Ever experienced a similar situation? You’ve been following the same principles for years and you always think you’re doing exactly the right thing. But then one day you realize that something doesn’t feel right and you need to ask yourself: Have you strayed from your path or have the circumstances changed?
This is how it must have felt like for the avid supporters of solar energy: At the beginning, they were visionaries intending on saving the world through clean energy. And then all of a sudden, they were starting to get vilified as the ones enriching themselves and causing the rise in power prices.
Some of them may be rightly blamed for having abandoned their principles over the years. But there have always been others who stayed true to their values, but were put in a difficult position because of changing circumstances.
How many people are or were part of one group or the other I cannot say and it’s not the point I’m trying to make either. The more important question is whether hydrogen and fuel cell technology as well as electric transportation have gradually gone down the same path. How far have we already strayed from our ideals?
There actually are still some inventors and tinkerers left who had already developed catalytic hydrogen combustors many years ago, who converted the trunk of their Fiat 500 models into a storage area for oversized power converters and travelled across Germany, or who are still reporting today about the efficiency gains of fuel cells day in and day out. But the question is: What happened to all the platforms on which they could turn their ideas into projects?
Twenty years ago, the Germany Hydrogen Association was a network of researchers who founded an organization which welcomed both visionaries and pragmatists (see DWV Celebrates 20th Anniversary in Berlin). Its members have worked tirelessly time and again to make people aware of hydrogen and the potential it offers. Their efforts certainly paid off: The association grew, made fuel cells part of its name, and increasingly focused its activities on the fields of new members.
Although numerous individuals (currently, more than 200) remain part of the DWV, its policy focus has shifted mainly to accommodate today’s 88
companies. Since companies and organizations pay considerably more member fees than individuals, business interests have been pushed to the forefront, now more than ever.
This kind of thematic shift seemed to have clearly been intended by the board of the DWV, as physicist Johannes Töpler, who had been at the helm of the association for ten years, was followed in the 2014 elections by Werner Diwald, a business college graduate. Since then, the association’s activities have revolved less around technology and more around policy, something which isn’t that surprising given the nature of a lobbying association.
Now, the crucial question for the DWV is how successfully it will be in balancing effective lobbying and vision-driven activities.
Should the organization become more business-focused by setting up its own office and hiring staff for it? This would require changes in membership fees, as the current annual budget has already been proven woefully insufficient for publicity events. Or should it try and establish new industry committees to rake in money?
To “buy access“ to politicians and pay for the implementation of one’s own interests may be a day-to-day activity of some companies and may also not be atypical for a lobbying association. But it runs the risk of creating conflicts of interest and undercutting transparency, the small extent of which has already been criticized by some members.
Whatever plans management and members have for the future – the time until the next board election should be used sensibly. One day there will be a generational transition on the board, and at the latest by then will we see how close to the industry and how much of a visionary organization DWV has become.
Someday, we will have to answer one question: Are we still following our principles or have we long since thrown our original intentions and ideals under the bus to follow other goals? Depending on what decisions are made today, hydrogen could later suffer the same fate as the solar and wind energy industry, which have had their image greatly tarnished within a few years. Or it could follow a development similar to the computer, Internet and smartphone, which undoubtedly have had a great impact on people’s lives.