Interview

At Groningen Airport Eelde Europe's first 'Hydrogen Valley Airport' will be developed

Meiltje de Groot , CEO of Groningen Airport Eelde

Groningen Airport Eelde (GRQ) in the Netherlands is a frontrunner when it comes to innovative and sustainable solutions that will reduce the environmental impact of airport operations. In our EUROCONTROL Aviation Sustainability Briefing interview Meiltje De Groot, CEO of Groningen Airport Eelde and Chairman of the Dutch Association of Airports shares insight into what makes the regional airport for the northern Netherlands stand out. 

The world's first hydrogen-powered commercial aircraft are expected to enter the market only by 2035. Yet already today Groningen Airport Eelde is developing a full-scale hydrogen ecosystem with its ambitious “Hydrogen Valley Airport” strategy. Could you please tell us more about your strategy and the planned timeline? 

At GRQ, Europe’s first ‘Hydrogen Valley Airport’ will be developed. The full-scale hydrogen ecosystem will involve production of green hydrogen, distribution, and utilisation. The starting point is its existing 22MW solar park, the largest airside solar field in operation at any operative commercial airport, with 63,000 solar panels, operational since February 2020. The airport is located in Europe’s first Hydrogen Valley, which is being built by the Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking (FCH-JU) and is supported by the HEAVENN project of the New Energy Coalition and a €9 billion hydrogen regional investment agenda. The four-to five-year project includes research, development and realisation of an electrolyser by utilising the solar park, a hydrogen refuelling station that serves both land- and airside, hydrogen power ground service equipment and both gaseous and liquid H2 storage and distribution. 

We recently were able to announce to the press two milestones; the world’s first proof-of-concept Hydrogen Ground Power Unit (H2-GPU) and an innovative electrolyser. Yet, we also believe in electric regional air mobility/transport: we are an active partner in the ‘Power Up’ initiative and will carry out tests with electric flying, aiming to introduce the first passenger flights between airports in the Netherlands within five years. We are furthermore teaming up with parties such as Evia Aero and Electron Aviation to prepare for a future in which (hydrogen) electric flying -being a completely new modality- connects smaller European regions with each other, supporting regional European economies.

H2 Hydrogen Ecosystem Groningen Airport Eelde

Based on your experience what are the main challenges for the Hydrogen Valley Airport so far and what’s your approach to them?

One of the main challenges is funding. That is why we build coalitions of the willing with primarily regional partners, that include companies from the energy and aviation sectors, educational institutions and (regional) governments. Whilst working together, we are better able to attract funding in the form of subsidies and investments. We as an airport offer our highly secure premises as a scalable testbed and demonstration location and learned that this has a high value for our partners. Legislation forms another challenge; it is for example complex to certify ground service equipment (GSE) that runs on hydrogen as this is a very new technology applied in an airport environment. Our approach here is to connect to industry partners and OEMs to address the issue together and try to obtain some funding to get us through certification processes.

What do you think are the main assets of your Hydrogen Valley Airport project? What would be the take-aways for your peers?

We would advise other airports to build consortia. Connect to companies, educational and governmental institutions. Preferably regional partners that benefit from each other. We learned for example that companies value their regional airport as a testbed and demonstration location but also for its high public visibility (PR value). We work a lot with SME’s who often have short decision-making processes, just like ourselves. Thus, avoiding unnecessary lead time delays. Last but not least, and that is what we did, build your own team to lead the airport to a more sustainable future. A hands-on team that consists of people with knowledge of (renewable) energies, project management, networking and -of course- aviation! 

Groningen Airport Eelde

Groningen Airport Eelde was established in 1931 and is an international airport with connections to Greece, Spain, Turkey, Scandinavia and the UK. The majority of passengers travel on holiday charter flights. Groningen Airport Eelde is also an important airport for medical and training flights; it is the home of the KLM Flight Academy.

Looking ahead, what would be needed to further support the take-off of zero-emission aircraft and the related airport infrastructure developments, e.g. from a policy or economic perspective?

Besides (project) funding to boost innovation, the industry would benefit from simplified and clear legislation, e.g. in terms of certification. We also need the continuous cooperation of the energy sector. Airports will need a sufficient and uninterrupted, timely supply of green electricity, (liquid and gaseous) green hydrogen and SAFs in order to serve future aircraft. At the right price level. 

In your opinion, what can aviation actors, from airspace users to airports, to policymakers and EUROCONTROL, do to make aviation more sustainable faster?

Cooperate, act and support. Cooperate in consortia that are able to invest in and/or subsidize projects that, starting with research activities, always lead to concrete outputs, tangible, visible and useable. Prioritize to be able to speed up certification processes to allow new technologies to enter the market far more quickly than currently possible. 

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