Structural change thanks to hydrogen

Hydrogen drives structural change

What is a region to do when one of its main industries collapses? All players have to come together to forge a path to the future. That is what is happening in Lusatia, a region in East-Germany. Research institutes, industry and policymakers are pushing structural change as long as there is time. Their main driver for change: hydrogen.  


By Hubertus Breuer

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"Nothing remains as it was", says Octavian Ursu under a painted vaulted ceiling in the historic Görlitz City Hall. Looking out, he sees the Untermarkt, its cobblestones and colorful facades beautiful even in gray February rain. The square slopes gently down to the river Neisse, on the other side of which you find the Polish town of Zgorzelec, the former eastern part of the town. Ursu has been mayor in Görlitz in Saxony since last summer. He’s lived here since 1990, when he came from Romania to join the New Lusatian Philharmonic Orchestra as principal trumpeter. As he came into his new role, he knew he would face the challenges of structural change. “In 2038, Lusatia is going to pull out of coal mining” he explains. “We have to develop alternatives."

Lusatia, extending over the eastern states of Saxony and Brandenburg, once supplied 90 percent of the energy to East Germany. Today, many of the holes left behind by opencast brown  coal (lignite) mining are being flooded – creating one of the largest lake districts in Europe. The smokestacks of the power stations fed by the mines will soon stop working. Jobs are being lost, suppliers and service providers have to reorient themselves or go out of business. It is an outlook that many regions experience when a central industry dies – they need to reinvent themselves. A central part of the vision for the region is hydrogen. "We are an energy region with electricity and district heating networks, with power plants and expertise," says Ursu. "And we plan to remain an energy region. That's why we are turning to hydrogen."

Therefore, in 2019, Görlitz, together with the Free State of Saxony, the Technical University of Dresden, Siemens Energy and the Fraunhofer Society, announced the launch of an 'Innovation Campus' in town. Its focus: to develop  technologies for the energy transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. This will include various decarbonization and manufacturing technologies, even a lab for start-ups to pursue promising ideas, but the main focus will be hydrogen. 

A hydrogen test center run by the Fraunhofer Gesellschaft should open by 2024. It will include electrolysers that will make it possible to convert water into hydrogen using renewable energy and to capture excess wind and solar energy. Then, if the sun or wind do not produce enough energy, this chemical energy storage system can be converted back into electricity or used as fuel. That is why the test center will also allow for investigating mobility solutions. For example, research is to be conducted into how commercial vehicles and public transport using hydrogen can operate economically and how they can drive autonomously. 

" We can map the entire value chain. This could be a bang for the buck for regional structural change. " 
Sebastian Scholz, Fraunhofer IWU and Zittau/Görlitz University of Applied Sciences

The campus idea did not come about by chance. All over Germany, the federal government is promoting large-scale research laboratories for the energy transition mapping the entire value chain from the production of green hydrogen to storage power plants and energy suppliers for industry or transport. Among various projects, this includes a storage power plant near Cottbus that uses green hydrogen and is to be expanded to a capacity of 100 megawatts by 2030. The Innovation Campus complements this strategy perfectly. 

There is plenty of space for the campus. Hagen Semmer, head of Siemens’s industrial steam turbine plant in Görlitz, stands in front  of a manufacturing hall in Görlitz. He’s looking over a meadow bordered by historic brick buildings and a modern factory building. Other free plots of land overgrown with grass lie nearby. "This location has always focussed on innovative energy systems, which have changed numerous times since 1906," he says. "Taking on hydrogen technology fits this trajectory. With it we continue to be a pioneer in the energy field."

Innovations for hydrogen are needed because the technology is not fully developed for every application. For example, cost is still a problem. That is why TU Dresden wants to work, among other things, on enabling electrolysis without the precious metal platinum in Görlitz. "This is not a pipe dream at all," says Wolfgang Lippmann, Professor for Hydrogen and Nuclear Energy Technology at TU Dresden. "With the necessary investment it will happen."

Another project concerns hydrogen vehicles for local transport in rural areas – autonomous hydrogen shuttles that connect people in the Görlitz area quickly, reliably and individually. "It's not just about vehicles," says Sebastian Scholz, a researcher in lightweight plastic construction for the automotive industry at Fraunhofer IWU and the Zittau/Görlitz University of Applied Sciences. "We can map the entire value chain: In addition to vehicles, we need sophisticated navigation systems, hydrogen fueling stations, and we also need to collect data on how communities use this option. This could be a real bang for the buck for regional structural change."

The more inventions will be realized through the Innovation Campus, the greater the chance that start-ups will settle here, too. Another initiative that could help Ursus in this regard is GRIP, the Görlitz Innovation Platform, which aims to help start-ups to make use of the expertise of local universities and companies. "If you assess the potential of your city and the region," says Ursu, "structural change can succeed. And when a town becomes more attractive, young people and their families follow. In the past, many have left. We want to reverse that."

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July 14, 2020

Hubertus Breuer is an independent journalist specializing on technology reporting. He lives and works in Munich, Germany.


Combined picture credits: Juergen Lösel, Siemens Energy, GettyImages