A difficult transition for hydrogen


The national transition pathways ignore important organizational requirements necessary to ensure the reliable provision of hydrogen

Representation of a hydrogen atom Representation of a hydrogen atom

Hydrogen as a motor fuel in the Netherlands is likely to undergo a more difficult transition than expected. The Dutch government and industry have overlooked the organizational aspects of a reliable infrastructure for the use of hydrogen as a motor fuel, said Daniel Scholten, an assistant professor at Delft University of Technology. They’ve restricted their attention to technology, market and policies.

The European Commission on hydrogen

In 2007, the European Commission, in the HyWays study, put high hopes on hydrogen. It can replace petrol and diesel as fuels in the transport sector and in doing so has the potential of reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by cars and trucks. Since it can be produced out of sustainable energy sources—such as biomass, wind and sun—, it can contribute to the increasing share of renewable energies in the Dutch energy mix.

Hydrogen, already produced and distributed, serves manufacturing purposes in the chemical industry. While, according to Scholten, ‘hydrogen was very much hype around 2005 and pushed by the European Union, it has more chance being used in niche applications rather than that it will serve as the main fuel for the transport sector in the future.’ Examples are regional fleet operators and power-to-gas systems.

Organizational requirements of energy systems

In his new book Keeping an Eye on Reliability (Delft: Eburon, 2012), written out of his PhD research, Scholten asks, “What organizational requirements do these energy systems have in order to perform reliably?” He analyzes the complex relationship between technology and institutions in energy infrastructures. For each critical technical functions of an infrastructure, he asks who does what, when and how, and how the entities involved should coordinate their operations.

The current plans of the Dutch government and industry make it difficult to implement a reliable infrastructure for hydrogen as motor fuel. Mr Scholten said, “If the Netherlands thinks about developing future energy systems they should not only think about the typical cost-benefit analysis—how much does it cost. They should also think about which organizational arrangements are needed once the infrastructure is in place.”

Such an infrastructure requires the installation of production plants, of transport and distribution pipelines or truck networks, as well as retailing stations for the consumers. The developers have to come up, for example, with an organizational framework that ensures interoperability and capacity management, so that demand, supply and delivery match in the hydrogen network. Scholten provides, for each technical stage in years 2020, 2035 and 2050, the corresponding organizational requirements.

Supposedly an easy way to introduce hydrogen

The organizational requirements for reliable hydrogen provision frustrate the currently dominant transition roadmap, as highlighted in the European Commission’s HyWays study. “The organizational changes which are required to run these systems are quite large, whereas the techno-economic picture of the future was supposedly an easy and cheap way to introduce hydrogen with the least government effort,” Scholten explained.

Scholten specializes in the institutional requirements and political implications of renewable energy systems. His research was part of the project Towards sustainable gas distribution systems, a research project under the direction of Rolf Künneke, an associate professor at Delft University of Technology. This project is about the technical and institutional features of sustainable gas distribution systems.

By Jean-François Auger