Het waterstof-tankstation van Jan Paul Kerkhof in Den Haag.

Het waterstof-tankstation van Jan Paul Kerkhof in Den Haag. © Michiel Wijnbergh / ANP

Brussels wants to saddle Europe up with useless hydrogen filling stations

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A pump station every 150 kilometers, where you can fill up with hydrogen. The European Commission hopes that this will encourage the use of the energy carrier. But with the hydrogen revolution nowhere in sight, the EU executive’s plans could well prove to be an expensive disappointment.

This article in 1 minute
  • Expectations for hydrogen as a solution for more environmentally friendly passenger transport are high. Too high, many experts say. Before it can be used as a source of green energy, for instance in car engines, several steps are required, which make the energy carrier relatively expensive and inefficient for large-scale 'small' implementation.
  • Hydrogen is still very promising for industrial processes and heavy freight traffic, for example. But it seems increasingly unlikely that it will cause a revolution on the road, especially now that electric cars are becoming more efficient, cheaper and therefore more accessible to a larger audience.
  • However, the European Commission remains committed to an enormous growth of hydrogen traffic along European roads. Over the coming years, the Commision wants to see about 2,000 hydrogen filling stations built in Europe, so that one can fuel up with hydrogen every 150 kilometers. The estimated cost: 800 million euros per year.
  • This is remarkable, because experts have calculated that if the current trend continues, in eight years, a maximum of 66 stations in Europe would be needed. Still, anyone who wants a hydrogen car or filling station can count on about 80 per cent of their cost covered by European subsidies.
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‘Hydrogen is the missing link in the energy transition.’ Jan Paul Kerkhof sits in his cluttered little office, above the filling station he owns. A moment ago, the entrepreneur from the Hague was showing off his cheerfully colored hydrogen pump: a taxi driver happened to be refuelling. Kerkhof says he was one of the first to embrace the energy carrier, when he realised that the days of using fossil fuels would come to an end.

​So far, however, the hydrogen era has failed to get off the ground. There are hardly any vehicles driving around on the odourless, colourless and highly flammable gas. ‘I’m not making any profit,’ Kerkhof admits. In fact, he needed lots of subsidies to install his hydrogen installation.

Fortunately for him, in recent years, plenty of funds were available. ‘I received a subsidy for 80 per cent of the costs. Half of this came from Europe, and the other half was co-financing from the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management,’ says Kerkhof. ‘There was no business case, so, without the European subsidies, nothing would get off the ground.’

The installation cost 1.75 million euros. Kerkhof’s company received over 1.1 million euros in European subsidies. 700,000 for the pump and almost 400,000 for the purchase of 19 hydrogen cars, which he leases to a taxi company. This way, Brussels money ensures both supply and demand.

Subsidiëren van waterstoftankstations

According to data on EU subsidies granted since 2007, the European Union has been encouraging the construction of hydrogen filling stations since 2011. Follow the Money collected and analysed the data. It concerns 37 projects, with the aim of constructing 214 pumping stations. In total, these projects received more than 400 million euros. That money was not exclusively spent on setting up filling stations. Some went to the purchase of cars and buses that run on hydrogen.

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Policy makers hope that hydrogen will further boost greening. Road traffic is responsible for 20 per cent of CO2 emissions in Europe. Vehicles running on hydrogen do not emit any greenhouse gases; their exhaust emits only water vapour. The energy carrier can therefore play a role in achieving the climate targets. For this, hydrogen needs to be produced 'green', with renewable energy, and not from natural gas, as is currently the case.

However, the use of hydrogen for transport and transportation is controversial, mainly because of the waste of energy involved. According to calculations by car manufacturer Volkswagen, during production through electrolysis, almost half is lost. Half again disappears when converting hydrogen into electricity to power the car engine. Below the line, only 25 to 35 per cent of the energy is left. At 70 to 80 per cent, electric cars boast a much higher energy efficiency.

Kerkhof says that the discussion in the field of mobility is polarised. ‘There are believers and non-believers. And you’ve got a few screamers, the Tesla fans who rail against hydrogen, but why? It’s like a bunch of Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are convinced only they are right.’ Not only Tesla fans are picking on hydrogen, Tesla boss Elon Musk also openly hates it. He never misses an opportunity to call the energy carrier astonishingly silly or stupid.

In addition to the lack of efficiency, there is another problem. Hydrogen generated from renewable energy sources is in short stock, and is needed to make industries greener that cannot or can hardly be electrified: refineries, steel factories, fertilizer production, aviation, and shipping. The high temperatures required to melt steel cannot be generated with electricity. The batteries needed for long-haul flights are too heavy for aircraft.

The so-called Hydrogen Ladder provides insight into the areas where hydrogen is indispensable and those where better alternatives are available. Passenger cars running on hydrogen are way down at the bottom of this ladder; electric cars are an excellent and cheaper alternative. 

There may well be a business case for heavy transport over long distances, especially now that fuel prices are reaching record highs. Moreover, hydrogen has another advantage. A truck that runs on electricity needs to be stationary for half an hour while the battery is being charged, whereas refuelling with hydrogen only takes a few minutes.

Hydrogen stars

‘Let’s reach for the stars, because the stars are made of hydrogen.’ Climate commissioner Frans Timmermans left little room for doubt about his ambitions last year, during his speech at a conference of the European Commission and the hydrogen industry. Installing hundreds of hydrogen filling stations is part of Timmerman's ambitious plans..   

​There are currently 161 hydrogen filling stations in Europe, of which almost a hundred are located in Germany. That country is very enthusiastic about the energy carrier. However, this required a significant amount of funding. Almost all German pumping stations where hydrogen is available are operated by H2 Mobility, a consortium that, among others, includes oil companies Shell, TotalEnergies, and OMV. So it’s their filling stations where hydrogen is for sale. Between 2014 and 2020, the consortium participated in two major projects, co-financed by the EU, for which Brussels provided a total of 45 million euros in grants.

​The Netherlands follows Germany at a distance, with a meagre 9 hydrogen pumping stations, but this does make it the number two in the EU. The contrast with the rest of the continent is great. There are zero or fewer than ten hydrogen-powered cars in 18 of the 27 EU countries. Over half of the Member States do not have a single filling station.

All this needs to change soon. If Brussels gets its way, in eight years, there will be almost two thousand filling stations. Along Europe’s main highways, they want one every 150 kilometers. In addition, there are hundreds of nodes that also need a hydrogen pumping station.

​It is unlikely that passenger cars will use this infrastructure. Apart from Hyundai and Toyota, there are no carmakers with plans to market hydrogen cars on a large scale. Last year, Volkswagen CEO Herbert Diess tweeted: ‘The hydrogen car is NOT the solution for the climate. [..] Listen to the science!’ Timmermans by now also realises that electric cars are going to win the battle, and that it is better to use the very limited available hydrogen for other purposes.

The Commission’s plan should make it possible for trucks to run on Timmermans' stardust. This was underlined last week, when the European Commission approved state aid to hydrogen projects by truck manufacturers Daimler Trucks and Iveco.

What logic is behind the construction of infrastructure when it is so uncertain whether there will be vehicles that can use it? Several researchers state that the substantiation of Brussels’ endeavour is downright shaky. ‘One caveat that we have is that not all road segments (of the Ten-T network) are the same. How many refuelling stations are built needs to be dependent on how many trucks drive on those roads,’ says Felipe Rodríguez of research bureau International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT).

Rodríguez calculated how many trucks will run on hydrogen in 2030, and on which roads these trucks will be found. He looked at current traffic flows and at the production plans of truck builders. His conclusion? In eight years’ time, only 66 pumping stations will be needed.

Even in the far future, hydrogen trucks will remain a niche or be superfluous

This is because many transporters, even when the infrastructure of filling stations is in place, will not opt ​​for hydrogen. ‘The trucking business is very tight in terms of profits. Truck operators are going to make very rational decisions when presented by a portfolio of possible technologies,’ says Rodríguez. ‘As we see it, for most uses the battery-electric truck will be the cheaper technology. It is likely to be the dominant technology.’

So, the European Commission is getting way ahead of itself. The numbers proposed by Brussels might be needed in the second half of the next decade, but certainly not in 2030. Even in the far future, hydrogen trucks will remain a niche, according to the ICCT researcher.

The Fraunhofer Institute in Karlsruhe, Germany, where a lot of research into hydrogen is  conducted, draws similar conclusions. The rapid developments in battery technology would even make hydrogen trucks ‘superfluous’.

Transport & Environment, a Brussels organisation that is committed to greening transport, does not want to go that far. But they do warn against the danger of ‘stranded assets’: gas stations that are worthless because no one uses them. Therefore, the organisation advises to only build stations where it is certain that they will be used. So perhaps in the Netherlands, Germany and other places where there is a lot of freight transport, but not in Greece, Finland, Ireland, or many other European countries where the demand for hydrogen will be nil.

Who pays the bill?

According to calculations carried out on behalf of the European Commission, realising Brussels’ ambition of 2,000 hydrogen filling stations by 2030 will require 800 million euros per year. Part of this, the committee believes half, will have to come in the form of subsidies, because building and operating a hydrogen filling station is not economically profitable. ‘That’s exactly why it’s so important to make the right decision,’ Rodríguez says. ‘Underutilised fueling stations are not profitable, so no one will want to get into that business.’

​And, the lower the private sector contribution, the higher the bill for the taxpayer. Money that will probably go mainly to companies like Shell and TotalEnergies, which have already bet on hydrogen for transport, and have many existing pumping stations along Europe's highways.

However, Brussels has no intention of changing course. When Follow the Money asks European Commissioner Timmermans whether it is really necessary to set up a gas station every 93 miles, his reaction is one of irritation. ‘I am convinced that hydrogen is the solution for those parts of transport and industry that find it difficult to reduce the use of fossil fuels and where electricity is not an option. Trucks require an infrastructure of hydrogen filling stations. The economic viability is potentially there, although it will depend on the choices and speed of truck manufacturers. I’m actually quite confident that it will work.’

‘Some politicians are listening too much to the fuels and hydrogen industry, and that’s reflected in some of the positions of policy makers’

Heavy transport is, according to the Commission, ‘the most likely sector where hydrogen vehicles will be used on a large scale’. And if there are not enough filling stations, there is ‘the risk that the European hydrogen targets will be jeopardised’.

Recently, these goals have been significantly increased, a direct result of the war in Ukraine, which is being used by Brussels to redouble their efforts regarding climate plans. ‘In order to replace Russian gas, we must supply, produce and use 20 megatons of green hydrogen in Europe by 2030,’ said Diederik Samsom, head of European Commissioner Timmermans’ cabinet. To compare, that amounts to the annual energy consumption of 9.5 million households.

However, Rodríguez suspects that other forces are at play. ‘Politicians are shaping the industrial landscape with the decisions they are making. And some politicians are listening too much to the fuels and hydrogen industry, that’s for sure,’ he says. ‘They have a powerful lobby, you see it reflected in some of the positions of policy makers.’

Lobby support

ACEA is one such influential lobbying club. Most major European car manufacturers and truck manufacturers, such as DAF, Scania, MAN, Iveco and Daimler, are members of this organisation. They would like to see filling stations built not every 150 but every 100 kilometers, and not by 2030 but as early as 2027. This while, currently, there are only pilot projects running and there are no concrete plans for large-scale production of hydrogen trucks.

Only Dutch company Holthausen is making good progress; it wants to build 500 trucks a year and later increase production to two thousand. But the truck manufacturers within ACEA seem to be waiting until the filling stations are built, before investing a lot of money.

The changes that the MEP-rapporteur proposed, correspond exactly to the wishes of the lobby

They can count on the support of the hydrogen lobby, in which companies that earn their money from selling and moving fossil fuels have an important voice. On April 27th of this year, the two most powerful lobbies wrote a letter to the transport ministers of all EU countries, MEPs and Commissioner Timmermans. They claimed there was a ‘lack of ambition’ and the proposed number of filling stations was ‘woefully insufficient to cover even the most basic demand’.

They can also count on support in the European Parliament. German MEP and avid supporter of hydrogen Ismail Ertug is the rapporteur for this issue. The changes that Ertug proposed to the European Commission’s plans, correspond exactly to the wishes of the lobby: a filling station every 100 kilometres by 2027.

​It will be hard for Ertug to convince his 704 colleagues in the European Parliament that this is necessary. From the hundreds of amendments submitted, one can conclude that many MEPs are no fans of the high ambitions. They argue for less strict obligations. Ertug can count on the support of his own party, the Social Democratic SPD, and the Christian Democratic European People’s Party (EPP). The S&D, to which the SPD belongs, and the EPP are the two largest groups in the European Parliament.

So, the car and hydrogen industry are trying to boost their ambitions with the help of an influential MEP. But the governments in the European capitals have no intention of cooperating. On May 25th of this year, the EU countries published their joint negotiating position. In it, they emphasise that there are hardly any hydrogen vehicles on the road and it is very uncertain whether that will change.

‘There is understandable opposition from countries that do not see a lot of traffic that will employ such a capacity of hydrogen,’ said Rodríguez. The counter-proposal is to set up a hydrogen filling station every 200 kilimoters, along a much smaller number of roads, and to see whether it is even necessary in a few years’ time.

It will take at least six months before it is clear how many filling stations there will be in the future. First, the European Parliament has to take a position, likely in September, and then negotiations will follow, during which the transport ministers, the Commission and the European Parliament will have to fight it out among themselves.

In the office above the filling station in the Hague, entrepreneur Jan Paul Kerkhof, who received 1.4 million in subsidies for the construction of a hydrogen installation, believes that society must accept that costly mistakes will be made during the energy transition. ‘Investing in hydrogen is risky, I don’t want to beat about the bush. But the problem is that our society is terrified of making mistakes. We’re anxious, we don’t want anybody to ever get hurt, we don't accept risks any more. Yeah, you’ll occasionally guess wrong, but sometimes you have to take risks.’

In collaboration with Adriana Homolova
Translation by Chris Kok