Estonia may not be sitting on massive oil deposits, but it does have plenty of wind, water, and, occasionally, sun. That may be enough to turn this country of islands, bogs, and ingenuity into a hydrogen energy powerhouse, if its talents can put their heads together and work prodigiously.
The country’s hydrogen energy sector is inarguably young. Not only do some of the companies date back a decade, or two at the most, but some innovators moved literally from studies at the University of Tartu or at Tallinn Institute of Technology (TalTech) to holding C-suite positions.
Such is the story of Ivar Kruusenberg, a University of Tartu scientist who decided to found PowerUP Energy Technologies in 2016 in part to get away from a lifetime of writing papers. Now he helms a team of 25 from nine nations — the CTO is Japanese, the CFO is French-based at an office in Tallinn. The company’s slogan is “Clean Power, Green Future” and its core offering is its proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells, which use hydrogen gas as a fuel.
A nice fit for boats and vehicles
The company recently rolled out its first product, a 400 watt, €6500, portable hydrogen fuel cell-based smart generator called the UP400, which the firm imagines could be a nice fit for boats and vehicles looking for alternative power supplies. “We are looking for early adopters,” says Kruusenberg, “especially in the business to business market, where this generator could be installed in new boats and RVs.”
PowerUP is also developing 200-watt, 1-kilowatt, and 6-kilowatt generators. The latter, branded as the UP6K, could find use in critical infrastructures, such as hospitals or telecommunications operators. “Mobile towers, for example, use about 5 to 6 kilowatts,” he points out. All three will be out by next year. Krusenberg notes that PowerUP has benefited by being part of a community of Estonian businesses focused on clean energy, and hydrogen energy, in particular.
A lot of soft money available
“Overall, taking into account how many people we have in Estonia, the hydrogen-related business is quite active here,” he says. Money has been one reason for the interest. As the EU steers its member states’ economies toward non-fossil fuel solutions, the Estonian government has done the same. Estonia received 23 applications in April for a €1.5 billion EU call for hydrogen projects. PowerUp and Alexela, an Estonian energy company, applied to develop a network of hydrogen refuelling and cylinder exchange stations that could be used by consumers. Other players like Skeleton Technologies and Elcogen also applied.
“There is a lot of soft money available,” says Kruusenberg, “and obviously everyone wants to get a piece.” He also credits the Estonian mentality of “newer is better” as a catalyst for innovation. “It’s not the mentality that what works for my grandfather works for me,” he says. “We are always looking for new solutions, better solutions, and so on. This is also the driving force.”
Alternative to batteries
In the clean technology sector, PowerUP is definitely the new kid on the block, while Skeleton Technologies is a more entrenched player. Founded in 2009, this provider of ultracapacitors, or “ultracaps,” now maintains 200 employees across sites in Estonia and Germany. Ultracaps, also known as supercapacitors, are an energy storage alternative to batteries, and Skeleton’s menu of SkelCap cells, modules, systems, and welding services, are based on curved graphene, a nanomaterial developed by its co-founders in Estonia. The firm maintains offices in Tallinn’s Ülemiste City, as well as Großröhrsdorf, Germany, where it established a location in 2013.
This summer has been a busy one for the ultracaps provider: it signed up a Japanese distributor, closed a €70 million D round of financing, launched a new series of 3.0V ultracapacitors, and promoted Sebastian Pohlmann, its former vice president of innovation, to vice president of automotive and business development. According to Pohlmann, a German national, Estonia’s cleantech sector benefits in multiple ways from both its location, plus extensive expertise in IT.
“The size of a country doesn’t make up its energy usage, but the size of its population does,” says Pohlmann. Not only is Estonia, population 1.3 million, sparsely settled, but there is, therefore, plenty of space for wind and solar parks, the energy that can be transferred to Skeleton’s ultracaps.
The country’s reputation helps
The country’s reputation as a Northern European IT hub also helps, as do its diverse e-solutions.
“It’s important to have good hardware, but it’s equally important to have good software, and that is where Estonia can benefit,” says Pohlmann. “Taking all that knowledge in telecom and software development and applying it to the hardware world of energy storage, is a good match.”
But Estonia is not actually Skeleton’s key market. Rather it does business with a variety of players, particularly in the transport sector in Asia and around Europe. Tram, rail, and bus service providers are users. Skeleton’s ultracaps can also mitigate issues introduced by renewable energy sources into the power grid, as its capacitors can help fill the gaps when wind or solar energy production can be patchy. To meet that need, Skeleton is scaling production in Germany.
“We are building the most advanced ultracap globally there,” says Pohlmann.
The granddaddy of Estonian cleantech
If PowerUP is the new kid, and Skeleton is the entrenched player, then Tallinn’s Elcogen is definitely the granddaddy of the Estonian cleantech sector, Founded two decades ago by CEO Enn Õunpuu, the company had its first prototype on the market by 2005, opened a Finnish subsidiary in 2009, and has built up a global client base, particularly in Asian markets like Japan and South Korea, where it has announced several deals around its solid oxide fuel cell platform.
“Fuel cell technology is excellent because you convert any fuel directly to electricity and heat, and therefore you don’t emit any pollutants,” says Õunpuu. “In the future, all we will need is wind, sun, and water, and our part is to provide the energy conversion process,” Õunpuu says.
Elcogen’s products consist of its planar, ceramic ElcoCell fuel cells, which can be operated at temperatures of 650 degrees Celsius. Stacks of the cells are also available. The company is currently building a factory close to Ülemiste City to produce the cells, which should be operational next year. Õunpuu said that Finland is probably the closest market for Elcogen, but that Estonia is also making strides toward renewable energy, and that local players like PowerUp and Skeleton are fewer rivals than firms offering complementary technologies to Elcogen’s SOFCs.
“The Estonian hydrogen fuel cell industry is still quite young;” says Õunpuu. “The whole industry is so big and complex with a lot of parts in the value chain so that there is work for everyone,” Õunpuu added that despite the benefits of clean energy solutions, opposition remains.
“Whenever you bring something new to the market, the opposition is huge at first,” says Õunpuu. “We still see opposition for wind and solar energy.”
Hydrogen-powered self-driving car
One might add autonomous vehicles to that list, although it hasn’t stopped Estonian firms from innovating. In July, Auve Tech, a Tallinn-based startup, debuted a hydrogen-powered self-driving car that relies on fuel cells developed at the University of Tartu. CEO Johannes Mossov says that the firm needed to move to hydrogen to overcome limitations with battery-powered vehicles, which can take hours to recharge. Hydrogen in contrast could be quickly inserted into the autonomous vehicles, allowing them to drive for eight to 10 hours between refills.
“In areas where you need longer operating times like manufacturing sites, harbors, and airports, locations where you have a couple of hydrogen vehicles operating 24/7, it’s more economical and makes more sense,” says Mossov, who leads a team of 30 people focused on developing autonomous vehicles. According to Mossov, Estonia is in a good position to make use of hydrogen, given the activities of Elcogen, PowerUP, Skeleton, and others, as well as ongoing research at the University of Tartu and TalTech. He likened it to innovation in the digital services sector over the past two decades, which has resulted in an ecosystem of applications for everything from voting to paying taxes online to accessing health records, dubbed e-Estonia.
“I think Estonia has a good opportunity to build a fully functional hydrogen-powered system with fuel stations, bus infrastructure, and manufacturing,” says Mossov. “Estonia is also a good area for promoting energy from wind, which will allow us to get the hydrogen price point lower.”
The ones keeping Estonian lights on and homes warm
Auve Tech showed off its hydrogen-powered vehicle at the first annual Tartu Hydrogen Days in July, a confab that had a strong presence by domestic energy providers, including Elering, Estonia’s national transmission system operator for electricity and gas. “We are the ones keeping Estonian lights on and homes warm,” says Karl Kivinurm, strategy manager for the operator.
He noted that Estonia is, like the rest of Europe, moving to renewable energy, but questions remain about storage, as, even in windy Estonia, wind and solar energy production can be intermittent. “We need some kind of long-term seasonal storage,” says Kivinurm. That energy can also be exported, he notes, with Northern Europe as a source of energy for Central Europe, where there is less wind electricity production. And one potential means for export is hydrogen.
Estonia is even weighing building a hydrogen-producing plant in Ida-Viru County in eastern Estonia, traditionally a region of energy production focused on oil shale extraction, but that may be repurposed to serve this new focus on renewable energy production and export. As for local innovators, Virunurm welcomes them to a market he also characterized as new and evolving.
“We are going to need to collaborate with them,” he says. “The sector is about to change a lot.”
freelance journalist and writer