Challenging diesel: Munich entrepreneur Philipp Glonner wants to use the hydrogen buses from his company “Arthur” to shake up local transport in Europe. In the interview, Glonner talks about the German desire to discuss death, about politicians who would rather take photos than help – and about what Germany can learn from Poland.
FOCUS online: Mr. Glonner, a little over a year ago, your “Arthur” bus was still a drawing on a piece of paper, this summer you drove Federal President Steinmeier around in it. Is that a metaphor for how rapidly the hydrogen scene is growing?
Philipp Glonner: Yes, I would never have thought of that. In my young career as an engineer, I always wanted to work with alternative drive systems, even during my studies when everyone still wanted to get into the combustion engine industry. But that I now have to deal with so many politicians is crazy. Or that we just shuttle Mr. Steinmeier around.
Despite everything, hydrogen-powered buses have been around for a long time in other parts of the world, for example in Japan. Why are Germany and Europe lagging behind here?
Glonner: First of all, I have to emphasize that we are not lagging behind technologically. Unfortunately, I have to advertise (laughs). Our bus is the world’s most efficient bus in this segment. And that is just one of many examples. What we have to offer, especially in Germany, is among the best in terms of engineering. However, where we are really lagging behind is the sum of the use cases. And that, in my opinion, is due to the social and political attitudes that are too often discussed. The technology is there, 100 percent. But the question is always: how is it used?
Can you elaborate on what you mean by that?
Glonner: Oh, I always have the feeling that we are looking for this 150 percent solution. We like to discuss efficiency and other topics, but no one has ever discussed the efficiency of a diesel vehicle. The diesel technology is already there, and it’s cheap, and then society doesn’t care.
Philipp Glonner (34) is the founder and CEO of the Arthur bus company, together with co-founder Gerhard Mey. Arthur wants to offer high-quality, zero-emission buses for a green future. In April, the company presented its H2 Zero hydrogen bus and is now taking part in tenders across Europe.
An example: We are planning a hydrogen fleet with the option of refueling and all the trimmings. But the electrolysis to produce the hydrogen may not be directly at the depot now. And then it is always immediately: Yes, but how does the hydrogen get from A to B? But nobody has ever questioned the diesel transporter that drives the diesel from A to B (laughs). We have to be careful with this need for all-encompassing solutions. We simply have to get more into “execution”. For this, in turn, we need to increase the sum of use cases.
So in your eyes there is a bias towards the status quo – that is, towards the classic combustion engine?
Glonner: Yes. I have to say that it was enlightening for me to see how lobbying works (laughs). You can already see that in local initiatives when it comes to bringing hydrogen to communities. Politicians like to take a photo in front of our bus, but when I then ask for funding and help, the listeners don’t pick up so easily. We’re just a little biased in this debate. This focus on electromobility will also not exist like this.
Your portfolio not only includes hydrogen buses, but also vehicles with electric drives. Why do you think it will need both technologies?
Glonner: Local public transport has individual problems. You need individual solutions for this. This means that you can’t lump everything together, and we all need to be aware of that. If I now discuss with my engineers, for example, where the battery-powered bus is better, then I have very clear advantages in terms of overall efficiency. That means: I manage energy better, and of course I think that’s great as an engineer.
But the overall efficiency alone is not decisive?
Glonner: First of all, efficiency is something for engineers. The customer is only interested in whether the bus pays off. That in turn depends a lot on how I run my bus fleet, and there are also many cases where hydrogen has an advantage. Hydrogen vehicles have much better ranges, for example more than 600 kilometers in practical use with customers.
Or when it comes to availability: if the bus only has to drive 400 kilometers in one shift, for example, then I can fill up the tank in eight minutes and have similar advantages to diesel. This comfort and the better performance in the powertrain ensure that this strategy completely dominates the diesel in terms of game theory – as long as I can manage with the total costs. And we achieve this in turn by consuming less.
That’s why many studies say very clearly that our area needs a mix of battery-operated systems and synthetic fuels such as hydrogen. To cite another example: We spoke to an airport that initially only wanted to purchase battery-electric buses. But then they found out: With a fleet of 20 vehicles, they don’t even have the connected load to charge them all overnight. Of course you can overturn the whole concept. Or you can just find that there is a decentralized gas station next to the airport site that sells hydrogen at a great price. And this is how you could make this fleet of vehicles emission-free in a perfect mix.
There are many such examples. In Vienna, for example, the bus operator even sued the city because the city advertised battery-powered buses, but the bus operator wanted hydrogen vehicles. And the bus company won. Munich, on the other hand, believes extremely in battery-powered buses. But that’s because the bus only has to drive about 300 kilometers there every day and they can all be charged overnight. If that works – great. But lo and behold: the first hydrogen buses have already been advertised in the surrounding area.
Your company has been taking part in tenders throughout Europe since this summer. How is it going there right now, stupid question?
Glonner: Yes, since July we have had the official type approval that also allows us to transport passengers on public transport. When it comes to tenders, it’s like this: the public sector needs a bit of time (laughs). Each of these tenders has a bidding process, then there are technical dialogues, then there are queries… the tender for a single bus can take several months from the date of the tender to the deadline.
We had the first technical dialogues in July, which means that we may be able to close the first tenders at the end of the year. According to the current status, however, it may happen that our production pipeline will be full for the next two years after these tenders.
First of all, that’s a good problem.
Glonner: Yes, I also hope that this will happen (laughs). But we are really surprised how strong the demand is. Even from Eastern Europe there is demand for buses in the mid double-digit range. Significantly more aggressive than in Germany, where people like to start with ten to twenty units. I never thought. Of course, it would also be a great signal if we could show that you can assert yourself against the big players on the European market. Awards and prizes are really great, I can put them on my shelves – but we want to be on the market.
The high demand from Eastern Europe is somewhat surprising. There is actually a problem with the necessary infrastructure for hydrogen vehicles – even more than in Germany.
Glonner: Compared to the approximately 100 filling stations in Germany, there is much less H2 infrastructure in a country like Poland. But local public transport is a good field of application for hydrogen. The so-called “Clean Vehicle Directive” of the EU forces companies to make their fleet green. That means: With every purchase of a hydrogen vehicle, infrastructure is created in the background – for example filling stations. And these small projects are then immediately married to other projects or to large electrolysis initiatives to generate green hydrogen. This is a really big door opener.
What I like so much about Poland, for example, is this pragmatism. They said: We want to have 800 to 1000 buses on the road in the next few years. We in Germany also support this, but it is always incredibly complicated and associated with little planning security. Over there, the money is simply called up, they write out, order, end of story. That’s exactly what they do in the infrastructure. The small plants then grow into large trees.
What can Germany learn from the example of Poland?
Glonner: The nice thing is that many German municipalities are now doing the same thing. Cottbus, for example, has now started to tender hydrogen buses, which also advertise an electrolysis system directly. They have enough renewable energies in the background, just like municipalities in Friesland, for example. There are massive initiatives, and that’s how it has to work.
I hope that things will continue like this in the south, like Bavaria, and that people there have slowly understood the signs of the times. And there is no longer any discussion about how close a wind turbine can be set up next to a house, while power plants or landfills can easily be much closer. We like to get stuck with the small, easily solvable problems and forget to implement projects with an enormous impact. Again, there is a great deal of responsibility on the part of politicians.
Since the days of the grand coalition, the federal government has been trying to really implement the “National Hydrogen Strategy”. But public transport is only marginal there. Is this scope not being taken seriously enough?
Glonner: That’s a good question. There are a lot of clever people there, just like at EU level, who really do nothing but discuss this topic. In this respect, there will certainly be a basic essence in it and you should have a little trust in it. But in principle we have seen from the example of Corona how quickly the state can provide support. If you could implement something like this in a smart allocation for local projects, a lot more would happen in the field of hydrogen and local transport.
The money is there, and so is the demand. If people could just order much faster, then the whole technology would scale much faster. It simply makes a difference whether we order today or in three years’ time, because we’d rather discuss it for another three years. Then we could have saved CO₂ for three years. I can now order such an electrolyser online (laughs). The technology is not the problem.
So it doesn’t necessarily need more money from the state?
Glonner: Basically, along with energy generation and industry, traffic is the biggest lever for saving CO₂. At the moment, local transport is still going down a bit compared to the Teslas of this world. In this respect, I can say quite clearly: the claim for funding should be significantly higher. The funding should also last for years so that the bus companies and the municipalities really have planning security as to whether they can afford it. Then the fear of new technologies will disappear. It’s really still missing a lot. At the moment, companies are still taking the risk and are hoping that the state will follow suit quickly enough.
If a municipal bus company decides to buy a fleet of hydrogen buses, it either has to be lucky enough to happen to have a hydrogen filling station nearby – or it has to build a filling station itself. Of course, this comes with high costs. How can the filling station network be expanded more quickly?
Glonner: I always remember the time when I bought my first electric car. I looked at the various leasing rates and noticed: Well, if I take the government subsidies into account for the electric vehicle, I actually saved money on the bottom line. Of course, I immediately pick up the phone and say: I’ll order this vehicle.
It has to be the same in the hydrogen sector. There are many possibilities, for example in tax law. Or what would a higher CO₂ price cause on the market?
So the technology simply has to be cheaper than the alternatives – if necessary with taxpayers’ money?
Glonner: As soon as people see an advantage in their wallets, something moves. Currently, when purchasing a hydrogen bus, for example, 80 percent of the additional costs are subsidized. So my question is: Why not 100 percent? That’s the public sector. We all use public transport – why shouldn’t we be able to take advantage of this great service? Why does the bus operator have to pay 20 percent for this?
In terms of infrastructure, for example, the construction of a gas station is also subsidized at 80 percent. It’s very simple for me: You make the filling station accessible to the public and you get 100 percent funding for the construction. Because the gas station is then a public good. I lack pragmatism there. Why don’t we support the infrastructure at 100 percent for a few years during ramp-up, until operation pays off? We cannot ask subcontractors to pay for meeting their community’s carbon quotas.
Wait, does it need more money now – or faster money?
Glonner: I would say that above all we need “easier money”. The whole process is just insanely tainted by the political debates. New technologies require help in implementation. We would already have well over 100 hydrogen filling stations if we hadn’t politically invested two billion euros in charging stations for electric vehicles and only 50 million euros in hydrogen filling stations. This imbalance has arisen politically. For example, we could already see a lot more hydrogen trucks, for sure.
Are there also bureaucratic hurdles that you notice here?
Glonner: Well, the approval procedures are for milking mice. They have a hard time in logistics, and we have a hard time in the bus sector … these are simply outdated standards. We simply have to implement this more pragmatically. That’s why China and Japan are in the lead.
For example, I don’t understand, with the best will in the world, why we, as a German company, have not yet received a single euro of funding from the federal and state governments. As entrepreneurs, we are completely at our own risk. It would be enough if we had better support from banks without having to sign my whole life as a private guarantee to the bank.
In your opinion, is there mistrust of start-ups in Germany?
Glonner: There really are plenty of good start-ups and good solutions in Germany. But with the right idea you have to bring 50 million euros and the perfect execution with you. Because otherwise people will immediately complain that the bus does not have a perfect gap or that the electrolysis is making noises. Not everything was perfect with a Tesla like this in the beginning.
As a society, we have to get out of this “everything bothers me” thinking. Because the alternative is that at some point the heating and the lights go out. And that would be even more disturbing (laughs).
On our e-mobility portal EFAHRER.com you will find all e-vehicles available on the German market
You can also arrange a test drive for the car of your choice free of charge and thus start e-mobility in an uncomplicated manner.