France's green hydrogen pioneers aim to revolutionise energy production

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Green hydrogen sounds almost too good to be true: a fuel made from water, that can be stored and transported, and does not produce carbon emissions. France is banking on it, and a startup in Brittany has started to produce it. But will it catch on?

When French President Emmanuel Macron announced in October that France would be investing nearly two billion euros in green hydrogen technologies, as part of its 2030 investment plan, Matthieu Guesné felt vindicated.

“Back in 2017 when we started the company, we were not even pioneers, we were visionaries. Nobody had this idea, and nobody was aware of the need for green hydrogen,” he said recently, standing in the main building of his company, Lhyfe, in the small Breton fishing village of Bouin, on the west coast of France, which has been producing 300 kilograms of green hydrogen a day since September.

This story is part of the Spotlight on France podcast. Listen here:

Hydrogen is used in steel manufacturing and fertilisers, and it is increasingly being considered for transportation to fuel cars and lorries without greenhouse gas emissions.

Most hydrogen today is extracted from fossil fuels. Green hydrogen is made using electrolysis with renewable electricity running through water to separate the oxygen and hydrogen molecules.

This is done using electrolysers. Lhyfe’s are behind a thick concrete wall, connected by a series of colourful tubes funnelling water in, and oxygen and hydrogen out.

“An electrolyser is a big tube, inside of which you put demineralised water and electricity,” explains Antoine Hamon, Lhyfe’s operations director. “At the end of that you have two pipes, one with hydrogen and the other with oxygen.”

It’s a simple process that, in this case, uses seawater and electricity generated from four wind turbines two kilometres away.

No wind, no hydrogen

“This site is really synchronised with the production of the wind turbines,” says Hamon. “If there’s no wind, there’s no hydrogen.”

This is difference between this facility and other green hydrogen plants, which have turbines or other sources of renewable electricity feeding into the general electricity grid, which they pull from when they want to produce hydrogen.

On a platform above the production floor, several computer screens show the water levels and amount of electricity coming from the turbines.

Lhyfe currently produces 300 kilograms of hydrogen a day out of three cubic metres of seawater. At full capacity, the goal is to triple the output, to get to a tonne.

A hydrogen car driving 100 kilometres uses one kilogramme of hydrogen A long-haul truck would consume 20 to 30 kilograms a day.

The hydrogen gas that comes out of Lhyfe’s electrolysers is compressed into long metal gas canisters and transported to users in the area.

“The main advantage of hydrogen is it's a gas, so you can transport and store it,” explains Guesné, Lhyfe’s CEO. “Gas is convenient, which is why our societies run on diesel and gas. You can store it in a pipe, on a truck, in a boat. It can wait an hour, or a day or a week.”

Electricity cannot be stored easily. Batteries are inefficient, and use components that are difficult or dangerous to acquire.

And for larger vehicles travelling long distances, like lorries, or trains, batteries would be too big and heavy to be practical.

Hydrogen experiments in Nantes

The city of Nantes, an hour inland from Bouin, which likes to see itself as a technological innovator, has been putting itself forward as a hub for green hydrogen.

Its public transit authority, the Semitan, has been running experiments using hydrogen vehicles for a few years.

"As far as Nantes is concerned, it's important to promote renewal energy - it's a political ambition. And also as an engineer, I am interested in this technique, to know what is good and what is not,” says technical director Stephane Bis.

Semitan has two hydrogen utility vehicles - electric Renault Kangoo vans that use hydrogen to extend their batteries’ ranges, from 100 to 300 kilometres.

Hydrogen cars have fuel cells that transform hydrogen, stored in their tanks, into electricity to power an electric motor. The output is water and oxygen – a small tube on the side of the vehicle drips out water, and the oxygen is released into the atmosphere.

Semitan uses its hydrogen cars like their dozens of other utility vehicles, but as a kind of proof of concept that hydrogen can work.

They fuel up the cars at a hydrogen service station they have set up at a bus depot northwest of the city centre. It's a collection of tall gas cannisters which are fed through a machine that pressurises the hydrogen into the car. The sound is like a balloon being filled.

Semitan is looking into hydrogen for public transit. Unlike the city of Le Mans, which has been experimenting with a hydrogen bus since last year, Nantes has decided to focus on water transport.

In 2019 the city introduced a hydrogen-powered ferry to take commuters across the Erdre river in the north of the city.

The ferry needed regular maintenance, and is currently docked for a full overhaul.

Bis says it’s been a good experiment.

“I wouldn’t say hydrogen is the energy of the future, but it is part of the future,” he says, about the prospects of expanding the use of hydrogen.

“I think the future will include hydrogen, that is sure, especially for heavy load vehicles- lorries. For large transit, I think hydrogen is a very interesting subject.”

Hydrogen in the future

Of course, Guesné, of Lhyfe, is much more expansive in his predictions for hydrogen, driven by the urgency of decarbonising France and Europe’s energy to curb the effects of greenhouse gas emissions on the climate.

“We need to address the climate change. We need to reduce CO2 emissions by 55 percent, and when you do the math and look at the solutions we have today, you figure out that you cannot achieve that without hydrogen,” he says.

His vision for green hydrogen in France is a series of production plants serving local communities, using local renewable energy sources.

“We want to avoid the refinery model, where you have only three refineries in a country like France that can supply the whole country with oil,” he says.

“There is always local energy. In some areas there are solar panels. Here there’s a lot of wind so we are relying on wind turbines. But it can be energy from waste, from biomass, from hydropower.”

While Guesné anticipates 25 to 30 per cent of French fuel consumption will be hydrogen by 2030, others estimate it will be more like six to 10 percent.

But whatever the amount, hydrogen is a part of the future.

“There will never be enough resources to have batteries for everybody. There is not enough biomass to produce biogas for all heating needs,” he says. “Today we have smart grids, we have batteries, we have renewables. But there was a problem for lorries and busses. Hydrogen was the missing piece of the puzzle.”

Listen to a version of this story in the 'Spotlight on France' podcast, episode 64.

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