France’s Auvergne Rhône-Alpes region (AuRA) is known for its vast natural spaces, world renowned ski resorts, and vibrant urban centers. AuRA now faces a huge problem: critical levels of micro-particulate and gaseous pollution are choking its cities and valleys. Its glaciers are rapidly shrinking and the region must reduce emissions, while maintaining industrial productivity. To address this problem, AuRA’s regional council created a hydrogen-oriented program entitled Zero Emission Valley (ZEV). The ZEV brings together more than 50 public and private companies and agencies to collaborate in the fight for cleaner air.
With 7.8 million residents, AuRA is France’s second largest region. AuRA covers approximately 27,000 sq mi. AuRA is France’s second economy with a gross internal product of 250 billion euros (US$272.3 billion), and is the host to world-class scientific research and innovation. As Europe’s first-ranked region for carbon-free energy, it produces 21% of France’s nuclear energy and 29% of its renewable energy.
But topological and meteorological factors, coupled with intense vehicular traffic, have made AuRA vulnerable to dangerous levels of air pollution. With the ZEV, AuRA intends to reduce emissions and become Europe’s leading hydrogen energy region. To achieve this goal, they are earmarking 200 million euros (US$217.8 million) for the transition to clean energy technologies, which will eventually produce 56 GWh of hydrogen-based energy from non-carbon, renewable sources. The ZEV is co-financed by the European Commission, the AuRA region, and private investments.
Transportation accounts for 33% of the region’s energy consumption and is responsible for much of its air pollution. To address vehicular emissions, AuRA launched Hympulsion SAS, a 50-million euro (US$54.4 million) joint venture with Michelin, Engie — the French national gas company, the French sovereign territorial fund — Caisse des Depots, and the Credit Agricole bank. Hympulsion will deploy 1000 hydrogen vehicles, and install 15 electrolyzers and 20 hydrogen distributers. Thierry Raevel, Hympulsion director and Engie’s regional delegate, argued, “The public-private nature of Hympulsion gives it the reactivity of a small business, with the leverage and security of a large company.”
AuRA’s regional President Laurent Wauquiez, a former French minister and secretary of state, is solidly committed to environmental preservation and economic growth. Annually, he shares his enthusiasm for nature by holding a political assembly atop the Mont Mézenc and leads the hike to its summit. Wauquiez understands that before the public invests in hydrogen vehicles, refueling infrastructure must exist, which is why he is committing public resources to jump start the sector.
In the French economic review Acteurs de l’Economie la Tribune, Wauquiez stated, “We want to be Europe’s leading region for hydrogen. We are the only [region] to have the European Commission’s confidence to directly drive the deployment of this clean energy, particularly given that our region possesses two-thirds of [France’s] production capacity. We are investing heavily with Engie and Michelin, and using our method of associating public and private resources. On the one hand we are helping people purchase equipment; on the other hand, we are deploying hydrogen fueling stations.” This approach gives consumers the confidence to purchase a hydrogen vehicle, knowing there will be a filling station in proximity. By deploying a fleet of utility vehicles, AuRA will immediately reduce diesel emissions while providing positive, visual reminders of the technology’s market penetration.
The ZEV strategy is reinforced by the region’s industrial composition. 80% of France’s hydrogen companies are based in AuRA. Starting with some of the world’s earliest hydroelectric production, and holding numerous national and university research laboratories, the region has historically been a world leader in energy technologies. Hydrogen companies range from small and medium enterprises (SMEs), to multi-national conglomerates.
At the 2019 ECV32 conference, held in Lyon, Thierry Martin-Lassagne, Michelin’s head of public affairs for France, drove home the point that Michelin, usually known for tires and prized restaurant reviews, “has been developing fuel cell technology for over 15 years.” He explained that the ZEV is a unique opportunity for Michelin to contribute to a concerted effort to reduce air pollution by investing in the environment. Michelin believes in the long game and Martin-Lassagne argued, “Short term profit is not the objective.”
Innovation runs deep in AuRA, with startups mining opportunities in niche hydrogen markets. Atawey and McPhy, two AuRA-based SMEs, sell turnkey electrolysis and distribution solutions that respond to local demand. Atawey President and CEO Jean Michel Amaré said, “One of their principal goals is to furnish easily transportable electrolyzers and dispensers to meet specific, local hydrogen need by light vehicle owners.” In 2017, McPhy shared the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) H2 Refuel H-Prize for their small-scale SimpleFuel electrolyzers to refuel light vehicles. But McPhy also produces modular large-scale solutions to refuel trains, busses, and small ships. Symbio, another AuRA startup, builds fuel cell modules that integrate into standard vehicles to produce competitively priced, hydrogen utility vehicles, farm equipment, and race cars.
AuRA is not Europe’s only region combating air pollution with hydrogen technologies, it is partnering with others to amplify hydrogen's environmental and economic benefits. Within the framework of the European Platform for Industrial Modernization, the European Commission has developed the European Hydrogen Valleys Partnership, which so far includes: Normandy and Auvergne Rhône Alpes in France, Aragon in Spain, and the Netherlands of the North regions. The Hydrogen Valleys Partnership is a tool with which member regions can access European Commission funding and collaborate on best practices. In June in Brussels, 30 European regions are expected at the next technical meeting.
Transition to viable, long term hydrogen infrastructure is arguably a regional issue, because of local economic and industrial variance. At EVS32, Christian Weinberger, senior adviser for advanced industrial technologies and hydrogen coordinator of the European Commission, claimed, “Regions drive technology.” Industry thought leader and pioneer in hybrid and fuel cell vehicles, Dr. Katsuhiko Hirose, professional partner, Toyota Motor Corporation, conferred that AuRA is a region where hydrogen technology can flourish.
By leveraging local industry, drawing public and private investment, and providing infrastructure, the ZEV will help Auvergne Rhône-Alpes reduce emissions while boosting its economy.