Directional decision

These days, hydrogen has become a focal point of discussion in Germany and at the highest echelons of the European Union. Gradually, the energy carrier is getting the attention it deserves. At last, despite the roadblocks, a breakthrough is imminent.

You can almost hear the sigh of relief currently going through the hydrogen community. Although there was no big bang moment, there are telltale signs that something, actually a lot, will be happening soon.

And yet, that progress also acts like a magnet, attracting those who showed barely any interest in the gas for years but now want to take the lead in setting up a market. To the chagrin of quite a few, some of the people that were appointed to the National Hydrogen Council (see p. 10) will be involved in high-level decisions on matters they know rather little about.

However, the council is only one example of how some who could be seen delaying and slowing down advances in the hydrogen and fuel cell sector suddenly want to influence decision-making and benefit from current enthusiasm.

We have reached the point at which a growing number of visionaries are being replaced with business managers. It is a scenario all too familiar to anyone who has ever worked in the solar or wind energy industry. There, it took idealists years to build up something that was later taken over by those aiming to generate as much profit as they can.

You need to look no further than the German hydrogen and fuel cell association DWV (see p. 8) to feel a sense of déjà vu. A handful of seasoned volunteers, who, decade after decade, put every effort into making the association what it is today, said they would not run for their seats again. Others announced that their candidacy would depend on the direction of the new board. When you read these lines, the organization’s annual general meeting in Hamburg will likely already have taken place, and you may know which path the DWV has decided to take and who will be in charge.

The above is not to say that paying management and welcoming people with know-how is something that needs to be opposed. Drawing on their expertise, industrial representatives can provide valuable input to the council and the DWV, and any association that wants to succeed these days needs a host of full-time employees. Still, you may wonder how many long-held beliefs will need to be sacrificed in an effort to shape the future. Is working for the betterment of society a goal that all, in particular non-profits, can hold on to? Or will the new objective be to maximize the returns a select few could reap?

Similarly, there is the question of which technology should take priority and why. A study by the German machinery and industrial equipment association VDMA noted that fuel cell systems require more parts than all-electric equipment (see p. 44). As a result, they would add more value than batteries, most of which are imported from Asia anyway. The economy, the study said, would thus get a bigger boost if the auto industry, the machinery sector’s largest customer domestically, focused on FCEVs, not BEVs, for the simple reason that Germany could create more value and revenues this way.

This goes to show that businesses, as well as their representatives, seem to think protecting us and our surroundings, or, more specifically, all of humanity and nature, is of secondary importance and that their main aim is to continue business as usual while pursuing ever-higher living standards and earnings.

The outbreak of Covid-19 around the globe has proved how such an approach quickly reaches its limits. In a globalized world, in which just-in-time production is the norm and processes run at peak efficiency, little attention is being given to a growing world population and the natural environment surrounding us. This makes it now more important than ever to think sustainably.

Anyone who believes the only thing that matters is the German machinery industry’s competitiveness should think about what we will be in for if we stall the advance of new, disruptive technology only to keep the current system going for a few more years. If the main argument in favor of fuel cells is that they have more in common with ICEs than BEV motors – in other words, that they are more complex than batteries – then we should say goodbye to fuel cell stacks right here, right now.

Whoever supports fuel cells in order to keep selling conventional technology has not understood how crucial a complete and immediate transformation of the energy market really is.

Fortunately, there are those whose aim is not to maximize profits at every turn, who seek harmony and a clean, sustainable economy that will be a boon to humanity and our environment. And sure enough, fuel cells also offer real advantages, making them a suitable choice in many markets, such as the truck sector (see p. 31).

To make a long story short: Let us seize current opportunities but avoid past mistakes. It would really be a pity if we missed this unique chance for transformative change. Both Germany and Europe could show the world that a fully renewable energy system is no longer just a work in progress.

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