What challenges did you face during the process of obtaining public funding for your project?
Hydrogen Valley South Tyrol: During the first phase of our project development, we encountered several challenges of different sorts. The first and probably very common challenge was the missing know-how and expertise regarding European funding programs (especially structural funds), for us as project promoters as well as for local authorities involved. Due to unknown benchmarks for the new hydrogen technology, we were only able to obtain the absolute minimum of possible funding from the local funding administration. In order to get higher funding, we had to start an intense phase of discussion with the local administration managing the ERDF funding, in which we outlined the situation of the proposed hydrogen project regarding legal funding aspects in coherence to European funding rules.
Furthermore, a major test for our following projects, that took a lot of time and resources, was to obtain co-funding at the national/regional level after receiving the commitment for European funding. Although having that commitment substantially eases the search for local co-funding, it remained a big challenge for us.
HEAVENN: For projects that are built up from several sub-projects, the individual evaluation process at the various authority levels which are potential partners for public co-funding (national, regional) can be quite time-consuming. Due to the current one-stage application process for FCH JU grants for example, every project needs to invest substantial resources to participate in the application process with very limited chances of being successful.
Hydrogen Hub Noord-Holland: Applying for EU-level funding can sometimes become a time-consuming process for the project teams, especially when the general funding framework is unknown until the time of its official publication. For some calls, some project members therefore decided not to apply because they could not commit the resources.
What specific measures did you take to overcome these challenges?
Hydrogen Valley South Tyrol: For the first challenge, we leveraged that experience as a learning opportunity, i.e. after our first application for European funding, which brought along several ambiguities on a legal and general process level, we invested into advanced training on European public funding laws for our core team and sought targeted external expertise (e.g. (legal) consulting services) in order to deal with the local administration responsible of funding and to be better prepared for the next funding program. Ultimately – and also thanks to our own experience over time – we managed to obtain funding for Phase 2 of our Valley from three EU sources for different building blocks: FCH JU (Horizon 2020), Connecting Europe Facility (CEF) and LIFE-Program.
Regarding the search for local co-funding, we realised that ensuring local public commitment as well as integrating political decision-makers (e.g. at provincial or municipal level) at an early stage of the project is very important in order to find reliable partners.
HEAVENN: For regional or local public co-funding, it can be a beneficial option for hydrogen projects to leverage already successfully established access to public funding. Meaning that the already positive and strict evaluation on the European level, such as the FCH JU, can be used to convince regional or local decision-makers to shorten their evaluation process. No additional evaluation on regional or national level should be required if the EU or the FCH JU did already reward a project.
Hydrogen Hub Noord-Holland: First of all, we established an internal process to secure the most relevant documents for funding applications are readily available in very short time. By being prepared as much as we can before public funding calls even open, we were able to significantly reduce the required resources to submit an application. In addition, having an expanded network of European partners is a key enabler for public funding calls – Therefore, an early investment in these kinds of partnerships is important!
What learnings can other projects take away from your experience?
Hydrogen Valley South Tyrol: First, we believe that our general strategy of going step-by-step from a local demonstration project to a regional Hydrogen Valley with European funding is a promising path for future projects as well. It pays off to break down your project/Valley into stages or phases – and proceed from one to another learning-by-doing-mode. Think smaller and very practical at first – and then think successively bigger and bigger. This also ensures that you can show real results that speak for themselves – before moving on and building on them. This is how we have been successfully developing our projects from small-scale local demonstration of green hydrogen for mobility applications to turning a major European transport corridor into a Hydrogen Valley.
Further, our main advice from experience is to concentrate your efforts on and ensure high commitment for mastering supranational public funding. This actually means relatively basic, but no less crucial things: always closely following the content of the call for proposals, never losing the scope of the call out of sight and most importantly, trying to empathize with the funding organisation: How will the specific parts of an application be evaluated? Which approach is advantageous for the overall project evaluation? How are the specific expectations of the call addressed? This also means remaining flexible enough to adjust your project scope to the specific requirements of the funding.
HEAVENN: Generally, it's highly important to invest into obtaining information about content and requirements for public funding (calls) as early as possible in order to prepare the necessary arrangements and align interests from the key partners. Further, the best advice for new projects is to ensure early integration and collaboration of relevant public authorities. This includes discussions about the scope, objectives and prospects of the project and of course eventually an outline of possible co-funding.
Hydrogen Hub Noord-Holland: One point of advice we can share with other projects is definitely to establish a point of contact to the relevant public funding organizations of all levels early on in the project development phase. This not only shows the network the continuous progress of our projects, but also the need as well as the direct positive impact of public funding. Establishing a network in this community is therefore very relevant and beneficial for both sides.