Rotterdam international hydrogen hub: opportunities and challenges in a rapidly growing ecosystem

Hydrogen is one of the most diverse energy carriers, with huge potential in relation to the energy transition. We can store (sustainably generated) energy in it, and it is easy to transport to users in locations all over the world. Rotterdam is an important international hydrogen hub, where entrepreneurs, businesses, government organisations and academic institutes work together on new hydrogen-related technologies and applications every day. We spoke with Mare Straetmans from Platform Zero and Nicole van Klaveren of &Flux about the strength, successes and challenges of Rotterdam's hydrogen ecosystem.

By far the biggest part of our energy mix is currently still based on fossil fuels. In response to international and national climate goals, that will need to change. Sustainably generated solar and wind electricity is on the rise and making an important contribution to the energy transition. But this will not be enough to meet the rapidly rising demand for sustainable energy. Furthermore, these forms of energy are not always available in the right place and at the right time: obviously we need enough sun and wind for stable production. Many people regard hydrogen as the prime alternative clean energy carrier with great potential in the energy transition.

Hydrogen: grey, blue, purple and green

A brief description of hydrogen, because there are different variants which are differentiated by colour coding. Grey hydrogen is extracted from natural gas or coal, releasing CO2. Blue hydrogen is essentially the same, but the released CO2 emissions are stored in empty gas fields at sea, for example. There is also purple hydrogen, which is produced with energy from nuclear power stations. Green hydrogen is made from sustainable energy sources like wind and sun. Via electrolysis, water is separated into hydrogen and oxygen. This is the most sustainable form of hydrogen.

Essential for energy transition, energy security and independence

As a sustainable energy carrier, hydrogen can be an essential link in the energy transition and thus in our fight against climate change. Nicole van Klaveren, partner and Lead Industrial Raw Materials at &Flux: “Like natural gas, hydrogen can be used in very diverse ways. As such, it can support many different decarbonisation alternatives. Investments in production, transport and storage of hydrogen will therefore not be restricted to a single or limited application.” Mare Straetmans, entrepreneur and co-founder of Platform Zero, adds: “Renewable energy is crucial for our fight against climate change. However, this energy is often available at the wrong moment (for example at night) or in the wrong place, where there are few users like in the desert, with solar energy. We therefore need solutions whereby we can store and transport this renewable energy. Hydrogen is one of the solutions with the most potential.”

Besides energy security, energy independence is another important theme, particularly in the light of current geopolitical developments. Mare: “For Europe, it’s important to become more self-sufficient in our energy production. We’ve obviously seen that dependence on other parts of the world weakens our position in this respect. If we become better at storing and transporting energy, we are more likely to succeed. Hydrogen is an energy carrier which offers a solution for this.”

Rotterdam: logical home port for hydrogen developments

It is certainly no coincidence that many developments related to hydrogen come together in the Rotterdam region. With its unique geographical location on the North Sea, with the world’s smartest and Europe’s biggest port, large energy and petrochemical clusters and a well-developed physical and digital infrastructure, Rotterdam is a logical base where many innovations related to the energy transition are invented, developed and tested, and from where they find their way all over the world. Nicole agrees. “In Rotterdam, we certainly already have the necessary knowledge and infrastructure for hydrogen and natural gas. And for ammonia, which is now regarded as the most suitable, scalable carrier for hydrogen. This is also recognised internationally. The IEA1 identifies four important conditions for the rollout of hydrogen. Firstly, ports as the nerve centre for upscaling. Rotterdam is already the number 1 energy port and therefore strongly linked with future consumers of hydrogen. It’s literally in Rotterdam’s DNA. Secondly, the existence and use of existing infrastructure. The Netherlands and therein Rotterdam have access to an excellent gas grid. Then there is the development of hydrogen applications in transport and mobility. All the transport modalities, so land, sea, water and air, come together in Rotterdam. Through this interaction and the size of the distribution and transport network, investments in hydrogen are traceable. Via labels, for example. And finally, the development of hydrogen as a ‘commodity’, for trade. Rotterdam is already a hub for international trade in hydrogen, and the construction of the new hydrogen pipeline and the Green Corridors will strengthen this position. Rotterdam is therefore a no-brainer when it comes to hydrogen-hub developments. This position is further strengthened because companies in the port of Rotterdam are already used to working together in a chain and co-siting developments, for example related to residual heat. Many companies also actively work together here on new ‘pioneer projects’, like H-Vision.

1 IEA: International Energy Agency

Rapidly growing ecosystem

So, there are a lot of hydrogen-related activities in the Rotterdam region. That is also reflected in the dynamic and rapidly growing hydrogen ecosystem, in which an effective triple helix, or partnerships between companies, local and region government organisations and academic institutions, is very visible.

Mare talks about the ecosystem enthusiastically: “The hydrogen ecosystem in Rotterdam already partially exists, due to years of experience with grey hydrogen. Here you will find diverse, big international players with a wealth of experience. The two most important developments we are currently engaged in are the conversion to green hydrogen and the upscaling of hydrogen activities. The Port of Rotterdam Authority plays a key role in promoting the developments in this field. This is an important role because they can attract, bind and activate government organisations and investors via their very strong and extensive international network. Big international companies also play a crucial role. Take Shell, for example. With their investment in a new hydrogen factory, the Holland Hydrogen I on the Maasvlakte, they are showing that this is where it’s really happening. Such investments are crucial for the development of our ecosystem. But because hydrogen also has many challenges, like the high price of production, the use of drinking water in the process and the development of standards, a lot of innovation is required. It is therefore good that we have start-ups and scale-ups which are making serious traction in this. Battolyser Systems and are two great examples. Battolyser makes flexible storage capacity for renewable energy (a battery) combined with flexible hydrogen production (electrolyser). This is really unique. has an innovative fuel cell which makes the use of hydrogen more accessible for many applications with great potential for the transport sector (trucks, aircraft). Such companies need flexible locations where they can grow fast, experiment and start up the first production runs. We are therefore building a campus, where the ecosystem can achieve this and come together. On the Climate Campus of Platform Zero, together with the Port of Rotterdam Authority, the municipality of Rotterdam and H2Makers (Hydrogen Competence Center), they are working on test, prototype and maker space facilities, so that new technologies can be developed and tested. This is also a location where big companies, start-ups and scale-ups, investors, government organisations and talent can meet each other to discuss the subject of hydrogen. This is crucial for sharing knowledge, providing information and training, as well as for attracting talent.”

Nicole confirms the ambitions and growth potential of the Rotterdam ecosystem: “In Rotterdam, there are serious ambitions relating to hydrogen production. And there is a concrete policy to create and expand a strong hydrogen cluster, with Shell as launching customer. Furthermore, the region already has the necessary facilities. The activities related to bringing ashore the energy from – sometimes still unbuilt – offshore windfarms are very important in terms of providing a boost. All this, in combination with existing facilities which provide a perfect starting point for the gradual upscaling of hydrogen, such as coal and gas-fuelled plants, tank terminals and hydrogen customers like refineries and the chemical industry, help determine the structure and strength of the Rotterdam ecosystem.”

Working on important challenges

So is it all smooth sailing then, hydrogen? Not at all. There are important challenges for which solutions need to be found. Worldwide, but also in Rotterdam. Mare: “Hydrogen certainly involves several major challenges. Currently, it’s still expensive to produce. Then there’s the fact that drinking water is used in the production, while more and more areas face a shortage of clean drinking water. If hydrogen escapes during production or distribution, this is harmful for the environment. Transport still takes up too much space. And there are more issues. Simply upscaling the existing technology for the production, storage and transport of hydrogen won’t be enough. We need new technologies with which we can tackle these bottlenecks. For these new technologies, in the form of start-ups and scale-ups, talent is required, space to develop, test and produce, growth financing and support for internationalisation. At the same time, it is therefore also an opportunity, certainly for the Netherlands and Rotterdam, because we have an incredible amount of knowledge about this subject and experience in upscaling research, and start-ups and scale-ups can play an important role in this. In the universities and schools, smart solutions are being invented, relating to technology at TU Delft and trading at Erasmus University Rotterdam. Several of these solutions can be rolled out via the business models of start-ups and scale-ups via the Climate Campus. So, there are opportunities here for the manufacturing industry, which is strongly represented in the Rotterdam Makers District.”

Nicole adds: “A big challenge for the hydrogen sector itself is upscaling, both in terms of technology and finance. There are still many big challenges in the application of hydrogen. Take the automotive industry, which will need to invest in vehicles. But also the steel industry, where companies will need to switch to a very different production process. Then there is the hydrogen import. If Rotterdam wants to continue playing the role of leading energy port, it will also need to embark on hydrogen import. The ‘demand area’ of Rotterdam with initially our neighbour Germany, but also connections to pipeline networks further afield. Good relations with and diplomacy between countries and cities help, but ultimately, it’s about the owners of the molecules and the customers. The Port of Rotterdam Authority has an important coordinating role here.”

Social innovation and social support

There is another challenge facing the partners working together on hydrogen, says Nicole. A challenge which is not so much related to hard aspects like technology, but to people. “We really need to work on ‘social innovation’ or social support. Hydrogen is already a familiar concept to industry, but it’s still relatively unknown to the wider public and some organisations. And yet it’s a crucial factor in the energy transition. Everything and everyone is focused on this. We’ve seen before how important social support is for the success of e-alternatives and that it can sometimes disrupt its development. Trust in the possibilities, reliability and safety … But above all the fact that hydrogen is a better and cleaner alternative is crucial. Developing and implementing standards and certificates can strengthen this basis of trust. And we also need to look at carefully training all ‘new’ parties involved in the hydrogen economy. Fortunately, there’s a lot of knowledge and experience in and with the industry, also in Rotterdam, to achieve this. So, hydrogen brings great opportunities as well as great challenges.”

The importance of partnerships, locally and internationally

As we mentioned before, Rotterdam is a place where many parties actively work together in the (further) development of hydrogen. The importance of partnerships must not be underestimated, Mare emphasises: “This is key to the entire energy transition. You need to partner up with each other to be able to make an impact in this market. Certainly when you consider the speed and complexity involved in the transition. For that reason, more than ever the Rotterdam ecosystem will need to seek partnerships. New forms of partnership with many different parties, including corporates, start-ups and scale-ups, universities, NGOs and government organisations play a crucial role in this domain. For that reason, the port authority is looking for international partnerships, the municipality of Rotterdam is working with TU Delft and Erasmus University Rotterdam on the Convergence agenda, and in the Rotterdam Makers District they are working on a campus where this will all come together.”

A good example of such a partnership is the Global Partnership for Hydrogen Innovation, in which Platform Zero is working with the Port Authority and the municipality has taken the initiative to bring together universities, innovation hubs and ports from Australia, Brazil, Chile, England, Portugal and the Netherlands. Every quarter, these parties meet to share knowledge, best practices and information about start-ups and scale-ups, as well as about opportunities for them in other countries. “This is a great example of the dynamism of Rotterdam,” says Mare.

Nicole wants to mention another party: “Deltalinqs. Sometimes companies are momentarily not each other’s competitors but need to work together to build a relatively new sector. Deltalinqs fulfils that role for hydrogen in the Rotterdam ecosystem for the port and industry area.”

The future

Nicole and Mare agree when it comes to the future of the hydrogen ecosystem in the Rotterdam region. Mare: “In 10 years time, there will be a mega ecosystem here relating to hydrogen. This will involve production, transport and storage of hydrogen and serve large-scale consumers in industry, both here and abroad. In addition, a lot of hydrogen will be imported and traded worldwide via the port. This activity means that we will have built up a leading knowledge position with respect to hydrogen, that a huge group of people who already work in Rotterdam, but also from outside, are working in the hydrogen industry, and that we have an ecosystem of makers, researchers and start-ups and scale-ups who are developing the latest technologies and solutions.”

Port Authority and hydrogen

As this article has shown, many hydrogen-related developments are concentrated in and around the port of Rotterdam area, the industrial clusters based there. Would you like to know more about hydrogen projects in the port of Rotterdam? Check the website of the Port of Rotterdam Authority.

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