for hydrogen. The National Hydrogen Program demonstrates that the government wants to go all-out for hydrogen as the energy system of the future. But how is our hydrogen society and economy faring? In the summer series ‘The Netherlands, Hydrogen Land’, we discuss the current state of affairs with technicians and scientists on the basis of themes from the National Hydrogen Programme. In the second instalment: Electricity, distribution and storage. Read the whole series here.

“Interesting ambitions, great plans, but the essence of the story is that we really have to get started as soon as possible,” believes Adwin Martens, director of WaterstofNet. He sees the Netherlands presenting itself as a front runner in Europe on every possible podium. The Netherlands is in a dream position, what with its expertise in gas production, the Port of Rotterdam, the possibilities for offshore wind farms. “Lots of advantages, but when it comes to realizing them, I think – at least in the area of mobility and transport – it is still very limited.”


The National Hydrogen Program

At the beginning of July, the National Hydrogen Program (NWP) was presented to the Secretary of State by the cross-sectoral working group hydrogen (CSWW). CSWW is a collaboration between 19 organizations. The program stems from the government’s National Climate Agreement. The cabinet’s vision for hydrogen contains the policy agenda in which the central government’s commitment is laid out further. The period up to and including 2021 is the preparatory phase for the actual scaling up and roll-out of hydrogen from 2022 onwards. The second phase of the NWP – which is actually the real start – Is set to commence on 1 January 2022.

Together, maritime shipping and road transport account for 13 billion kilograms of CO2 emissions. That constitutes twenty percent of the total CO2 emissions in the Netherlands. Over two thirds of these emissions fall outside the scope of the climate targets. According to the Dutch National Hydrogen Program (NWP), the government envisages a major role for hydrogen in reducing these emissions. In concrete terms, this means that by 2025, there will be 50 hydrogen filling stations, 15,000 fuel cell cars, 3,000 heavy vehicles and 150 inland shipping vessels using hydrogen as an energy carrier.

‘Asia is leading the way and Europe is lagging behind’

At the moment, there are only seven public hydrogen filling stations in the Netherlands, where you can fill up to 700 bar (to give an idea, that is enough to drive a car 500 kilometers). To make hydrogen a more attractive option, new filling stations have to be built. Fifty, according to the NWP. “Not particularly ambitious, but a very realistic goal,” Martens stated. The construction of hydrogen filling stations is bound to happen. The Dutch government aims to have 15,000 – and in nine years 300,000 – fuel cell cars on the road by 2025. In any event that sounds like a slightly dismal prospect now. Interested parties have a choice between just two models: the Hyundai NEXO and the Toyota Mirai. The lack of choice is because European car companies have not yet got the right fuel cell technology at their disposal. Asia is leading the way and Europe is lagging behind.

Map of hydrogen filling stations in the Netherlands.

The European car industry has been thinking things through for far too long. The idea is to keep the internal combustion engine and make it a bit cleaner. While in Asia they started to develop hybrid cars ten years ago already. Martens: “We didn’t think the first Prius looked that elegant, but they now have a massive lead where the development of fuel cell technology is concerned.” The automobile companies in Europe are converting from a fossil sector to a zero-emission one at full speed, but it does take time. “300,000 fuel cell cars by 2030; I certainly hope so,” he adds.

We didn’t think the first Prius looked that elegant, but they now have a massive lead where the development of fuel cell technology is concerned.” Adwin Martens

Battery-electric US hydrogen-electric

What also is not helping the hydrogen car is that the focus is now predominantly on electric drivingy. Martens understands that, but in time, he envisions a combination of hydrogen and battery-electric driving. “If everyone were to drive a battery-electric car, that would mean, among other things, that the electricity grid would need to be strengthened. That’s really expensive; building filling stations is more straightforward and cheaper.” For cars that are used more intensively, such as taxis or shared cars, hydrogen does offer greater advantages, as Martin explains. For passenger cars, Martens expects a 70-30 split in terms of electric and hydrogen. But in the case of trucks, he reckons that the opposite will happen. “Trucks travel long distances and therefore need to be able to refuel quickly and frequently. Hydrogen is a real godsend then.”

Hydrogen – and electric-fuel cells: the difference

In electric fuel cell vehicles, hydrogen is converted to water in a fuel cell with oxygen. This produces electricity – which is the fuel. The only residual products are water vapor and heat. Actually, a hydrogen car is an electric car, but the electric car gets its power from a battery and not from a fuel cell.

Three thousand heavy-duty vehicles running on hydrogen by 2030. That’s the most ambitious plan for the sector, according to Martens. Here as well, the major European players – Scania, MAN, Volvo, Iveco, Mercedes, Renault, DAF – do not yet have the right technology in house. And that while Hyundai, not a truck manufacturer at all, is developing fuel cells for trucks. They are now manufacturing 1,600 trucks for Switzerland, the first fifty of which are already on the roads. Once again, Europe is looking intently towards Asia.

European truck manufacturers will have to take advantage of this given that the pressure is high in the transport sector. Europe has expressed its bold ambitions: CO2 emissions from trucks must be 15 percent lower by 2025 and 30 percent lower by 2030. If companies fail to meet these targets, then they face substantial fines. “Because Europe is drafting strict legislation, the process is speeding up. That’s a very good sign,” Martens notes.

Getting things going in the shipping sector

The NWP does not specify any new objectives for the shipping sector. Reference is made to the Green Deal Maritime, Inland Shipping and Ports. This deal was drawn up in October 2017 with the aim of making maritime shipping, inland shipping and ports more sustainable. One of the targets in this Green Deal is that at least 150 emission-free inland shipping vessels will be in service by 2030. The government expects hydrogen to make a “significant contribution in this respect.” To Marjon Castelijns, manager of business development at Future Proof Shipping (FPS), that ambition is not making much of an impression. “It’s realistic, not ambitious.” She is also involved in RH2INE, an initiative to further develop hydrogen use and infrastructure along the Rhine. “We have set a target of 280 zero-emission inland shipping vessels there alone.”

The shipping industry is not the sector for endless scientific research, Castelijns goes on to explain. Figuring out an idea thoroughly, putting it on a ship and seeing if it does what it is supposed to do – that’s the kind of approach that works for the shipping industry. “Shipping companies just want to get it done. But there are budgets available from the government right now that are mostly focused on research,” he says.

“The first cargo ship to run entirely on hydrogen, you would think that subsidies would be pouring in for that.”

A helping hand

At FPS, they are developing the first cargo ship to run entirely on hydrogen. The hydrogen is stored under pressure in a container on the ship and the empty container can be exchanged for a full one at a terminal. The ship is completely emission-free. “Other craft carry a generator on board just to be sure, but we only have hydrogen storage, fuel cells, an electric motor and a battery.” The battery is mainly used as a backup and for peak power.” FPS has been working on that boat for three years now. The investment in the new technology is three times as expensive as the ship itself. “You would have thought: the subsidies are pouring in for that, but they are not. The costs are going to come down in the next few years, but you can’t expect a private party to finance that on its own.”

“The Netherlands is a shipping country and we have to be careful if we want to maintain our current key position,” warns Castelijns. In recent years, Dutch trade and ocean shipping has grown from 750 ships in 2006 to 1,211 ships in 2019. “We have the opportunity to be at the forefront when it comes to hydrogen, but companies are moving faster than the government.” The industry is in the starting blocks, but there is a yawning gap between the industry’s drive and and the contribution of vision, policy and support from the government. Castelijns hopes that the NWP can close the gap, so that companies are not held back, but rather given a boost.

You can read the first installment about industry and ports here.
Read the second installment on innovation and the manufacturing industry here.