Stefan Verkerk, ProRail

Groningen is often referred to as the ”Hydrogen City‘’ in the Netherlands and the Northern Netherlands region bears the honorary title Hydrogen Valley. The hydrogen-powered train has already been extensively tested, and work is currently in progress on many other applications for hydrogen in industry and mobility. Scaling up: that’s the goal for the coming years. “We want to demonstrate that hydrogen is really essential for a sustainable future,” says ‘hydrogen woman’ Nienke Homan, delegate of the GroenLinks party in the Province of Groningen.

In Groningen, people realized very early on that there was more than just gasoline and diesel. In the 19th century, people were already working on a small-sized electric car, which was demonstrated on the Grote Markt square in the city of Groningen. Almost 200 years later, hydrogen-powered means of transport are being extensively tested in the province. Sometimes, as a government, you have to set a good example and not only think, but also act: “As long as transport in the province becomes greener,” Homan says.

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Nienke Homan

In recent years, the municipality of Groningen put hydrogen-powered garbage trucks and sweeper machines into service. Work is also underway on hydrogen-powered ships in the ports of Delfzijl and Lauwersoog. While in early 2020, test trials were conducted with the hydrogen-powered train on the route between Groningen and Leeuwarden. “These tests are already a great success,” says Homan. “We are proving that it can be done. We’re setting out a perspective and showing that there are solutions to resolve the climate crisis.” And of course, for Groningen specifically: “That we are doing something about the extraction of gas.”

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    Going green can be done in different ways – with or without hydrogen. In any event, according to Homan, hydrogen will have to play a major role in the energy supply over the coming decades. Some sectors can only be made greener with the help of hydrogen. The question is, however, whether hydrogen will play the biggest role in the province’s mobility over the coming years.

    As such, the hydrogen-powered train could therefore go either way in the next few years. “It may well be the case that the train will be running regularly in a few years’ time. But it may also be that the railroad will be electrified and will consequently become more sustainable that way,” says Luuk Buit, hydrogen project manager at the Province of Groningen. “At the moment, in any case, we think that hydrogen is a good solution for long-distance transport in outlying areas.”

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    Luuk Buit

    Thinking big

    Scaling up: This is the next step in the process of making hydrogen attractive for the market. It is also what Homan is looking forward to most in the near future. “It will only become interesting once we start using green hydrogen on a grand scale. If we scale up energy generation at sea and feed it into the grid, then the cost price will drop.” At the moment the cost price is between 5 and 10 euros per kilogram. How much will it have to drop to be able to compete with natural gas? “To below 2 euros per kilogram, that is when it becomes really attractive.”

    All the pieces of the puzzle have to fit

    For the large-scale deployment of hydrogen to go smoothly, a great deal needs to change across the entire chain, from production at Eemshaven, to its application in mobility and industry. “It’s really a bit of a new way of collaborating and a new way of doing politics,” says Homan. “As a government, you have to have the nerve to tackle the whole chain. So far, we have shown with hydrogen that this holistic way of cooperation really works.”

    Collaborating with knowledge institutions from the North of the Netherlands ensures that the hydrogen project will have the wind in its sails. “For example, we are working with the Hanze University of Applied Sciences and the University of Groningen (RUG) and with New Energy Coalition,” says Buit. “Hydrogen and greening are high on the priority list.” The Province also works a lot with companies like Gasunie and Groningen Seaports. At the end of last year, dozens of companies and governments drew up the Investment Plan for Hydrogen North Netherlands. “By working together, we can really make significant progress and put innovations into practice. The lead time between thinking and acting has become much shorter and that is something that we really need in the current climate crisis.”

    ‘Fingers crossed for a green government’

    And it’s not just the regional grid that is important here. “Let’s keep our fingers crossed for a green government,” says Homan. After all, Groningen can’t afford for the new cabinet to start tampering with climate targets. “I think we, as the Netherlands, can become the ‘land of hydrogen’, but then we have to set clear goals for the reduction of CO2.”

    For one thing, there is a need to think about how green hydrogen can compete with fossil sources nationwide, Buit adds. “At the moment, even if we were to have a free factory, hydrogen cannot yet compete with natural gas because of the cost of electricity. Also, CO2 emissions still only have a slight influence on the current price of natural gas. That does not mean it is a hopeless cause. But there has to be more to it than just a bag of money to build a hydrogen plant.” Buit is thinking of an ‘exploitation subsidy.’ As in, money that a producer will receive for each volume of hydrogen produced, just like green electricity. “That’s one step you should go through in order to make it a success.”

    Then, as the government takes steps to meet its climate goals, the rest of the country is bound to follow, Homan predicts. “We should not underestimate what it does to people when you, as a government, show that it really is possible. If your neighbor has solar panels on their roof, people tend to quickly think: if they can do it, then I can do it too.” If the government can appeal to people’s imagination, steps are quickly taken after that. “I firmly believe in that.”

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