Present situation in energy terms

In Germany's energy supply system, it is necessary to make increasing use of the possibility to combine the generation of electricity with the use of the heat which is generally produced at the same time (cogeneration of heat and power) in order to reduce primary energy consumption as stipulated in the Energy Concept. The high levels of electrical efficiency and the high CHP coefficients argue in favour of using fuel cells rather than other technologies. The fuel cell has been under development for many years in Germany, both for the distributed generation of power and heat and as a source of power for vehicles in mobile applications. In comparison with thermal processes, the fuel cell is characterised by a generally higher efficiency rating. One particular advantage is the fact that efficiency remains high both at partial load and in small units.

Stationary fuel cells are mainly used for the cogeneration of heat (and cooling) and power, and are now undergoing field tests as home energy units with a capacity of approx. 1 kWel and for industrial applications in a class of several hundred kW. A broad range of primary energy sources (natural gas, biogas, sewage gas, etc.) are being used as fuel. In reverse operation, the cell forms the heart of an electrolyser which runs on electricity and generates hydrogen. If the electricity is generated from renewable sources, the hydrogen that is produced is regarded as “green hydrogen”, and its use is carbon-free throughout the energy chain. In vehicle-based mobile applications, the electrical drive is supplied with electricity by a fuel cell with hydrogen as a secondary energy source. Here, the fuel cell drive offers the advantage of reducing the high dependency of mobility on oil, since hydrogen can be obtained from a large number of primary energy sources.

Hydrogen can play a special role as a source of energy in the context of sector coupling. It can be used in centralised and distributed electricity generation, in vehicles, in the manufacture of alternative fuels and gases, in long-term storage installations and as a feedstock for industrial (and especially chemical) processes. Where hydrogen is produced on a regenerative basis (e.g. from renewables-based electricity in electrolysers), the greenhouse gas emissions are zero or very low. In view of the high potential for exports, the Federal Government aims to boost Germany as a centre for hydrogen production technologies and to build on the technological leadership. The cost of renewable hydrogen is still high at present, but the intention is that funding for research and innovation will cut this significantly.

The measures funded in the past have enabled German research establishments and industrial companies to attain a leading international position in fuel cell and hydrogen technology. If we are to maintain and build on this position, further intensive research and development will be required in the future.

Technology development and the funding structure

The funding from the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy for research and development in the field of fuel cell and hydrogen technologies is tied into the “National Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technology Innovation Programme” (NIP), which was launched in 2006. The programme is being continued as the government’s NIP2 programme in the 2016-2025 period. The Federal Government’s NIP2 programme builds on the maturity of technology and market availability attained in the first generation of equipment. In view of the forthcoming market launch phase, the aim is to ensure that the national activities of science, industry and government continue to take place under a common programmatic umbrella. The intention is to continue developing the innovations in hydrogen and fuel cell technologies which are not yet ready for market, to build up the appropriate infrastructure and to use appropriate instruments and measures to support the placing on the market of technologies which are on the cusp of a market launch.

The Economic Affairs Ministry supports these goals not least via the Energy Research Programme, funding research and development as a basis for future applications in the fields of transport, hydrogen production, residential energy supply, sector coupling, industrial applications, special markets for fuel cells, and horizontal issues. Sector coupling and hydrogen technologies are also an important focus of the “regulatory sandboxes for the energy transition”, a new funding pillar in the Federal Government’s Energy Research Programme; these help to prepare innovative energy technologies for the market and address challenges in the transformation of the energy supply. The “regulatory sandboxes for the energy transition” are a format which merges innovative, industrial, climate-related and energy policy dimensions at the point where the challenges of the energy transition touch on the pressing climate issues: specifically the decarbonisation of the heat market, transport and industrial processes.