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Wissing releases former NOW chief from duties

By Sven Geitmann

April 15, 2024

Image titel: Klaus Bonhoff at Hannover Messe 2023

Sources: Sven Geitmann

Wissing releases former NOW chief from duties

Background to the Bonhoff/BMDV split

Things had quietened down on the Bonhoff front. But then new information surfaced in February 2024 which prompted German transportation minister Volker Wissing to take action. On Feb. 15, he released Klaus Bonhoff, head of the policy issues department, from his duties with immediate effect and also moved a divisional head. The reason behind the decision lies in a discrepancy uncovered during an internal review undertaken by the transportation ministry, also known as the BMDV. The affair gained added force when German news magazine Der Spiegel reported on Feb. 20 that Wissing had stopped “completely the approval of hydrogen funding.” Yet in reality funding is not being axed. The ministry is merely carrying out reassessments that could lead to a delay.

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But one thing at a time. In this article we’ll attempt to shed light on who did what to whom as well as how and when it all happened.

It started back in summer 2023 when German business paper Handelsblatt published an article about a questionable friends and lobbying network. The suspicion of nepotism that was raised on various sides was based on the alleged existence of an overly cozy network of contacts linking a number of different political and industry figures. Bonhoff was reproached for his reported friendship with Werner Diwald, chairman of the German hydrogen association, and its president, Oliver Weinmann, both of whom he allegedly joined on a ski trip. What’s more, it was claimed that Bonhoff helped the German hydrogen association, abbreviated to DWV, to gain funding in 2021.

Stefan Schnorr, state secretary at the German transportation ministry, was tasked with clarifying the facts and, according to Der Spiegel, gave the all-clear a few weeks later, stating there was “No trace of favoritism.” At the same time, Bonhoff received broad support, particularly from the hydrogen sector.

Everything bubbled up again in early 2024 when Der Spiegel quoted parts of an email exchange between Bonhoff and Diwald (see freedom of information website www.fragdenstaat.de). This apparently substantiated a high degree of closeness and familiarity between the two men.

Inconsistencies and contradictions

In fact, what the disclosed emails show is that certain wishes and views regarding funding measures had been articulated on the part of the DWV. For example, Werner Diwald wrote in September 2021: “In view of the upcoming elections it would certainly be good for grant approval to be given before the end of this legislative period.” (Der Spiegel, Feb. 6, 2024)

This prompted Bonhoff to forward the email to the appropriate specialist department at the transportation ministry where he inquired after the state of affairs, according to the statement he gave to H2-international. As Der Spiegel and Tagesspiegel Background, another German publication, both reported, he also “orally supported” the project. However, given this expression of support was previously denied, this admission could now cause no end of trouble for the ministry.

LobbyControl then took it as proof that favoritism was indeed at play. On Feb. 16, 2024, the online platform stated that days before the ministry had conceded there were “inconsistencies and contradictions” in the allocation of funding and that is why minister Wissing relieved department head Klaus Bonhoff from his duties.

“The necessary relationship of trust between the minister and the head of department no longer exists.”

Stefan Schnorr, state secretary at the German transportation ministry, in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ)

Furthermore, LobbyControl criticizes what it sees as the inadequacy of compliance rules at the transportation ministry and Bonhoff’s lack of a clear-cut separation between his personal and official contacts when it comes to grant allocation.

Overly cozy network?

Klaus Bonhoff, who is also known as “Mister Hydrogen” due to his extensive experience in leadership roles in the H2 and fuel cell sector, had previously worked for many years on fuel cell cars at Daimler before becoming managing director of Germany’s National Organisation Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technology, or NOW, in 2008 (see HZwei, April 2011 & H2-international, October 2019). From there he transferred to his post at the German transportation ministry. His successor at NOW since May 2020 has been Kurt-Christoph von Knobelsdorff (see H2-international, February 2021).

Thanks to his considerable expertise, he was a popular and long-standing contributor at numerous industry events since he was well known as an adept public speaker with a skill for highly diplomatic and precise wording. It’s understandable that the DWV in particular wanted to get close to him given that the association comprises many major German industrial corporations from the H2 community and Bonhoff, in his role as NOW spokesman, was the main point of contact for funding applications in the hydrogen sector. However, the responsibility for awarding funds, both then and now, lies with the project management agency Jülich (PtJ).

The DWV’s role

Over the years, the DWV has developed – especially under the leadership of Werner Diwald – from a highly committed body of motivated idealists to an industrial lobbying group. Because of this change, some of the original members who prefer an idealistic approach have turned their back on the association in the past few years. Some of them have urged repeatedly for less dependency on industry and greater levels of transparency. Most recently, Johannes Töpler, who was a long-serving chairman of the DWV, resigned from his post as the DWV’s education officer at the turn of the year. Among the reasons for his resignation was that he no longer thought education and training, a crucial area in his view, was receiving the appropriate attention and appreciation it deserved within the work of the association.

In terms of legal form, the DWV is officially a registered association. Over the years, Diwald has worked to set up various expert commissions to which participating companies pay high-level contributions. This enables the DWV to represent their interests, including on the political stage in Berlin and Brussels. As such, political evenings and business talks are organized on a regular basis where political and industry representatives can meet, as commonly occurs in associations nowadays. One of these expert commissions, HyMobility, was awarded millions of euros in funding in 2021 via the PtJ, i.e., from the transportation ministry’s budget, something which Bonhoff is now being reproached for.

The ministry confirmed to H2-international: “The HyMobility innovation cluster is supported by the Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure as part of the national hydrogen and fuel cell innovation program. The grant is up to €1,438,600. The calculation is based on actual expenditure up to the maximum grant level. […] The HyMobility cluster is financed through grants, contributions for cluster membership, and a proportion of the membership contributions of the DWV. […] The funding project facilitates cluster management, cluster coordination, the support and guidance of the expert commission’s work as well as the preparation of findings from the expert commission and from the expert committees and the provision of recommended courses of action to meet further development needs. In addition, the funding covers the venues for cluster meetings, the creation of studies and analyses as well as technical and legal reports. […] The funding is allocated for specific purposes.”

HyMobility’s aims, according to its project outline, include: “Involvement in the formulation of relevant policy and legal conditions at a national and European level for the market preparation and introduction of low-carbon mobility based on renewable hydrogen. […] the creation and strengthening of understanding for and trust in innovative and low-emission vehicle technology based on renewable hydrogen within transport and national and European politics.”

In connection with this, the DWV confirmed to H2-international that the goals of the expert commissions are to “attract attention for the particular topic, raise awareness, bring together stakeholders from the relevant areas and sectors, prepare joint positions and recommend courses of action to policymakers.

LobbyControl makes the following criticism in relation to this: “It is unusual and questionable that an industrial lobbying association such as the DWV should receive a state subsidy for work that it would carry out regardless: maintaining networks and lobbying.”

“The HyMobility project is supported by the Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure through a total of EUR 1.8 million in funding as part of the national hydrogen and fuel cell innovation program. The funding guidelines are coordinated by NOW GmbH and executed by the project management agency Jülich (PtJ).”

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          https://dwv-hymobility.de/organisation/

Bonhoff told H2-international: “HyMobility is funded in the same way that the environment ministry funds the HySteel project which was approved prior to HyMobility.” Tagesspiegel Background reported on this very subject on Feb. 7, 2024: “The ministry [German environment ministry; editor’s note] is satisfied with the project. ‘Such networking is effective and successful, is conducive to the sharing of best practice and the establishment of horizontal and vertical partnerships in research, testing and production.’”

Among the 22 members of HyMobility are NOW and H2 Mobility Deutschland. H2 Mobility is a consortium of various automotive, industrial gas and petroleum companies plus an investment fund focused on the construction of hydrogen refueling stations in Germany. Practically every station that is built and managed by this Berlin-based company is subsidized to the tune of nearly 50 percent from European funds or the funds of German central or regional government. One of the three directors is Lorenz Jung (see H2-international, October 2023), who took up the role in April 2023. According to information from LobbyControl, he is the son-in-law of Oliver Weinmann. Jung, whose wife (Weinmann’s daughter) works at NOW in the communications department, has been a manager at the company virtually since its inception.

The roles of Weinmann and Diwald

Weinmann is a founder and board member of what was then the German hydrogen and fuel cell association (see HZwei, October 2010). Born in Hamburg, he had initially worked for city’s electricity company (Hamburgische Electricitäts-Werke or HEW) which was taken over by Swedish corporation Vattenfall Europe when it became the majority shareholder in 2001. Weinmann held the position of managing director at Vattenfall Europe Innovation GmbH from 2010 to July 2023, followed by head of innovation management at Vattenfall Europe AG. From 2020 onward he has also worked in a voluntary capacity as the president of the DWV. In addition, he is chairman of the NOW advisory council, vice chairman of the hydrogen body Wasserstoffgesellschaft Hamburg and holds or has held – according to his own HyAdvice website through which he offers freelance consulting services on matters including funding – further leadership positions at various organizations, among them Hydrogen Europe and the Energy Storage Systems Association or BVES.


Oliver Weinmann at a parliamentary evening in Berlin in 2022

Similar to the way Weinmann operates with his HyAdvice consulting business, Diwald offers his services through PtXSolutions, formerly known as ENCON.Europe. The company is the vehicle through which the DWV chairman provides consultation as a sideline to institutions such as the DWV, Encon Energy EOOD (ENCON subsidiary), Enertrag (former employer), NOW, Performing Energy (DWV think tank) and Vattenfall Europe Innovation. Originally, ENCON.Europe had undertaken some work for the DWV (see H2-international, October 2020). According to a statement by Diwald, ENCON.Europe at the time played a considerable part in increasing the visibility of the DWV without itself appearing in the limelight. He says the company positioned the DWV and the Performing Energy expert commission exclusively as brands in the political sphere and negotiated in the interests of the association. From 2017, the company’s staff included Dennitsa Nozharova, Werner Diwald’s wife, who at the same time also worked for the DWV and is also involved in Encon Energy EOOD.


Fig. 3: Werner Diwald has been DWV chairman since 2014

Performing Energy was the first expert commission that the DWV initiated in 2015 on the back of Warner Diwald’s efforts; Diwald himself had previously created this alliance for wind-based hydrogen systems in 2011 and taken up the position of its speaker (see HZwei, January 2012). Participating organizations include Enertrag and Vattenfall as well as other companies which are also involved in other groups within the network.

Werner Diwald addressed the situation regarding some association members by stating in an email seen by H2-international: “The media’s assumptions about a possible breach by the DWV of compliance rules in relation to the funding application made by the HyMobility innovation cluster are unfounded. […] There was no improper influence exerted by the DWV. The DWV does not accept funding to carry out its statutory activities. […] By virtue of the funding of the HyMobility innovation cluster by the BMDV, the DWV has clearly not placed itself in a position of dependence on the government.”

Furthermore, the DWV has yet to issue a public statement, with the exception of a communication disseminated to association members (as seen by H2-international). The message sent, at the end of February 2024, outlined that “initial measures” have been “immediately introduced” that “go beyond the content of the DWV’s ‘Code of Compliance’ in order to make a comprehensive review of the situation.” It goes on to say that the DWV executive committee has “immediately commissioned a comprehensive review of the DWV’s compliance rules and of external and internal processes and procedures in the context of funding applications and funding allocations.” This is to be carried out by Berlin law office Redeker Sellner Dahs.

H2 funding frozen?

The saga then reached its peak after Der Spiegel reported that the transportation minister had allegedly frozen all funding for H2 projects. According to the article, no more funding is to be approved for the sector for the time being and no further agreements are to be concluded. Even amendment notices will require approval at state secretary level, it said.

However, a press spokeswoman for the ministry clarified the issue at a press conference on Feb. 21, 2024, by stating that the ministry had “not stopped hydrogen funding per se” but is carrying out more thorough assessments of funding applications. These “are currently focused on the approvals procedure for the DWV’s HyMobility funding project.” Should relevant evidence be produced during the investigation, further funding projects will also be examined more closely if necessary.

The reason for this tightened approach seems to be the Brunner affair. It relates, among other things, to the email exchange that took place via a personal GMX account through which Klaus Bonhoff and others communicated with Bavarian businessman Tobias Brunner, managing director of Cryomotive and Hynergy and a key figure in establishing the hydrogen technology application center WTAZ in Pfeffenhausen. LobbyControl disapproves of this “use of a private email account for official communication” since it meant this email exchange was not known to the ministry’s internal review department and therefore could not be taken into consideration in its final report. In all, there are 14 gigabytes of data that require sifting, which explains why there is a delay in the processing of further approvals.

Author: Sven Geitmann

Germany | hydrogen | Sven Geitmann :Schlagworte

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