Climate Action

Piet Berens on the key policies needed to accelerate the transition to a hydrogen economy

Climate Action caught up with Piet Berens, Managing Director – Electrolyzers at Cummins, to discuss the key policies governments need to put in place to accelerate the transition to a hydrogen economy.

  • 27 April 2021
  • Rachel Cooper

Climate Action caught up with Piet Berens, Managing Director – Electrolyzers at Cummins, to discuss the key policies governments need to put in place to accelerate the transition to a hydrogen economy.

What is the role of hydrogen in Cummins future plans and ambitions?

For the past several years Cummins have been focusing on solutions that use materials and technology that have less impact on the planet. Over the past five years, the company has developed and acquired significant capabilities in electrified powertrains, battery design and assembly, battery management, fuel cells and hydrogen generation.

The acquisition of Hydrogenics in 2019 provided Cummins with both proton exchange membrane (PEM) and alkaline electrolyzers to generate hydrogen and PEM fuel cells. We’ve also invested in the development of solid oxide fuel cells to expand our stationary power capabilities and solid oxide electrolyzers. And recently we formed a joint venture with NPROXX, a leader in hydrogen storage and transportation, for hydrogen storage tanks.

We already have more than 2,000 fuel cell installations across a variety of on and off highway applications, as well as more than 600 electrolyzer installations. For both fuel cells and electrolyzers, our technology is industry leading, so we are now focusing on scaling in terms of the number of units we are deploying and the fuel cell power outputs and electrolyzer capacities.

Through our ambitious PLANET 2050 plan, Cummins has a target to be carbon-neutral by 2050, so achieving scale is our priority.

What key policies do governments need to put in place to accelerate the transition to a hydrogen economy?

We see governments around the world supporting the adoption of hydrogen technologies in a variety of ways. Here in Europe, as of last year there is a European-wide hydrogen strategy, something that has been talked about for a long time. In my home country of Belgium, we are seeing local governments embracing strategies and funding initiatives to support the hydrogen economy. At Cummins, we believe that policies should encourage three areas of support; infrastructure, development and deployment.

Infrastructure is needed to ensure our systems can support the adoption of hydrogen and fuel cell technology economy wide. Government investment in infrastructure sends a strong signal to industry that this transition is happening and creates more certainty for investment.

Policies should also support both industry and government research and development. R&D is still needed to optimize fuelling and storage systems for hydrogen, fuel cell efficiency, and manufacturing capability to achieve wide-scale adoption.

Policies that encourage deployment through direct funding, investment incentives or purchase incentives will help close the cost gap between hydrogen and fuel cell technology and more traditional power sources. This will allow industry to more quickly scale up and lower cost to eventually move away from government incentives.

As governments consider their response to the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, we believe hydrogen can and should be an integral part of recovery.Investing in infrastructure needed for the next century can help to stimulate job growth and economic performance in the short term and decarbonize the economy in the longer term.

Have Cummins been involved in any exciting coalitions recently? If so, can you tell us a bit more about them and what the goals are?

Yes, Cummins is a notable member of the Hydrogen Council.

More recently, Cummins joined the Hydrogen Forward Coalition, a joint initiative of eight companies committed to advancing hydrogen for a cleaner, stronger US economy. The coalition works in concert with allies across industries and sectors to educate decisionmakers and other stakeholders on the value hydrogen delivers today and the important role that it should play in our future. Hydrogen Forward supports the establishment of a national hydrogen strategy that outlines a clear, comprehensive approach to hydrogen and related infrastructure development. Such an approach will accelerate the energy transition, reinforce the US energy economy and climate leadership, and enable rapid, large-scale adoption of hydrogen solutions.

What is the most exciting R&D/pilot project that you have come across in the last year?

In January, we shared news of the successful installation and commissioning of a 20MW PEM electrolyser in Bécancour, Quebec, making it the largest in operation in the world. The system, installed at Air Liquide’s hydrogen production facility, can provide around 3,000 tons of hydrogen annually using clean hydropower. The system was initially piloted during the 1.25MW HyBalance project with Air Liquide and several project partners in Hobro, Denmark in 2016 and at the time, was the largest PEM electrolyser in the world.

These two projects demonstrate how Cummins has successfully developed its electrolyser technology from 1MW to 5MW to 20MW and will continue to lead the development and scaling of PEM technology. As we think about the 20-100+ MW projects on the horizon, the potential for our technology and large-scale electrolysis in general only becomes more exciting.

We’ve also moved and into serial production of fuel cells for Alstom, a French railway manufacturer, for the world’s first hydrogen fuel cell passenger trains. The first two trains carrying passengers went into service in September 2018 in Germany and after more than 180,000 kilometres driven in the first pilot, the program was deemed a success.

This fall, we will open a new facility in Herten, Germany, which will allow us to continue growing and delivering for our customers. The facility will initially focus on the assembly of fuel cell systems for Alstom’s hydrogen trains.

Later this year, we will deliver several pre-production class 8 fuel cell trucks, with the first going into service this summer. The fully capable units will be running daily routes for multiple major North American fleets.