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Matthew is the Global Head of Products for Shell Hydrogen. He started his career in aerospace R&D and military aviation, before spending the next decade solving big challenges in the energy transition. Outside of work, he loves to spend time with his family. His other interests include flying, being outdoors, and whiskey.
Lindsay Gearheart: I always like to start off asking about your background, and I’d love to know how you came to work for Shell.
Matthew Blieske: I actually started in aviation. I’m from Canada originally, and working for Air Canada was my dream, but my eyes were not in favor of that, so I had to work for a living instead of flying planes. I took the engineering track. I got my master’s degree in Ottawa at Carleton University and started working on energy systems down in San Antonio in a research group called Southwest Research, so working on all kinds of fun and interesting things like carbon capture, efficient gas turbines, and looking at energy systems and how we move energy around the world through pipelines and more.
From there, I got more and more intrigued in the gaps and challenges of our energy future, and left to join a very-early stage startup here in Boston called General Compression. What was interesting about that experience was that the technology was good, but often companies fail not because the technology didn’t work but because there’s so much more that’s required. That’s really where my eyes were opened to the fact that you need more than just good engineering and technology. The timing is important and the demand for that change needs to be there. I learned that having cool technology isn’t enough; I needed to know more about what’s going on around the technology, the social pressures for change and how to finance a company’s business development.
I left to help start this innovation group within Shell. It’s kind of a startup within the big beast. We always joke, “How does the mouth make the elephant dance?” I think we’ve managed pretty successfully to do that. We built a group in a big company in its old, stodgy industry that focused on delivering new skill sets for what this company needed to transition to being an energy company rather than being an all-gas company.
The energy systems of the future are very integrated. We talk about systems rather than components, and we talk about societies rather than business cases. These are very different ways of talking about business. What we brought with us were skills like product development and systems engineering, learning how to manage partnerships, supply chains, etc. Instead of directly focusing on the technology and innovation, we had a mind on what the right solutions were, but thought about how to implement them.
After doing that for four years, we went across all the different businesses in Shell. We started out working on the Deepwater Horizon disaster. The very first project I ever did was to redesign the drilling systems on that Deepwater rig to bring an aerospace level of safety to deepwater drilling. We had to rediscover from the ground up all the reasons why we do things and retrain people and redo the technologies to make this a safe system. Gaining knowledge about the human aspect of innovation, the cultural change aspect, and also learning how to create change and rethink from the ground up when all we have is tribal knowledge and nothing’s written down. Those things we took across all of Shell’s businesses until I came to Hydrogen and realized this was a really interesting opportunity. So I left Shell TechWorks and started a similar group in the global hydrogen business.
Hydrogen’s at this point where it’s at the center of most energy transitions and people don’t realize it yet. You can store energy for a very long time. You can store your wind energy, hydrogen can be used to make electricity again, you can put it in cars and drive yourself around, you can put it in your furnace and make heat in your house, or you can put it into existing chemicals and decarbonize our plastics and liquid fuel system. It’s really an interesting energy vector, and the technology’s ready.
It’s been 60 years in development, starting with the space race. What was missing was all these things I’ve been practicing for the last five years. It was missing relationship-building, supply chain management, sorting out the social aspects around advocacy in different legislatures around the globe. These are the things we focus on to actually get the technology into people’s hands. Yes we are a product development group, but we’re more about filling gaps in relationships and supply chain to make the technology that’s already there scale.
LG: Wow, it sounds like your group has a much wider view beyond just focusing on the technology. That’s surprising to me and really interesting.
MB: In fact, we don’t do the technology. What’s really exciting about the world we live in right now is that there’s lots of people developing lots of technology; we don’t have to do it. You can find someone out there who’s the expert in anything. Pick any topic, any technology, you can find them. Our goal is to bring all these different people together in ways they never would’ve been brought together before and deliver a cost-performance reliability customer experience relationship that moves the whole industry forward. That’s how we view our role.
LG: It’s funny, in a way that sort of describes what we do at HubWeek. We know there are lots of people out there who are experts in so many different things, and we try to bring them together so that they can make connections that then advance their areas of interest.
MB: Exactly. At Shell Hydrogen, we don’t have any exclusivity agreements in any of our contracts, any relationships. What we develop, we want lots of people to use and be successful. We’re still at this very early incubation phase where we need lots of people to participate and get excited and invest, so we often accept the first mover disadvantage. We go and invest and build a new product and allow other people to use it. Why? Because we’re interested in energy transition, we’re not interested in making money off our technology. We need a big pie. We don’t want a big piece of a small pie, we want to create a big pie, so that means you can’t do that yourself.
LG: Could you dive in deeper on some of the special properties and advantages of hydrogen as a source of fuel?
MB: What’s interesting about hydrogen is there are zero emissions at the source. So when you use hydrogen in a fuel cell you combine hydrogen gas with oxygen in the air and what comes out is pure water and electricity.
The other interesting thing is it’s a storage vector. You can make hydrogen through electrolysis, which is the process of taking electricity, zapping water with high voltage, and you split hydrogen from the oxygen so you can store the oxygen for very long periods of time. It’s a much denser battery, so when you look at hydrogen compared to lithium ion batteries, you can store a heck of a lot more energy in the same space and weight compared to lithium ion.
This brings up some interesting use cases for heavy duty. For light duty vehicles like the Teslas we see on the road, a battery is a pretty good use case. But when you’re looking for things like heavy haul trucks, ships, trains, or even smaller vehicles like taxis and forklifts that are used very frequently, hydrogen becomes an interesting fuel source for a couple of reasons. One – the very low weight, so you can get diesel-like performance. You can replace the diesel engine with the hydrogen fuel cell and get similar range, torque, and all the things a battery struggles with. Also, you can refuel a car from empty to full in about three to five minutes with hydrogen, just like gasoline. So if you’re a taxi driver, and you need to be on the road making money, what you don’t want to do is drive for three hours, wait, and then charge for an hour. One out of four hours, you’re not making money. Even small vehicles, if you have a high duty cycle, hydrogen is an interesting option for you.
I think that’s the message I want to give. Often hydrogen is seen as adversarial with battery and other energy sources, but it’s not, it’s complementary. The energy future has many different use cases. It has many different things that people want to keep doing, so we need different technologies that allow them to keep doing that. For someone who just commutes back and forth to work, a battery car is fine, they can trickle charge their car in their garage and that’s great. But if you’ve got a van, you’ve got three or four kids, or you take ski trips to the mountains, that’s probably going to need a hydrogen car.
LG: Wow, interesting. So why do you think we aren’t hearing more about hydrogen?
MB: I think there’s a couple reasons. Hydrogen’s been around longer than lithium batteries. It’s had a cycle that’s not been helpful. In the 60s, hydrogen was going to be everything to everyone, and therefore it was nothing. It was unfocused. Getting back to my earlier stories, it was very technology-focused, and people didn’t quite focus on the how, why, and what is this delivering for society. So there was a lot of hype that was not delivered upon because the technology wasn’t ready. It came back again in the late 70s with the energy crisis, people saying “hydrogen’s going to save us,” and it does offer that promise that “Hey, I can make energy out of water,” but it just wasn’t needed at that point, and it wasn’t ready technically. And then again, another resurgence in the 2000s, at which point Obama actually stopped the whole hydrogen program. The United States was leading the world in hydrogen development, and at that point, all funding was cut.
So there’s three disappointments to point to. Then this new resurgence, why now? All the pieces that were missing before, in my view, are there now, which is why I made the jump into this business. But I think people are very conscious that we don’t need hype, we need delivery. So we need to deliver and point and say, “Here are hundreds of thousands of cars, here are thousands of trucks, here’s the infrastructure, here’s the pipelines moving hydrogen around,” rather than point to the future and say “It’s coming,” because people have heard that before.
LG: Looking ahead, how much longer do you think it will be until hydrogen is ready to develop into a leading energy source that’s used, and what do you think is still needed for that transition to happen?
MB: When you think about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for people, at the bottom is oxygen, food, and shelter, and eventually you get up to things like security, love, and other things we find fulfillment in. Our global systems have a similar thing where energy is at the bottom. Everything we do needs energy, so it’s the first thing you’ve got to solve. The problem is that because it’s at the bottom, it takes the longest to change.
I would say that to go from bio sources like burning straw and wood to coal took 250 years, to go from coal to oil took another 250 years, and actually globally, the energy transition we’re currently in is oil to gas. It’s not done yet. When I moved into my house here in Scituate, I had an oil fire burner, and it converted to gas. We’re still in the natural gas energy transition. So what we’re talking about is the next transition, beyond that, which for the first time in history is happening in parallel with the prior transition. So there’s a bunch of parallel processing going on here.
This is going to be decades and decades of transition. As we’ve seen with renewable energy like wind and solar, it’s still a minor part of our total energy we consume, and that’s been going on for 40 years already. With electricity, you have to lay down big transmission lines to expand that growth. And that’s a real big problem, like we’ve seen with the Northern Pass through New Hampshire, right? Nobody wants new transmission lines, so it makes it slower to electrify.
What’s neat about hydrogen is that scaling it is actually fairly simple. Going big is easier with hydrogen compared to electricity because we use the infrastructure that we’re replacing. We use the natural gas pipelines, except we pump hydrogen through it instead of natural gas. And we’re starting to do that in the Netherlands and in China. China’s going crazy for it, there’s thousands of trucks on the road right now. In California there’s thousands of hydrogen cars, soon to be hundreds of thousands. 2020 is the growth year, I think you’re going to see it take off, but it’s still going to be decades before it becomes a dominant source. Replacing internal combustion engines is not going to take 250 years like it did before, but it’s certainly going to take decades.
That being said, companies like Daimler have gone on record because of regulations in the EU that are forcing them to do things in a different way. They are the world’s largest truck manufacturer. They plan on not making another internal combustion engine after 2035. This change will happen a lot faster than business would normally take it, and I think that’s where the skepticism is. What we’re facing now in 2020/2021 is actually the opposite of that. Legislation in the EU, Japan, China, and South Korea are forcing a change at a pace that’s never been done before. It’s equal parts scary and exciting.
In short, I don’t really know how long this will take. All I know is that there are dates set by law in certain areas that over the next 10-15 years, the majority of trucks, trains, and ships that will be built and operated will be zero emission, and that will be a combination between battery and hydrogen.
LG: Wow, that impressive, and honestly sooner than I expected you to say, so very exciting.
MB: This is the past six to eight months, every month has a new “Holy crap, it’s going faster than we thought,” moment, and it keeps accelerating. It’s driven by political pressures. The EU is very serious about the Paris Accord. China has serious pollution problems. Even in the U.S., where we don’t have a federal government that’s really driving this, local cities and ports are.
When you can demonstrate you’ve got products and technology that meet a social need, which is our focus, it’s like tipping over an avalanche. All of sudden, people say “I want that. I didn’t know I could get that.” They turn around and make a law requiring you to do that. If they know it’s possible, the laws change.
LG: Any final message that you feel is important for our readers to understand?
MB: It’s very easy to be discouraged with all the politics going on, but what I’ve seen in my experience in hydrogen in particular is that for a lot of the change we expect to see from federal government, we’re looking at the wrong spot. I’ve seen zero emissions infrastructure and climate change-based technologies being deployed around the world because people told their local politicians what they wanted and their politicians replied in kind.
I do think people’s voices matter, and I’ve been asked, “Why don’t we see this in Boston?” I’ll say very clearly, if you don’t tell someone you want it, we can’t do anything about it. So if people want this, they need to tell someone. I’ve seen it really does work, it does happen. So for us to get involved, we need people to want it.
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