“Using just those three things, we can solve every energy problem that exists in an entirely sustainable way,” Õunpuu says. “We generate electricity from the sun and the wind, and we produce hydrogen from any electric energy that’s left over.” Elcogen develops fuel cell technology for this very purpose.
Õunpuu says that fuel cells can be used just about anywhere that people need electricity. “And that ranges in size from portable devices to vehicles and all the way up to entire buildings,” he explains. “Fuel cells are all about converting energy into the form you need for power and heat without burning any fuel.”
As such, fuel cells solve a problem that even biofuels are unable to address, let alone fossil fuels. Namely, biofuels too have to be burnt, releasing substances into the environment that are hazardous to humans. Fuel cells, on the other hand, require half to a third as much fuel to obtain the same amount of energy, and the fuel does not have to be burnt.
Õunpuu says that although fuel cells as a form of technology have existed for decades, it was only 20 years ago that they were brought down to Earth – quite literally, having been used in Space since the 1960s. They were considered too expensive for ordinary users at the time, and indeed they remain expensive today, since their use has not achieved critical mass. It is a repeat of the story of solar panels, which only became more affordable when they started to be used by the masses. According to Õunpuu, however, there are no fundamental obstructions to the widespread adoption of fuel cells.
Goodbye batteries, hello fuel cells!
In Õunpuu’s view, fuel cells solve the ongoing problem of the imbalance in energy production from the sun and the wind. Namely, leftover electricity can only be stored in batteries for a short space of time, and the most effective way of ensuring long-term balance, says Õunpuu, is to generate hydrogen from wind and solar energy using fuel cell technology.
Hydrogen is not only used in the energy sector, but by industry as a whole, including in refineries, metalworking and the food industry. Around the world, 70 million tonnes of hydrogen derived primarily from fossil fuels is used by industry every year. Hydrogen obtained from renewable energy could be used in its place.
True, Elcogen doesn’t offer an end product, but a key element for the manufacturing of end products. Õunpuu likens the company’s output to a computer processor: a person who needs a computer doesn’t need a computer processor per se, but these are needed by computer companies. It is the same with Elcogen’s fuel cells – what Elcogen makes is used in everything from portable devices and drones to private homes. The company’s clientele is divided more or less equally between Europe and Asia, where it has customers in Japan, South Korea and China. Everything it makes is exported.
Elcogen’s first demo factory, it was decided, would be set up in Estonia. Construction of the production facilities, which will cover 10,000 sq m in the cutting-edge Ülemiste City business park in Tallinn, is set to begin this summer. Its completion is likely to take a year at a projected cost of 6.3 million euros. Elcogen is investing almost 20 million euros in the equipment for the production unit, 12 million of which it obtained as a loan from the European Investment Bank to that end.
The factory will have the capacity to produce 50 MW elements. But that, adds Õunpuu, is just the beginning.
“As soon as the factory’s done, we need to start expanding,” he says. Their clients’ needs range from 200 MW up to 1 GW. They chose to go with a smaller factory, so that they could learn from any mistakes in its set-up, find solutions to them and validate their production processes in order to make things simpler in subsequent stages of development.
Estonia welcomes investments
Toomas Meltsas, Deputy Head of Global Business Development at Estonian Investment Agency, says that Estonia is open to investments in three fields of energy: the production of renewable energy, including wind farms, solar farms and biogas; hydrogen technology, including energy storage and re-use; and alternative so-called power-to-x technologies, including green ammonia, synthetic natural gas and e-fuels.
Meltsas says that in addition to Elcogen, foreign investors are interested in ultracapacitors developer and producer Skeleton Technologies and portable fuel cells developer and producer PowerUp Energy Technologies.
Hydrogen, sun and wind combined with the innovative ability to turn ideas into reality for which Estonia is renowned mean that the country already makes, and will continue to make, an influential contribution to the global green revolution.