Marek Alliksoo on the hydrogen revolution and its possibilities for Tartu and Estonia

Hydrogen is seen to play a key role in reducing global CO2 emissions and transitioning to clean, renewable energy. We discussed the current state of the technology, the race between countries to emerge as leaders in the field and hydrogen’s potential for Estonia and Tartu with Marek AlliksooCEO of SKYCORP and Board Member of the Estonian Association of Hydrogen Technologies.

There’s a lot of talk about hydrogen as one of the fuels for the future – a source of clean energy that could replace fossil fuels in powering transport and generating electricity. What are the biggest obstacles that need to be solved before that?

The “fuel of the future” term is actually a very dated term; it could have been used in the 1700s already since that’s how long the word “hydrogen” has been around, seeing most of its use cases demonstrated in the 1900s. We wouldn’t have been able to go to the moon without fuel cells. Incidentally, that was also the time when cheap oil and gas surged, and as we had zero environmental concerns back then, it just didn’t take off outside of industrial use. Now in a completely changed world, we are going back to it, but we are under massive time pressure to accelerate the off-take.

The main obstacles are still the resistance from the oil and gas industry, billions in lobbying go into saving those stranded assets. Of course, we still lack hydrogen infrastructure, especially for mobility applications, and this already restricts the option of off-take, even if the awareness and will are there.

Making green hydrogen itself is easy as you just need water and electricity. And when you use hydrogen in a fuel cell to generate electricity and heat, oxygen and hydrogen again combine into water – a circular economy at its finest.

Hydrogen can also be used to produce synthetic fuels for ships and planes, ammonia (also useful for green fertilizers and, thus, clean food) or methanol. The best way, of course, is to use hydrogen in fuel cells as it can work for any zero-emission mobility application – cars, trucks, trains, ships, planes, drones, e-bikes, forklifts, anything goes. There’s a lot of support to dramatically increase the off-take now in the EU, but also in the US and Asia, while emerging regions with a lot of renewable energy potential in Latin America, Africa and even the oil-rich Middle East are realizing that this could be a big opportunity for them.

The growing interest in hydrogen has sparked a race between countries and regions that want to become leaders in the field. What are your thoughts on that? Will there be leaders and laggers – or will everyone win?

Indeed the EU and US are particularly putting out competing support tools such as the Hydrogen Bank in the EU and the Inflation Reduction Act in the US. In terms of attracting investment, there are definitely going to be losers – regions that can’t draw big actors or projects will have much higher costs later, not from buying the technology itself, but from not having benefited from early uptake. Particularly in the EU, the “polluter pays” principle will seriously hike up the cost of doing nothing.

I also heard a great term from the UK – “hydrogen lock-out risk.” It means that if you don’t move with the innovation, it will be very difficult for your industry and companies to compete. The leaderboards will definitely change over this new generation, and industries or companies that fail to adapt will be left in history.

Regions that have a massive renewable energy potential, such as Chile, can seriously benefit from it even when far from Europe since hydrogen can be converted into e-fuels that are much easier to export, while Europe is working to connect itself up with a hydrogen gas pipeline making it a new commodity to trade between regions.

For example, if Estonia realizes its offshore wind energy potential, we could easily become a net exporter of energy.

And unlike green electricity, you can store massive quantities of hydrogen very cheaply in salt caverns for when you need it. This enables seasonal energy storage, dramatically improving our energy security as well.

Where do you see the potential of Estonia in this hydrogen race?

The aforementioned offshore wind potential is a huge opportunity, but when we’re talking about quantities that can exceed 250 000 tonnes of green hydrogen annually produced by our excess resources, we also have a big challenge – how do we learn how to use and deploy it? Do we purchase all the technology or do we get it domestically? We are one of the few countries with no historic hydrogen usage, so we really lack talent at the moment.

And that’s why the Hydrogen Valley Estonia (HVE) initiative was created. We need to form an ecosystem of actors and hubs where hydrogen innovation, generation and use can flourish. HVE will help us learn how to use hydrogen in smaller quantities before we scale to very big ones. For example, we still have to “pilot” hydrogen use in mobility in Estonia, even if other locations did the same things 20 years ago. For us, it’s new – but we do not have the same luxury as those with 20 years of experience. We have until 2030 latest to get all of this out of the way, and that’s what we are doing with some of the largest and strongest actors in Estonia, leading this momentum. We already see very big potential with Estonian electrolyser technologies; we have extremely good talent here since we have 20+ years of experience – after all, Elcogen started already in 2001.

The second big opportunity is with the maritime and aviation sectors since these are new sectors for everyone else as well. For the aviation sector, the ZeroEST ecosystem was formed for manned and unmanned climate-neutral aviation development. Tartu already has a very strong ecosystem in the form of the Estonian Aviation Academy, where all the Estonian aviation competence is trained. When the public sector is commonly claimed not to provide enough support for development, then in ZeroEST, the board members are Tartu City, Tartu Science Park and the Association of Municipalities of Tartu County, so we have a completely reversed situation here where all the support you could ever want is right here.

That’s why Estonia’s first U-space sandbox will be here and why many Estonian or EU-wide drone projects, such as the recently announced SAFIR-Ready, involve Tartu.

Tartu is also the only Baltic city in the EU’s Urban Air Mobility Initiative Cities Community (UIC2), and receives a lot of external interest, too. And of course, we have a nice quiet airport here with lots of free airspace, something which is impossible to find in Europe.

Thirdly, of course, I have to say that retrofitting is a big business opportunity for Estonia – taking a vehicle that has come to the end of its life or is too expensive to run on fossil fuels and making it electric, with a fuel cell system acting as a “range extender” while reducing the need for batteries. Making a hydrogen version of an existing model or offering “conversion kits” is happening anyways with most vehicles already, since why build something completely from scratch when you can just modernize it? Examples here include Toyota hydrogen cars or the hydrogen version of the BMW X5, while ZeroAvia and Airbus are taking the same route in aviation.

A lot of public funding has been allocated for the development of hydrogen technology. What about the VCs – do private investors understand the potential of the sector in your view? Where would their contribution be most useful?

Here you have to look at the VC’s region. Estonian VCs – no, this is still too fresh here. Considering all the three-letter sustainable taxonomy keywords, such as ESG and SDG, however, it’s definitely inevitable; otherwise, they’ll lose their own investors to funds that do. But larger EU, UK and US ones – yes, I think the best example is Hy24 which is mobilizing 20 billion investment capacity over the next six years! 

As to VCs of smaller regions such as Estonia, their contribution would be most useful in the early stage. This is where newer actors have the most difficulty finding external investors as these large VC funds look for a ticket size of at least a million, which can restrict new entrants.

You are the CEO and founder of SKYCORP, a company building UAVs powered by hydrogen fuel cell systems. Tell us a bit about what the company does.

SKYCORP is a hydrogen drone manufacturer and ecosystem developer, and we want to revolutionize emergency response with hydrogen drones. Of course, hydrogen drones have many more use cases and drone applications are almost endless, but it’s important to start with the most critical ones – those areas where lives and property are at stake. By property, we also mean our natural resources, the protection of which is becoming increasingly challenging as climate change is causing environmental disasters at a never before seen frequency.

We’ve built up our know-how, network and technology over the years. Now it’s time to put it into action to make that difference we sought to make when we started the company.

For readers looking to dive deeper into the topic, are there any good resources that you would recommend to check out?

On the topic of hydrogen, it’s very good to follow Hydrogen Europe on social media, and their “Heroes of Hydrogen 2022” book is beautiful. Mission Hydrogen frequently puts out fantastic free webinars, and H2-View has to be one of my favorite news sites. Also, Marco Alverà’s “The Hydrogen Revolution” is a fantastic book I recently read. I'd recommend it to any politician who thinks there’s a silver bullet and still can’t wrap their head around how energy systems really work.

On drones, UnmannedAirspace is excellent for news, Uncrewed Systems Technology is great also in magazine format, which we subscribe to, and our good friends at DroneTalks put out fantastic content in multiple formats.  

And I have to give a shout-out to “Just Have a Think” on YouTube, which discusses climate and technologies with a wider spectrum; it often also provides overviews of very challenging reports like the IPCC to help translate what the scientists have put together.

Check out Marek Alliksoo’s talk “How We Turn Cities Vertical While Heading Towards Net Zero” at sTARTUp Day 2022.
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