It is possible to supply a city with a non-polluting power station using only the energy of the sun. Ten years after its launch, the Bordeaux company HDF, which relies on “green” hydrogen, is preparing for a harvest of contracts around the world.
HDF Energy (for Hydrogène de France) is a Bordeaux SME recently listed on the stock exchange, which is hiring with a vengeance and is in the process of harvesting contracts, particularly in Africa, around a hell of a bet: power plants coupling photovoltaic panels, to produce electricity, possibly wind turbines, and hydrogen, to store energy and continue to supply the network when the sun is not producing.
A complex system, but which does not emit carbon dioxide (CO2) at all. All you need is sun or wind, water and a lot of technology: solar panels and/or wind turbines, electrolyzers, hydrogen tanks, fuel cells and a few lithium-ion batteries.
“It’s an intuition that I had about ten years agotell to the evening edition Damien Havard, the founder, CEO and main shareholder. After working in construction, I created a design office specializing in renewable energies. Working for customers on hydrogen, I said to myself that something would happen, that this gas would become obvious. »
The advantage of hydrogen over batteries
A bit of technique… The problem with solar energy is its intermittency. When the sun goes down, the panels stop producing. Even in a sunny region, production takes only ten to twelve hours a day. Impossible, therefore, to bet on solar panels alone to supply a city rather than using one of these coal or oil-fired power stations which it is now imperative to get rid of.
Some energy companies rely on the coupling of solar panels and wind power, which also produces at night, but there is still an inconstancy of production which requires going through the storage of electricity.
“When you don’t need to store electricity for more than an hour or twolithium-ion batteries are satisfactory, says Damien Havard, even if they pose the problem of the materials necessary for their production, then that of their recycling. » But when it is necessary to store and restore energy for 12 to 14 hours, “it’s hydrogen that’s needed”he assures.
How ? Using electricity from solar panels to extract hydrogen from water using electrolyzers, which “break” water molecules (composed of two hydrogen atoms for one oxygen molecule) . The consumption of water, fresh or sea, is not ” not a problem “says Damien Havard, and to feed a city, “corresponds to that of a few houses”.
The hydrogen thus produced is stored indefinitely under pressure in metal tanks (or in composite if there is little space and the hydrogen must be compressed further), “much cheaper than batteries”.
Round-the-clock production with fuel cells
The hydrogen is then injected into fuel cells (Pac), which transform the gas into electricity. This whole process causes the loss of two thirds of the initial energy, “it’s the same rate as in a car enginesays Damien Havard, who reminds us that the initial energy is abundant, it is that of the sun”.
If HDF buys its electrolyzers from other manufacturers (including the French McPhy), the company has decided to manufacture its own fuel cells, “Who will be the first in the world of this power”. The device is completed by a few lithium-ion batteries, which provide responsiveness to the device.
The fuel cell is an old technology. They have been found for a long time on sailboats and motorhomes. The German Navy has equipped its submarines with them since 1998. Pac buses have already been circulating in certain European cities since the early 2000s and the movement has been launched in France. Alstom has commissioned the world’s first hydrogen fuel cell train in 2018 in Germany and several are on order in France. On the automotive side, where the cost of the technology is still difficult to adapt to a consumer product, Mercedes and Honda have already marketed discontinued models, but Toyota and Nissan are holding their own.
A Canadian partner, Ballard
The need for HDF differs by the power of the Pacs needed to power not vehicles, but entire cities. The Pacs that HDF will produce will be units housed in 40-foot containers (the equivalent of a long truck trailer) with a power of 1.5 megawatts. Enough to supply 5,000 to 10,000 inhabitants, depending on the level of consumption. HDF then multiplies the number of Pacs according to the customer’s needs.
“We have chosen to partner with the Canadian company Ballard, which has 30 years of experience and offers solutions recognized as reliable by investors”says Damien Havard.
HDF is therefore investing 20 million euros, supplemented by aid from the European Union, France and local authorities, in a factory whose construction is to begin on the site of the former Ford factory in Blanquefort, for entry into service in one year.
A key step for a company, created 10 years ago, but whose development has experienced a major boost with its IPO in June 2021. HDF was thus able to raise 115 million euros and complete the contributions other shareholders, the hydrocarbon storage specialist Rubis Terminal and Teréga, which manages the natural gas network in southwestern France as well as its underground storage. With the latter, HDF is working specifically on the geological storage of hydrogen.
First plant in Guyana
It is in the west of Guyana that, in two years, the first power plant of HDF, of a model baptized Renewstable, under construction, will begin to produce electrons and will replace oil-fired power stations. As for each project, the company is associated with specific investors. In this case the Meridiam fund and Sara, a subsidiary of Rubis.
But a whole series of contracts are looming: HDF has just obtained the first green light in Namibia, for the 142,000 inhabitants of the city of Swakopmund, which until now has been supplied by South Africa. Several projects are underway in several other African countries, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago. Each time, HDF offers not only construction, but operation and technical assistance.
The cost of producing electricity varies from €100 to €300 per megawatt hour. This is more than that of nuclear power (around sixty euros) and closer to offshore wind power (around €200), but it is the price of green and non-intermittent energy.
To carry out all its projects, HDF, which achieved 10 million in turnover in 2021 and has 80 employees, is currently seeking to recruit around 30. “We are looking for people with experience in renewablesexplains Damien Havard, speaking English, with commercial or engineering profiles, both for the head office in Bordeaux and internationally. »
160 billion dollars of global projects in hydrogen
The rise of HDF is indicative of a runaway, all over the world, of hydrogen production projects, consumed both as a chemical raw material by industry, or for mobility or as fuel. The International Energy Agency has identified projects to mobilize 160 billion dollars of investment and representing an overall production of 62 million tons, but those that are actually under construction represent only 4% of the total. And the largest part, concentrated in Europe, is intended for “blue” hydrogen, i.e. produced from fossil fuels, with capture and sequestration of CO2 (underground) to that it is not emitted into the atmosphere.
The production of “green” hydrogen, without any CO2 emissions, as at HDF, would remain in the minority. France itself has several projects in the West, especially in Normandy and at sea as well as in Lyon.
Enormous “green” solar-based projects are however being launched in China (in a desert in Inner Mongolia), Chile, India, Namibia, Morocco, Mauritania, Australia, Kazakhstan. Many observers are concerned, however, that the production of electrolysers, at the heart of the production costs of hydrogen, is concentrated in China, at an unbeatable price, as is already the case with solar panels or lithium-ion batteries. ion.
Another sensitive point, this hydrogen produced where there is sunshine and very large spaces available, will most often be intended for export, by ship. It will then have to be brought to a liquid form, for example by transforming it into ammonia, which will in turn have to be retransformed, on arrival, into hydrogen, itself intended to produce electricity. The energy transition will not always be easy…