Fayaz Ahmed's Interview with Vaitea Cowan, Co-Founder of Enapter
Updated: Nov 24, 2020
Fayaz Ahmed: First of all, tell us a little bit about yourself and a little about your educational and professional background.
Vaitea Cowan: I was born in New Caledonia, a French island next to Australia and New-Zealand. I grew up in the States and studied in Montréal, Canada at the John Molson School of Business, Concordia University. I have always been engaged in sustainability topics since I was young. I started a club in my high school to reduce our Co2 emissions and canvassed to protect our forests. After University, I moved to Northern Thailand, where I met Sebastian-Justus Schmidt and his son Jan-Justus Schmidt. I was amazed by what they had accomplished at the Phi Suea House http://www.phisueahouse.com/. Until I met them, I did not know hydrogen was a clean energy storage solution.
Fayaz Ahmed: Please take us back to the roots of Enapter where and how it all started:
Vaitea Cowan: As a guest in Thailand, Sebastian wanted to leave the land he would build his home on, in a better shape. He wanted to use the abundant sunshine and natural airflow from Chiang Mai to power and cool his home. No diesel generators were allowed. He looked for an alternative and discovered hydrogen. He bought 4 electrolyser prototypes from a small company in Italy. Once the microgrid was completed in 2015 by Jan, the idea was to showcase to the region that green hydrogen is a solution for energy independence. Diesel generators are often used to provide backup energy, and they wanted to prove that hydrogen is a clean alternative that eliminated complicated logistics, cost and pollution. I helped Sebastian and Jan by organizing events at the Phi Suea House. Politicians, scientists, architects, permaculture experts, students and more came to see the lighthouse project. Later in 2017, after using the electrolyser for some time, Sebastian saw the opportunity in hydrogen, and invested in the Italian company. At that time, Enapter was a team of 11, and had one goal in mind: scale green hydrogen technology; replace fossil fuels.
Fayaz Ahmed: I am curious what does word Enapter mean and how you guys came up with this name:
Vaitea Cowan: It combines two words: Energy + Adapter. At Enapter, we try to make energy more adaptive.
Hydrogen is an energy carrier that can effectively couple all our sectors (power, mobility, heat, industry) to green electricity.
Fayaz Ahmed: Tell us about Enapter and what it does:
Vaitea Cowan: Enapter designs and manufactures highly efficient hydrogen generators. Our patented anion exchange membrane (AEM) electrolyser offers lowest-cost hydrogen production. We also develop the Enapter Energy Management, to remote monitor and control electrolysers and easily integrate them into energy setups. We believe both hardware and software solutions are the building blocks to our energy future.
Fayaz Ahmed: How is Enapter different? What makes Enapter’s AEM electrolysers stand out from the herd?
Vaitea Cowan: The AEM electrolyser does not require any noble metals. It has high efficiency, long lifetime and cost effectiveness. Enapter’s unique advantage is the ability to produce modular electrolysers cost-effectively. This results from our patented operation with a dry cathode, allowing for high purity, pressurised hydrogen production directly from the stack, and dramatically simplifying the balance of plant. The affordable electrolyser can be stacked freely according to hydrogen needs. This reduces costs and improves lifetime performance, but first and foremost, it sets the foundation for a product that can be mass-produced.
Take a look at our Latest blog post on the AEM technology: https://www.enapter.com/aem-water-electrolysis-how-it-works
Fayaz Ahmed: Why Enapter choses to build small, modular, and standardized AEM electrolysers while everyone else in the pack continue producing large scale electrolysers with higher energy capacities?
Vaitea Cowan: Competing electrolyser manufacturers are limited by their technology and produce large-scale electrolysers for industrial projects. Enapter is leveraging its patented technological advantage (low-cost materials, no need for noble metals, high current densities, fast response, long lifetime) to make electrolysers a product, and ultimately, a commodity.
Here is an analogy: Our competitors are developing systems similar to that of early computing mainframes, which were mistakenly considered the future of computing in the 1980’s. Like the introduction of the revolutionary personal computer, Enapter is establishing a commoditised product that is compact, modular and scalable.
Fayaz Ahmed: In conversation with Rethink Energy, you mentioned that cost of producing green hydrogen from renewables could be as high as €10 per kg, compared to €1.50 per kg of steam reforming (CO2-intensive hydrogen production process). Can you comment on Enapter’s approach on achieving cost parity?
Vaitea Cowan: We are increasing our production capacity through serial production and will move into mass production. Enapter announced its Campus location in Saerbeck recently. It will house the automated mass production facility, capable of building 100,000 electrolysers per year. After this, we want to scale production around the globe. This will significantly reduce the cost of green hydrogen to compete with crude oil prices. Mass producing our electrolysers, hence reaching economies of scale, will help us reach our goal to bring the cost of green hydrogen down to 1.50 euro/kg.
Fayaz Ahmed: As Enapter moving forward with the plan of establishing its first automated electrolyser mass-production facility in the world. How important are the principles of circular design to Enapter team in order to create products that stay in closed loops and business models that discourage waste.
Vaitea Cowan: Designing waste out is the future. We believe this is an important aspect for our future mass production facility. Our Campus will use renewable energy generated onsite but also from the Saerbeck community who produces more than it consumes. We are striving towards a net-zero mass production facility. And we will not stop there. We coined a term for the philosophy of our Enapter Campus: Life Cycle Impact Zero. The key ideas at the heart of this philosophy are:
· Using 100% locally sourced green electricity
· Zero CO₂ emissions from our production facilities
· No production side-effects negatively impacting people or the environment
· Recyclability of our electrolysers and other products
· Circular material flows at our sites
· Eventually bringing CO₂ emissions for our entire product life cycle to zero
Full article on Life Cycle Impact Zero here: https://www.enapter.com/enapter-campus-life-cycle-impact-zero
Fayaz Ahmed: Enapter is committed to commercialize the electrolysers so that cost of green hydrogen become cost competitive with fossil fuels. But some people see green hydrogen in competition with green electricity, how do you respond to this statement? Can two go hand in hand if yes, then how?
Vaitea Cowan: The world needs many solutions to fight climate change. Our biggest enemy is time.
I believe green electricity and hydrogen go hand in hand! They need each other. They are a great match and are fantastically complementary. There are not competing because:
· Hydrogen is an energy carrier. Green electricity is an energy source.
· Hydrogen is a hydrocarbon. Green electricity is an electron.
· Green hydrogen is made by green electricity, via electrolysis.
· Hydrogen can couple all sectors to green electricity.
· Green Hydrogen can decarbonize those hard to electrify sectors.
· The price of green hydrogen depends on the price of electricity.
The two have their strengths and their perfect fit in certain applications.
Fayaz Ahmed: Although media landscape awash with stories that clean hydrogen is currently enjoying unprecedented political and business momentum, but the veterans of the industry seem quite pessimistic about green hydrogen and consider it just another hype and claim that they’ve heard it all before. Do you agree with them? If No, then what’s so different about this time?
Vaitea Cowan: We have reached a turning point in our understanding of energy. This paradigm shift is occurring at the intersection of technological advancements and collective consciousness on climate change. Today, renewables are widely available and are the cheapest form of energy. Hydrogen is a solution to make use of excess renewables and decarbonize our lifestyle and all sectors. Leaders are understanding that there is no more time to waste. They understand that green hydrogen can help them meet their climate goals. We need to act urgently, and green hydrogen technologies are scaling up as we speak.
Fayaz Ahmed: Congratulations to the Enapter team that you have managed to deploy your AEM electrolyzers in over 100 projects across 33 countries, spanning end-use applications. Can you briefly talk about one of your projects?
Vaitea Cowan: It’s hard to pick only one! They are all unique, and I recommend your readers to check out a larger selection of our Use cases https://www.enapter.com/use-cases.
One project is the HyFlyer that aims to decarbonise medium range passenger aircrafts using hydrogen. It shows powertrain technology replacing conventional piston engines in propeller aircrafts. Funded by Innovate UK and the Aerospace Technology Institute, the project is led by ZeroAvia, developers of hydrogen fuel cell powertrain solutions. Project partners Intelligent Energy will optimise its high power fuel cell technology for application in aviation; while EMEC Hydrogen will supply green hydrogen required for flight tests and investigate the infrastructure required through the development of a mobile refueling unit compatible with the plane. Enapter is delighted to provide electrolysers and see the project fly high.
Fayaz Ahmed: How challenging it is for Enapter, as new kid on the block, to succeed in a very old and competitive industry. And what Enapter is doing to stay ahead of the game:
Vaitea Cowan: Enapter is just three, while existing electrolyser manufacturers are 100 years old. They have the large-scale production experience, whereas we are creating a new one: the automated mass production of the AEM electrolyser. No one has done it yet; this is our challenge. We stay ahead of the game by following our core principles: simplicity, transparency, urgency. We are focused on our mission to replace fossil fuels ASAP. We work very hard, hire excellent individuals, do things differently and have fun along the journey.
Fayaz Ahmed: How does Enapter team intend to develop and advance Enapter AEM electrolyzers technology in future?
Vaitea Cowan: There is no technical limit to stacking our systems. We are scaling up our offering with our AEM Cluster 70. Up to 70 electrolysers can be stacked into a 20-foot container. Stay tuned for more!
Fayaz Ahmed: Where do you see Enapter going in the near future, say over the next five to ten years or so?
Vaitea Cowan: In the next five years, Enapter will have reached its goal to bring down the cost of green hydrogen to 1.5 euro/kg. In the next 10 years+, our blueprint for mass producing electrolysers will be finetuned and replicated. We are a highly motivated team. Our vision of the world is one where fossil fuels are no longer burnt. We know what to do next.
Co-Founder of Enapter,