The weekend read: ‘Hydrogen is the flagship of the energy transition’

Ankica Kovač


From pv magazine 07/2021

Your laboratory at the University of Zagreb has its own solar power plant and green hydrogen production – what is the nature of your research there?

This solar power plant, which I am very proud of, is installed on the roof of the Power Engineering Laboratory and serves for green hydrogen production. The electrolyzer is installed in the first Croatian hydrogen refueling station, located in front of my lab. With a pressure of 30 bar, this HRS (Hydrogen Refueling Solution) serves the first Croatian hydrogen-powered bicycle, which was also developed in my lab.

At the moment I am working on improving the system of green hydrogen production via solar electrolysis. This implies both fundamental and development research in the new design of electrolyzer stack of improved efficiency, as well as applied research on commercially available system components such as PEM (polymer electrolyte membrane) electrolyzer stack, PEM fuel cell stack, and hydrogen storage tank. Also, a novel system component that attracted my attention recently is the electrochemical hydrogen compressor. It operates similarly to a PEM electrolyzer in the context of the membrane, but as the technology is so new, I am still learning. But novel innovation like this compressor is exactly why I am so passionate about hydrogen technology; it opens a large space for the realization of great research curiosity.

You’re a guest editor for the International Journal of Hydrogen Energy. In your recent “Hydrogen in energy transition: A review” article, you tracked the progress of green hydrogen. How would you say the technology and its applications currently stand? And where do you see it in the near future?

According to the EU hydrogen strategy, the key to an accelerated transition to renewable energy sources (RES) is energy storage, and especially green hydrogen storage. If hydrogen systems were built next to the systems that use RES, the surplus electricity from RES variability and intermittency could be stored. Future production, according to current projections, is still from solar and wind energy, but the compensation for variability goes to hydrogen. The energy transition to RES is urgently needed on a large scale due to the threat of climate change, and it can be accelerated by reliance on mass green hydrogen production.

In the near future I expect some expansion of green hydrogen-powered FCEVs, as well as the replacement of natural gas with green hydrogen in steel production, fertilizer production, and, in part, for heating buildings where justified. Green hydrogen will also be used in the production of synthetic fuels for aircraft and ships.

Hydro bike
Kovač’s lab developed Croatia’s first hydrogen-powered bicycle.Image: Ankica Kova

Croatia is in the process of implementing a national hydrogen strategy. What will the green hydrogen market look like in Croatia compared to other European nations?

The government established an expert working group of 11 members to draft a proposal for the Croatian Hydrogen Strategy.

The strategy will give a national vision of development, research, production, infrastructure, and the use of hydrogen and hydrogen technology, with the goal to contribute to climate neutrality by 2050, as well as national targets related to the development of infrastructure for alternative fuels. The goal of the strategy is the decarbonization of hydrogen production and the use of green hydrogen as a substitute for fossil fuels. Croatia’s hydrogen strategy will send a clear message to all those interested in investing in hydrogen technology that the state is on their side.

I believe that Croatia can find its place in the hydrogen energy economy in all four areas of hydrogen technology, from production, through storage to transport and the use of green hydrogen. I have stated many times and I repeat it now: The current situation is such that Croatian companies with investments in green hydrogen cannot make a mistake. Among other things, I would like to emphasize the possibility of involving Croatian companies in the equipment production sector (such as electrolyzers and fuel cells, valves, measuring and control equipment, sensors, etc.) which would ensure the rise of the Croatian economy on the European and world market stage. Here I would especially like to point out shipbuilding with hydrogen as a propellant and electric propulsion (hydrogen fuel cells plus electric motors) in maritime transport. It is still a relatively undeveloped area [hydrogen ships] and I am sure that Croatia has a lot to offer. Now we have an extraordinary opportunity to create a Croatian hydrogen brand. The only thing we have to do at this time is to be brave: dare to sail in these, for Croatian companies, slightly unknown waters, and the result will not be missed.

On the world stage, the demand for hydrogen systems is currently such that soon the existing production capacities will not be able to meet all the demand. If that’s not a good enough invitation for our companies, then I don’t know what is.

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What do you see as the biggest challenge for the development of green hydrogen?

The biggest challenge I see is that the consequences of global temperature increase above 2°C have not been adequately presented to the public. Education at all levels should not be neglected. People need to know what is happening, why it is happening, and what the possible exits are. It must be explained how and why hydrogen technology is replacing fossil fuel-based technologies and what the price of hesitation is.

How do you currently see the green hydrogen economy? Will it be a case of countries like Saudi Arabia and Australia becoming export superpowers because of their solar advantage compared to countries in, say, Northeast Asia and Europe?

The key to establishing a green hydrogen economy is mass green hydrogen production. Mass production requires cost reduction, functionality and predictability for investment, and it requires a comprehensive regulatory framework. Of course, it also requires sufficient additional RES and the associated transmission infrastructure to the hydrogen production site. For the EU to compete it will need to implement the missing infrastructure as soon as possible.

According to some research, by 2050 RES could make up 100% of primary energy sources in the EU, of which green hydrogen could make up 20% to 30%. The current price is not attractive at all (€2.50–€5.50/kg), while the cost of producing hydrogen from fossil fuels is about €1.50/kg.

European production of green hydrogen may not in itself be sufficient to meet European demand because the decarbonization of some sectors will require large amounts of green hydrogen. We already have negotiations between countries such as Germany and Morocco, Portugal and the Netherlands, Australia with Asian countries, etc. In the meantime, Australia, Saudi Arabia, and Chile are aiming to become the world’s export superpowers of green hydrogen. Green hydrogen should become an integral part of EU international cooperation in general, including climate diplomacy.

You’re a great proponent of hydrogen transportation – I’m thinking of the H2LAB project. You were also part of the team that installed Croatia’s first hydrogen refueling station. How will green hydrogen change the transport industry?

Yes, I am the leader of several projects with an impact on the introduction of hydrogen technology on all levels. One of these is the H2LAB project that is funded by Croatian Science Foundation. It is focused on advanced methods of green hydrogen production and its transportation. Such projects include the first Croatian hydrogen-powered bicycle, the first Croatian hydrogen refueling station, and the Croatia Mirai Challenge, a road trip from Zagreb to Brussels to raise awareness about CO2-free transport. This was the first time that FCEV was driven on Croatian roads. I’m proud to have been behind the wheel.

Hydrogen propulsion is being introduced in all segments of transport, road, rail and sea, and hydrogen technology has gone so far that today there are also ultra-light fuel cells and hydrogen tanks used in aircraft and drones.

What’s next for green hydrogen?

If we look at the EU hydrogen strategy, it is mass production realized by electrolyzers utilizing RES. It is hydrogen storage realized in high-pressure tanks, and it is the conversion of hydrogen into electricity carried by fuel cells. Green hydrogen has the potential to be a great alternative especially since it can be stored in large quantities over a long period of time, and thus can bridge seasonal fluctuations in demand. Hydrogen can be transported by trucks, ships, or pipelines, allowing energy from RES to be stored where it is most efficient. Hydrogen also allows long-distance transportation and energy integration without overloading the power grid.

In order to reduce the cost of green hydrogen and for optimization purposes, research, development, and innovation are needed throughout the value chain. We also need industry-level demonstration projects to be able to apply hydrogen-based solutions to in-demand sectors. In the first period from 2020 to 2024, the strategic goal is to install at least 6 GW of electrolyzers in the EU to produce up to one million tons of green hydrogen. Given the extreme decline in electrolyzer prices, it is estimated that by 2030, green hydrogen will be price competitive to hydrogen produced from fossil fuels, and this is why hydrogen is the flagship of the energy transition.

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