01 March 2021

Opening the hydrogen throttle

All lights are on green for hydrogen, the energy vector that’s set to decarbonize the economy and our ways of life. Ecosystems are taking shape, technologies becoming finely honed, funding being established. Green hydrogen now needs to work on its competitiveness—an objective that is achievable in the medium term with re-industrialization as the key.

From grey to green

Green hydrogen boasts many advantages and is carving out a place as a major lever in the fields of carbon-free mobility, storage of energy from inconstant renewable sources, and industrial processes. 
Although hydrogen is entirely carbon free in its use, it is currently produced by steam methane reforming, and methane is a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. In France, 96% of the so-called “grey” hydrogen used is made with this process. Green hydrogen, on the other hand, is directly obtained via electrolysis using electricity from renewables.
Technologies are continually improving, but green hydrogen production costs remain high—roughly €5/kg compared with grey hydrogen at €1.5/kg. It’s a comparable situation to that of photovoltaics 10 or 15 years ago; they were initially not very competitive but they eventually won their battle through heavy public support.


Looming on the horizon

The signals received from France’s economic restart plan, which earmarks €7.2bn for the sector covering the period to 2030, point to a possible 50% drop in the cost of production, storage, and distribution within the decade. It’s an objective shared by the Hydrogen Council, which considers that over the next five years this gas could become competitive in transportation—especially trains, road haulage, buses, taxis, and even ships—as well as for heating. By 2030, applications are envisaged for light haulage and industrial heating.

Auvergne Rhône Alpes in pole position

Almost 80% of France’s hydrogen ecosystem is concentrated in Auvergne Rhône Alpes, with cutting edge research bodies, competitiveness clusters, and businesses ranging from big industrial corporations to start-ups (CEA Liten, Tenerrdis, Air Liquide, Total, GRT Gaz, Sylfen, Ataway, HRS, Symbio, McPhy, and others).
Following a first series of demonstration models, this ecosystem of stakeholders has mobilized around the Zero Emission Valley project. The focus is on hydrogen mobility, upscaling to 20 operational filling stations and 1200 vehicles on the roads by 2023. 
The first of its kind in Europe, it represents a €70 million investment and brings together 55 companies, 26 research laboratories, and 8 local authority partners.
Two test stations are already open and a further five planned for the short term in Lyon, Grenoble, Moutiers, Clermont Ferrand, and Saint Exupéry. Every lever has been pulled in this roll-out. Hympulsion, a joint venture comprising partners from the public sector (Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region, Banque des Territoires) and private sector (Michelin, Engie, Crédit Agricole) has the mission of constructing and operating the infrastructures as well as uniting the sector and attracting users in the local environment of the stations. The priority target is utility vehicles and local captive businesses: taxi firms, repair services, etc., who have fleets that run constantly. On the vehicle side, Peugeot and Renault are developing ranges of hydrogen utility vehicles, due for release soon, that will enable fulfilment of some 480 pre-orders recorded by Hympulsion. 
This regional ambition supported by the Zero Emission Valley project is spreading: ski resorts are contemplating acquiring hydrogen-powered shuttles and snow groomers, conurbations want to boost the use of hydrogen to clean up their air, etc. Opportunities like these help kick-start the sector and favour the emergence of industrial solutions, like Symbio’s upcoming creation of a fuel cell factory in “Chemical Valley” (Saint Fons) along with 1,000 new jobs. Indeed, such massive re-industrial potential is another hydrogen promise. A good share of tomorrow’s green industrial jobs is being invented in this sector.

Sector taking shape

The massive government investment programme will enable an acceleration of R&D into production, storage, and transport technologies and the development of demonstration units. It will also provide a financial incentive for more intense use. The Auvergne Rhône Alpes region intends to exploit these opportunities to strengthen its position in hydrogen transportation and to develop applications in the industrial and building fields.
To do so, Auvergne Rhône Alpes can count on the brand-new local branch of France Hydrogen, directed by Elisabeth Logeais, executive officer at the Tenerrdis competitiveness cluster dedicated to energy renewables and the energy transition. Her mission will be to actively coordinate the sector and create bridges between stakeholders at the coalface, with a view to accelerating hydrogen project deployment in the region. She will be supported in this task by four deputy officers: Rémi Berger of CARA, Georges Seimandi of GRT Gaz, Emile Lacroix of Transdev, and Gilles Cachot of McPhy. Let there be no doubt: green hydrogen is on the right track!

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