Interview with Bart Biebuyck – Executive Director, Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking (FCH JU)

Home/News/Interview with Bart Biebuyck – Executive Director, Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking (FCH JU)

Interview with Bart Biebuyck – Executive Director, Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking (FCH JU)

What is the FCH JU and what is its mission/objectives?

The Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking was established by a Council Regulation on 30 May 2008 as a public-private partnership between the European Commission, European industry, and research organisations with the objective of accelerating the development and deployment of fuel cell and hydrogen technologies. Our strategic objective is to demonstrate by 2020 fuel cell and hydrogen technologies as one of the pillars of future European energy and transport systems, making a valued contribution to the transformation to a low carbon economy by 2050. Consequently, the FCH JU programme is built around two main research and innovation pillars. Pillar one – energy systems – covers fuel cells for both power and combined heat and power generation, hydrogen production and distribution, and hydrogen for renewable energy generation. The second pillar covers transport, specifically road vehicles, non-road mobile vehicles such as construction and material handling vehicles, refueling infrastructure, and maritime, rail, and aviation applications.

Initially operating under the Seventh Research Framework Programme (FP7), the first phase of the FCH JU ran for six years until 2014 with a total EU contribution of €470 million. Its success in supporting research, technological development and demonstration activities in fuel cell and hydrogen energy technologies in Europe was recognised with the decision to continue and extend funding under the EU Horizon 2020 Framework Programme. This latest phase, which will run until 2020, foresees an EU contribution of €665 million.


How is the EU supporting Fuel Cell micro-Cogeneration?

Since its establishment the FCH JU has provided support to stationary applications of fuel cells, including Fuel Cell micro-Cogeneration applications, under its energy pillar. FCH JU support to date amounts to €233 million or 32% of our total funding to date.

In the area of stationary applications of fuel cells, the FCH JU is supporting from research and development all the way to demonstration in real applications. Early research activities focused on activities at cell and stack level with the objective of extending fuel cell stack lifetime. In addition, research projects have been fundamental to enable cost reductions for technologies in the demonstration projects. Under the second phase, the FCH JU increased activities in diagnostics, materials and manufacturing methods.

Looking at Fuel Cell micro-Cogeneration technology validation, in 2010 the FCH supported a small field trial which saw around 65 Fuel Cell micro-Cogeneration units installed. Since then we have, and are still, supporting large-scale demonstration projects. Launched in 2012, the FCH JU-funded project ene.field has supported the installation of 1,046 Fuel Cell micro-Cogeneration units for residential and small commercial buildings across the EU. The project results have allowed the participating manufacturers to gain insights, refine their technologies and business models, and develop a track record of installations. Following a study commissioned by the FCH JU on “Stationary Applications of Fuel Cells”[1],  which confirmed the achievements and the roadmap for this technology, a number of ene.field manufacturers joined forces with other partners in PACE, a five-year project to bring Fuel Cell micro-Cogeneration technology closer to mass commercialisation. This project is again backed by the FCH JU and aims to install 2,650 units. It will allow manufacturers to scale-up production and improve further the durability of the fuel cells at the core of the units. This should also help to reduce the cost of production by a further 30-40 per cent.


What are the main benefits of Fuel Cell micro-Cogeneration?

Fuel Cell micro-Cogeneration is already making available highly efficient distributed energy solutions for heat and power generation near the point of consumption. At smaller (micro) size, units are typically installed in residential or small commercial buildings and are able to respond to demand for heating and hot water in buildings while generating electricity to replace or complement electricity supplied by the grid. Fuel cells produce electricity and heat from hydrogen, which Fuel Cell micro-Cogeneration units typically generate by internally transforming natural gas from the grid. Fuel Cell micro-Cogeneration is not only highly efficient but they also have zero or negligible impact on local air quality.  This is the case because fuel cells are electrochemical conversion devices and hence do not rely on combustion. This technology has the potential to support the EU climate and energy targets.  Compared to a state-of-the-art condensing boiler and grid power supply, Fuel Cell micro-Cogeneration units can reduce carbon dioxide emissions by at least 30% and in some cases by up to 80%.

Fuel Cell micro-Cogeneration is also a highly controllable electricity-generation solution. Therefore, in principle Fuel Cell micro-Cogeneration units (geographically) distributed could be clustered to constitute a single virtual power plant (VPP) controlled centrally. This concept could help utilities and grid operators overcome some of the main issues they are facing today such as managing the variability of renewable energy generation. This is yet to be demonstrated at large scale, i.e. VPPs with at least several hundred FC units

Finally, fuel cells are fuel flexible. Currently, Fuel Cell micro-Cogeneration runs mostly on natural gas. However, they are able to run on a variety of fuels including “green gases” such as biogas or hydrogen generated with renewables. In a scenario with a large penetration of green gases, fuel cells would offer zero carbon heat and power generation.


What are the major obstacles to overcome before Fuel Cell micro-Cogeneration technology is rolled out to the mass market?

As mentioned before, early projects focus on the research at cell and fuel cell stack level with the objective to increase stack lifetimes. This was necessary to allow manufacturers to develop end user products acceptable for market entry. We can now say that we are there. The ene.field project has seen the installation of 1,046 units and has helped to demonstrate that the technology is fit for purpose. Performances have been confirmed in the field, and system availabilities have been demonstrated in line with customers’ needs. Still, costs remain high. This is the case despite the significant cost reductions that have been achieved to date. So what are we doing on this? As mentioned before, the ongoing project PACE is supporting manufacturers to install large volumes of units, in excess of 500 units per manufacturer.  With these volumes PACE should help to unlock economies of scale in manufacturing. In addition, the PACE project is installing the next generation of products with improved technical performance and new designs, leading to further cost reductions. Taken together, this could lead to further cost reductions of 30-40%.

On top of the work we are doing at EU level, national level support programmes have been put in place in some countries like the UK and Germany.  In Germany, a newly introduced incentive was launched at the end of 2016, KfW 433, to help establish Fuel Cell micro-Cogeneration in the country. This scheme provides support in the form of a one-off payment contribution to the CAPEX, by enabling the consumers to get a grant that would bring down their total investment by €10-12,000 per system. The scheme is designed to help market introduction and aims to achieve sales in the order of tens of thousands in the years to come.

Thanks to all the activities just mentioned, we can also see how private investment is being attracted to this sector. For instance very recently one EU fuel cell OEM  secured an investment of €40 million what will allow for the expansion of production capacities of this OEM from the current 1,500 to 16,000 fuel cell generators annually by 2020.


What has been achieved so far?

To date we have been able to demonstrate that the technology is ready to deliver. The EU has supported the installation of 1,046 units, and an equivalent amount has already been installed thanks to the German national support scheme. We are still far from the figures of Japan, where hundreds of thousands of units have already been installed. However, thanks to the support we have provided and the commitment of EU manufacturers, we can now say that the EU is a world leader in Fuel Cell micro-Cogeneration applications, especially Solid Oxide Fuel Cells technology. It is also important to remember that some of these companies are SMEs. We are glad to see that the support we have provided them since the early stages of product development has materialised into concrete commercial propositions.


[1] Advancing Europe’s energy systems: Stationary fuel cells in distributed generation. FCH JU funded study prepared by Roland Berger Strategy Consultants. 2015.


2018-01-10T11:19:55+01:00 January 10th, 2018|Categories: News|