08 July 2021

Hydrogen strategy: on the starting blocks

With a budget of 7.2 billion euros, the recent formation of a national council federating all the manufacturers concerned, and the launch of numerous calls for projects, the French hydrogen strategy is on track. The trajectory is ambitious but all the lights are green. Taking stock with Philippe Boucly, President of France Hydrogène.

Philippe Boucly, President of France Hydrogène

Over the past two years, hydrogen has established itself as the energy of the future. In your view, what major advances should be highlighted?

First and foremost, the framework for implementing the hydrogen strategy is now in place. The Conseil National de l’Hydrogène (national hydrogen council) federates all the industrial stakeholders in the sectors concerned alongside the State: the automotive industry, but also construction, the steel industry, aeronautics, shipping, chemicals or rail. This body's mission is to measure the progress of planned actions, identify potential brakes and support collective projects that play a part in structuring a complete value chain in France or within the framework of European cooperation. It is the decision-making, active and monitoring body we needed to coordinate and accelerate the roll-out of our strategy.

The second point I would stress is the very strong industrial momentum observed following the launch of the strategy in September 2020, backing for 27 R&D and hydrogen technology integration projects accounting for €212 million of investments. 4 regions have obtained €300 million of funding to acquire hydrogen-powered trains. The first call-for-projects phase on “territorial ecosystems” has identified 7 projects for supporting hydrogen production through electrolysis and mobility for a total of €136 million, and for the second phase that ends in June we have already received nearly 50 projects.  

The acceleration we observe is accounted for by the enthusiasm aroused by low-carbon hydrogen in the context of the fight against global warming and post-pandemic economic stimulation. It is very encouraging and is confirmed by a recent Hydrogen Council survey, which shows that France is among the front runners of the most advanced countries in this field, along with Germany in Europe and China, South Korea and Japan in Asia, and that it has or will soon have all the critical technologies needed for its sovereignty and for swiftly scaling up.

 

France and Germany have campaigned at European level for an “important project of common European interest” (IPCEI). What will that change? In what way is it positive for the French strategy?

This IPCEI, which is currently being rolled out, is a key asset for accelerating the industrial momentum of hydrogen in France. Just like the one put in place for batteries, it will directly fund strategic industrial projects and support numerous “champions”. With France Hydrogène we have already identified 4 electrolyser production factory projects in France, accounting for a total power output of 3.2 GW, nearly 50% of the 2030 target set by the national strategy. As part of this IPCEI, they could be funded by the French State. When one wants to back a strategic sector, the impetus given by public stakeholders is essential, and recognizing hydrogen as an IPCEI will help circumvent certain European competition rules. The development of hydrogen will also help create jobs, which is one of the key areas of the strategy. We estimate that 120,000 to 150,000 jobs could be created in the hydrogen sector by 2030.

 

The hydrogen strategy is on track. And yet, what are the challenges we need to take up to guarantee its widespread and swift roll-out?

In my view there are three types of challenge. Firstly, a quantitative one, with the major challenge of scaling up. Whether it be electrolysis capacity or the number of hydrogen vehicles in France, to name but two, over the next 10 years we have to increase them one thousandfold, which in other words means doubling our capacities every year to hit the targets set by the strategy!

The second challenge consists in being wary of any ideology and in bearing in mind that the enemy is carbon dioxide. We therefore have to count not just on renewable energies but also on nuclear or hydroelectric energy for the production of low-carbon hydrogen.

The third challenge is ensuring that the national hydrogen strategy effectively contributes to the re-industrialization of our country. It is not just a matter of building electrolyser manufacturing plants but also of getting whole sections of our industry to switch to hydrogen, such as the iron and steel industry for instance. It's a complex project, as it faces numerous constraints.

 

To take up these challenges, what role can or should the Regional Councils play?

Their role is fundamental, and I applaud their engagement. We are seeing increasing momentum in several regions of France, with strategies and roadmaps involving very considerable amounts. This will be very useful in the phase that is starting now, for developing large-scale regional ecosystems, pooling practices and needs, cutting costs and making hydrogen available to as many people as possible. The Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, Normandy, Occitanie or even Auvergne Rhône-Alpes regions stand out in particular, as they started the learning process several years ago.

The regions are unquestionably the right level for backing consortia bringing together local authorities and manufacturers for supplying solutions in the territories. An example? The “Zero Emission Valley” project in the Rhône-Alpes, which aims to deploy 1,200 fuel cell vehicles and a network of charging stations, in close collaboration with companies like McPhy, Engie, Symbio, Atawey, Ergosup and Ad-Venta. 
That is why €275 million will be directed towards these “territorial hydrogen hubs”, backed by the regional councils, by 2023.

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