05.04.2024 | Security of supply? We take care of it – today with Luka Cuderman

Reichenau: green hydrogen production ready for take-off

Green hydrogen is seen as the energy source of the future, and Axpo is well-positioned to lead the way – especially with its plant in Reichenau, which will produce 350 tonnes of green hydrogen per year. ‘Demand for hydrogen is set to grow in Switzerland, too. That means the question is not if a market will develop, but when,’ says Luka Cuderman, Hydrogen Market Intelligence & Strategy Lead.

Anyone driving along the A13 motorway through the Rhine Valley in the Grisons will get a great view of Axpo’s Reichenau hydropower plant in Domat/Ems. Located just below the confluence of the Vorderrhein and Hinterrhein rivers, this is where Axpo harnesses the power of alpine waters to produce electricity. A fenced area is also clearly visible, with striking white containers and a tall, slender cylindrical tank about eight metres high. These are part of the new facility for producing green hydrogen, a form of hydrogen that is generated using electricity from renewable sources such as hydropower.

The compact facility is a joint venture between Axpo and the local energy provider Rhiienergie. It is connected directly to the hydropower plant, which makes it possible to reduce grid costs. Furthermore, customers can quickly and easily reach the green hydrogen facility via the A13 motorway. This optimum location has been carefully chosen. 

H2 plant of Axpo at the Reichenau hydropower plant in Domat/Ems.
Capacity of 2.5 megawatts

We are on site. ‘With a capacity of 2.5 megawatts, Reichenau is currently the most powerful plant in Switzerland for the production of green hydrogen. It can produce up to 350 tonnes per year,’ explains Luka Cuderman, undeterred by the cool and rainy weather on this day in mid-March. In his role as Hydrogen Market Intelligence & Strategy Lead, he is responsible for the strategic direction of Axpo’s hydrogen activities in Switzerland and internationally. Lukas co-authored the Axpo white paper on the potential of green hydrogen. He holds a degree in electrical engineering from ETH Zurich and has more than a decade of experience at the nexus between energy, sustainability and digitalisation.

The electrolyser as the beating heart

‘The beating heart of the facility, the electrolyser, was delivered about a month ago,’ says Luka, pointing to the central container that houses the device (image). It functions with what is known as a proton exchange membrane (box). 

An electrolyser splits chemical compounds with the help of electricity. In the case of water, the split products are hydrogen and oxygen. However, to prevent any damage to the electrolyser, the water must be extremely pure. This means the facility cannot simply use water from the nearby Rhine. Furthermore, a direct current is needed, so that the load carriers consistently move in one direction. The rectifier in the adjacent container provides this direct current by converting the alternating current supplied by the power plant.

While the separated oxygen is released into the environment, the water vapor-saturated hydrogen is ‘dried’ in the electrolyser and then compressed in another container. Once this process is complete, the hydrogen is ready to be bottled. The facility is equipped with four filling stations and docking stations for hydrogen tankers. These transport the hydrogen to hydrogen filling stations or to industrial plants in the region. With variable pressure levels of 200 and 300 bar, it is possible to cater to a wide range of customers.

The docking process has already been successfully tested with a few tankers. The entire facility is also being rigorously put through its paces. ‘As soon as we have completed the necessary checks and confirmed that everything works as it should, the facility will commence commercial operations,’ explains Luka.

Main focus: enhancing expertise

Axpo and Rhiienergie have invested several million Swiss francs in this project. The production costs per kilogramme of hydrogen range from 8 to 14 Swiss francs and are largely dependent on electricity prices. The higher these are, the higher the production costs are. Fixed costs are also an important factor. If the facility operates more, the fixed costs can be spread over a larger production volume. According to Axpo’s calculations, an optimum utilisation rate for electrolysers is around 85 per cent.

Because the hydrogen market is still in its infancy, it is difficult to predict how the demand for hydrogen will develop. ‘Profitability is not the main focus for this pioneering project,’ emphasises Luka. ‘We want to gain insights and enhance our expertise. How reliable is the technology? How is the market taking shape? Then we can incorporate the lessons learned into our subsequent projects.’

Hydrogen can be stored and transported

Several projects have been initiated in Switzerland and Europe. In addition to the one in Reichenau, we also have a project in the Canton of Uri, for example. Among other things, the hydrogen produced there will be used to operate the first hydrogen passenger ship on Lake Lucerne. There are plans to build another larger facility in Brugg, Aargau, to complement Axpo’s portfolio of plants for producing sustainable hydrogen.

‘The major advantage of hydrogen is that large amounts of energy can be stored and transported over long distances. This is crucial for the transformation of the energy system, i.e. the shift away from carbon-based energy sources towards a decarbonised supply. To this end, we must continuously ensure a secure energy supply, meaning we have to transition the system in parallel,’ he emphasises. ‘This poses a challenge.’ But the pros far outweigh the cons. ‘In the long term, the opportunities presented by green hydrogen are vast,’ says Luka. ‘However, we can only unlock this potential if we start now. We must act, not wait.’  

The case for PEM electrolysers

The proton exchange membrane electrolyser operates with distilled or drinking water and a proton-conductive polymer membrane as the electrolyte. This technology is mature and safe. It currently has an efficiency level of 74%. The costs for PEM electrolysers are manageable. Furthermore, the facilities only require minimal maintenance. They are compact and can be easily integrated into an existing system. But the main advantage is that PEM electrolysers can be operated efficiently at partial load and even be overloaded temporarily to support grid stability. 

Visualisation: How the hydrogen plant works

More articles for you

Show all

Energy politics

Shifting majorities: is the centre-left the new centre-right?

EU elections

Read more

Energy market

Growing business: how Axpo is helping French greenhouse farmers

Innovative partnerships in France

Read more

Energy market

Weather and geopolitics shape European energy markets

European Energy Markets Monthly, June 2024

Read more

International business

Gas decarbonisation and hydrogen package

EU internal gas market: More green & low-carbon molecules

Read more