Thomas Branche

Thomas Branche

Executive Vice President France, Nuclear & Energy New Build

A graduate of France’s prestigious Ecole Polytechnique and a member of the Corps des Mines, Thomas joined Assystem in July 2012 taking charge of the French Nuclear business unit. In 2017, Thomas became Senior Vice-President in charge of “Energy Transition and Infrastructure” activities, then in 2022, of Assystem’s engineering activities worldwide. He is appointed Executive Vice President France, Nuclear & Energy New Build in July 2023 and represents the French professional federation of engineering companies on France’s Hydrogen Council.

Hydrogen: a revolution in progress for the energy transition?

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In this episode, we’re talking about the low-carbon hydrogen revolution – a key pillar of the global energy transition and one in which the Assystem Group is playing a key role.

Today, there is no energy scenario that would allow us reach carbon neutrality by 2050 without low-carbon hydrogen

Hydrogen can be produced by capturing and storing CO2, orthrough electrolysis of water using electricity from renewable or nuclear energy sources, but how do we use it? How do we connect hydrogen to our electricity grids? Learn how Assystem is answering these challenges in the latest episode of our Switch On podcast.

Hydrogen: an energy transition revolution that’s already underway?

Low-carbon hydrogen is a fundamental part of the energy transition and a solution to help achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Today, we’re taking a closer look at the challenges and opportunities behind the production, distribution, and industrial structure of low carbon hydrogen. Thomas Branche, Assystem’s Executive Vice President for France, Nuclear and Energy New Build tells us more in this episode of our Switch On podcast.

 

Low-carbon hydrogen for a successful energy transition

Hydrogen is a hot topic. “However, it’s nothing new," argues Thomas Branche, " it's been used and understood for more than 100 years.

When we talk about hydrogen, we need to be clear because there are several types to choose from: firstly, grey hydrogen is produced from fossil fuels without capturing the associated carbon. It generates around 2% of the world's CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions and in the context of the energy transition, should be replaced by low-carbon hydrogen. There are three forms of low-carbon hydrogen; pink, from nuclear energy; green, from renewable energy sources; and blue, from fossil fuels combined with carbon capture and storage.

So why is low-carbon hydrogen in particular being brought into the spotlight? "It is an essential lever for achieving the energy transition scenarios, which require fossil fuels to be replaced in the short term," explains Thomas. This is especially true given that hydrogen appears to be an attractive alternative to electricity - technically and economically -  in areas such as public transport, large-scale heavy transport (planes, trains, lorries, buses), and industry, which by its very nature is a major consumer of fossil fuels. Hydrogen therefore has its rightful place in the process of decarbonising our economies.

“Without hydrogen, there is no scenario that meets the challenges of the energy transition. “

 

A revolution underway?

There are several ways of obtaining low-carbon hydrogen such as capturing and storing CO2, but among the most popular methods is electrolysis of water; a non-polluting process when powered by low-carbon sources. (i.e. derived from nuclear or renewable energies). "The challenge is not to produce low-carbon hydrogen - the process is known and mastered - but to organise its development on an industrial scale, while ensuring its economic viability," explains Thomas. This means designing the entire logistics chain: developing the right equipment and facilities to produce it; building the infrastructure (networks, stations) to deliver it; and adapting the 'products' to the needs of the customer and their machines, cars, trains, and factories to consume this hydrogen. "That's where the revolution comes in: these are extremely important and complex fundamental changes to be made, in a relatively short space of time, given that we have little time to spare with global warming. All the more so since this transformation must be carried out with the least possible disruption to the existing economic equilibrium," says Thomas.

 

Europe as the driving force

Is low-carbon hydrogen considered to be an energy of the future? The European Union says so, setting itself ambitious targets and adopting a clear policy with substantial resources allocated to the development development of low-carbon hydrogen. "This approach is extremely welcome and is creating a , with projects being financed and rolled out at national level. There remains one difficulty, however," points out Thomas, "and that is the fact that there won't be enough low-carbon electricity available in France and Europe, particularly if this electricity comes exclusively from renewable sources". The challenge is therefore, as the industrial members of the French hydrogen industry have expressly asked the French government and the European Union, to increase the quantity of low-carbon, renewable and nuclear electricity available. "This is a lever on which there is still work to be done, especially as, while everyone agrees on the situation, supply strategies differ", explains Thomas.

France, for example, intends to create home-grown low-carbon hydrogen, creating a sector that strengthens the country’s energy independence, a position that has become more desirable since the start of the war in Ukraine and offers the potential for high-value job creation. Germany is taking a diametrically opposed position, favouring hydrogen derived from renewable sources which is as cost-competitive as possible, such as solar energy imported from North Africa or Southern Europe. "Generally speaking, the hydrogen economy has yet to be invented, and that's what's so exciting about it. There are a lot of ideas and strategies in the pipeline that will probably have to coexist and evolve," adds Thomas. For example, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, both major exporters of fossil fuels, have chosen to become major producers of low-carbon hydrogen for Asia and Europe, investing huge resources in the process.

 

France in pole position

Significant progress has also been made in France. Very early on, France showed its determination to make significant use of low-carbon hydrogen. It was one of the first countries in the world to set up a programme, with a clear direction, €7 billion in funding, and promoting collaboration between industrial and engineering suppliers. One downside to this approach is the huge number of small, dispersed projects being funded. To structure the industry, large-scale projects are needed to develop genuine ecosystems in which each contributor has an interest. The market is made up of a wide variety of companies, each with very different business models: equipment manufacturers, hydrogen producers (often also the ones who market the hydrogen), the logistics companies that transport the hydrogen, and the consumers. "There has to be enough space for everyone to benefit. That's where the challenge lies,” Thomas emphasises, “it's the key to the success of our hydrogen business model.".

 

The role of an engineering company like Assystem

The low-carbon hydrogen revolution is one of the keys to the world's energy transition. To enable its development, Assystem’s offering focuses on two sectors: transport and industry. It works with public transport developers on a wide range of issues, such as integrating hydrogen safety issues into the rail sector or defining bus fleet strategies for local authorities. It also supports companies investing in the production and distribution of hydrogen.

In practice, Assystem can act as an engineer to design or support the design of facilities and supervise and take charge of project management to make the facilities available. Digital technology, one of Assystem's core competencies, enables us to respond effectively to the safety requirements that arise with the introduction of new products and associated constraints. "By engineering the requirements and modelling the challenges, we are able to ensure that they are integrated at the right level throughout the engineering process, right through to operation", explains Thomas Branche. Digital technology is just as essential in supporting the huge need for industrial deployment, by facilitating the replication of small hydrogen stations using digital mock-ups.

 

“There are two good reasons for believing that decarbonised hydrogen is not just a fad. Firstly, because there is no solution to the fight against global warming without it. Secondly, we are lucky to be able to produce and control it, which will guarantee our energy independence, which is a fundamental issue. “

 

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