The conference “Joining forces on Hydrogen – Belgium, Benelux and its neighbors” was held Monday at the Dome Event Hall in Brussels. The conference was organized by WaterstofNet and Cluster Tweed, united under the umbrella of the Belgian Hydrogen Council (BHC). We talked to Adwin Martens, Chief Strategy Officer at WaterstofNet.
- At the “Joining forces on Hydrogen” conference, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and France discussed hydrogen cooperation;
- HydrogenNet, a knowledge and cooperation platform, plays a crucial role in the development of the hydrogen sector;
- Belgium, together with the Netherlands and Germany, constitutes a major demand market for hydrogen in Europe.
With the conference, the BHC aims to strengthen ties with neighboring regions and countries. Opportunities for cooperation were discussed with representatives of the neighboring national hydrogen councils (the Netherlands, Germany, and France). There were lively panel discussions with prominent speakers from Belgium’s top hydrogen industry. Research institutes exchanged their views on how to accelerate hydrogen developments in the regions. The conference was attended by three ministers involved: Tinne Van der Straeten (Federal Minister of Energy), Jo Brouns (Flemish Minister of Economy and Innovation), and Philippe Henry (Walloon Vice President and Minister of Climate, Energy and Mobility).
Belgium fully supports the development of hydrogen. In late 2021, the federal government approved the first-ever federal hydrogen strategy which aims to make Belgium an import and transit hub for green hydrogen and strengthen Belgium’s role as a pioneer in hydrogen technology. As part of the national hydrogen strategy, the federal government launched a first-ever “Clean Hydrogen for Clean Industry” call for innovative projects in the field of hydrogen production, transport, and use on April 21, 2022. The European Commission also has the ambition for the European Union to become a global leader in clean hydrogen. Clean hydrogen can contribute to the objectives of the European Green Deal. The EU wants to use hydrogen for the sectors that cannot run on electricity, according to the EU Hydrogen Strategy. For this, it is important to generate hydrogen as quickly as possible through wind and solar energy, the Commission said.
WaterstofNet is one of the driving forces behind the Belgian Hydrogen Council (BHC). The knowledge and cooperation platform supports and realizes hydrogen projects in Flanders/Belgium and the Netherlands. The knowledge network started almost 15 years ago and founded an industrial cluster (Hydrogen Industry Cluster or WIC) of about 20 companies active in hydrogen in 2015. Today, 165 companies are already connected, 80 percent of which are in Belgium and 20 percent in the Netherlands. According to Adwin Martens, Chief Strategy Officer at WaterstofNet, the platform has played a crucial role in bringing companies together and getting them to work around innovation. “Dutch manufacturer VDL has built a 40-ton truck that runs on hydrogen. The truck is now running at the Belgian retail chain Colruyt.”
The sector experienced growth in Belgium in recent years. “A few years ago there were five hundred people working in the hydrogen sector in Belgium,” Martens said. “Today there are 1,000 to 1,500. Whereas twenty years ago hydrogen was in the research phase at universities and knowledge institutions, today you see industry players getting on board with the hydrogen story.”
Adwin Martens sees a lot of evolutions and trends related to hydrogen. “We see a trend to become more sustainable by using wind and solar as much as possible. Companies want to get rid of fossil fuels faster under pressure from the Green Deal. CO2 and nitrogen emissions have to come down faster. With the cost price of gas and oil fluctuating so much, companies want to be less dependent on gas from all kinds of regimes and countries. Belgium, through the port of Zeebrugge, is currently a major importer of natural gas for Europe, both through pipelines and tankers. To continue to play a significant role in the future, Belgium wants to become a major import hub of green molecules, in the form of hydrogen or derivatives, through the port of Zeebrugge.”
Complementary to green electrons
Martens strongly believes in a thorough electrification of our society but warns that we won’t make it with that. He believes hydrogen will also become an important energy carrier. “We need – besides sun, wind, and electrification – hydrogen to make the whole economy CO2 neutral. Europe is pushing this enormously hard. The EU does not expect that we can make all the hydrogen in Europe ourselves, so we will also have to import hydrogen from countries with lots of sun and wind. Europe does have the technology needed to make green hydrogen. At best we are going to import green hydrogen from elsewhere, using technology from here”
The main demand for sustainable hydrogen in Europe is concentrated in the Benelux, according to Martens. “In Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany, industry (steel, chemicals) is asking for a lot of hydrogen. Also in America and Asia, a demand for green molecules is sounding increasingly loud.” Martens also thinks that sustainable hydrogen will play an important role in industry. “A lot of companies in the chemical and steel sector want sustainable hydrogen as a feedstock. In the Benelux, we are in pole position. You see many developments in companies in Belgium in the field of hydrogen that we can be proud of. Diesel engines are being converted to hydrogen engines. KU Leuven has developed solar panels that can make hydrogen directly. We see that many companies, such as AGFA and Bekaert, are investing in the development and application of green hydrogen. Belgium has two leading manufacturers of water electrolysis devices that can produce green hydrogen. In addition, hydrogen-powered buses and garbage trucks are also being built by Belgian companies.”
According to Martens, hydrogen rollout is proceeding with difficulty in Belgium and by extension in Europe. “The logic, the assets, the will and ambition are there to roll out hydrogen further,” Martens said. “The issue now is to make big steps in the next five to 10 years. If we don’t do it, surrounding countries will, and we will have let our position slip. It cannot be that one country has hydrogen refueling stations and another does not. The infrastructure has to fit together. For example, Belgium does not yet have a real hydrogen network of pipelines. Once these networks are in place, they have to be connected. The logic is there, along with the assets and the ambition. It is now essential that Europe and the member states quickly clarify the legal framework required to implement hydrogen. A similar input from governments must also be laid alongside industry input, to jointly bear the high initial costs. Only with a realistic approach, in which companies, knowledge institutions, and governments, work well together, can the hydrogen economy be launched in our region. With our technology players and ports, we can then become a unique hydrogen region in Europe.”