Building the Hydrogen Highway: the Visions of a Large-Scale Hydrogen Project in Norway

by Hogne Sataøen
Stein Rokkan Centre for Social Studies

Sociological Research Online 13(3)7

Received: 17 Apr 2008     Accepted: 19 May 2008    Published: 31 May 2008


This paper focuses on the visions incorporated by the Hydrogen Road in Norway (HyNor) project. This is a large-scale project that aims to demonstrate real life implementation of hydrogen in the transport sector in Norway. The starting point of the analysis is that visions play an important role in technological projects. Visions carry, communicate and construct valid practices and meanings in technology. Consequently, visions in technological projects should be a matter of analysis. The following paper discusses both the meaning of technological visions and the kinds of visions that have been deployed in the HyNor project. This discussion shows that HyNor's visions are numerous, flexible and dynamic. Furthermore the ambivalence and tension in the project's visions represent a challenge that needs to be dealt with.

Keywords: Technology, Visions, Hydrogen Energy, Transport, Actor-Network Theory


The Hydrogen Highway in Norway – a Diverse Project with Ambiguous Visions

1.1 Terms like 'hydrogen society,' 'hydrogen economy' and 'hydrogen future' are constantly and growingly being used to describe a future where hydrogen is a major energy carrier. Efforts to introduce hydrogen as a fuel for transport are especially important in this context. The content of such labels are however unclear and difficult to grasp. This paper explores the visions of one particular hydrogen-project in Norway – the Hydrogen Highway in Norway (HyNor). This exploration will contribute to a broader insight in the range of visions connected to large-scale hydrogen projects and a more in-depth understanding of the content of terms like 'hydrogen society'. In addition the paper gives substantial and empirical intakes to the broader debates on environmental challenges and proposed 'solutions.'

1.2 When launched in 2003, HyNor's main explicit vision was that by the year 2008 it should be possible to drive a hydrogen vehicle from Norway's capital Oslo to Stavanger (often termed 'Norway's oil-capital'), a route of 580 kilometres. In addition, the different cities (or 'nodes') located along this route should have their own projects (producing and using hydrogen) and local visions. Further, these visions should be connected to the broader issues concerning the use of hydrogen in transport. Hydrogen as a fuel and an energy-carrier was introduced in Norway because it has potential for reducing and substituting hydrocarbons. However, hydrogen has to be produced from other energy sources, and the reduction of pollution and carbon dioxide rely on how hydrogen is produced. The gains are greatest where renewable sources are used, and least where fossil energy sources are used to generate hydrogen (Flynn et al. 2006).

1.3 Implementation of hydrogen in transport relates in several ways to the contemporary sociological debates on 'risk society' (e.g. Giddens 1994; Beck 1995). The risk society thesis directs attention to the effects of techno-scientific development on the environment. Beck states that 'Our epoch has taken progress so far that a minimal exertion may relieve everyone of all further exertions [...] we have done away with life after death, and placed life itself under permanent threat of extinction' (Beck 1995: 4). When viewing hydrogen in the light of such statements, it is no surprise that several have turned to hydrogen as a solution and a sheet anchor. Already Jules Verne found a last hope in hydrogen. In Verne's novel The Mysterious Island the protagonist Cyrus Harding introduced hydrogen as the coal of the future:

I believe that water will one day be employed as fuel, that hydrogen and oxygen which constitute it, used singly or together, will furnish an inexhaustible source of heat and light […] There is, therefore, nothing to fear. […]Water will be the coal of the future (Verne 1874).

1.4 Contemporary debates on hydrogen as an energy-carrier do however raise doubt about hydrogen as 'a coal of the future.' Cherry (2004) emphasises negative consequences such as delayed development of other energy alternatives, hazards of catalyst or hydride metals, disruptive employment shifts, land usage conflicts, and increased vehicle usage. Some are even questioning whether the implementation of hydrogen itself can produce dangers that we don't see the long term consequences of (Hoffman 1981), and therefore consequently producing a risk society.

1.5 According to Flynn et al. (2006) 'Public awareness of hydrogen energy and attitudes towards a future hydrogen economy are yet to be systematically investigated' (Flynn et al. 2006:1). An initial scrutiny of the arguments used for establishing HyNor is therefore fruitful. These arguments sketch the broader backdrop for implementing hydrogen, and give perspectives to how hydrogen is conceived and attitudes towards it. In the following paragraphs we will also relate these arguments to the international social studies literature on hydrogen.

Potential Breakthrough of Hydrogen

1.6 Although the general time horizon for hydrogen as a major energy carrier is long, we observe that the HyNor-project has a relatively short time horizon. This is exemplified in HyNor's vision about driving a hydrogen vehicle from Oslo to Stavanger by 2008, and the fact that the initial parts of the project included visions of fuel cell buses/cars operating the different nodes[1]. As Kårstein (2007) observed in his review of social studies literature on hydrogen, the potential breakthrough of hydrogen depends on 'several decades of relief measures and incentives, like economic support, tax and duty relied, R&D-efforts, regulation, establishment of niche markets and cooperation between industry and government' (Kårstein 2007: 2). According to the literature, HyNor's visions concerning a potential breakthrough are doubtful (see e.g Hoffman 1981)


1.7 HyNor's visions are closely linked to the environmental impacts of transport. However, their visions and hydrogen-arguments are ambiguous, because they address both the issue of local emissions and the issue of global warming. Arguments regarding local emissions focus on the reduction of noise from bus-transport in cities and emissions of particles (PM10- PM2,5) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) from transport more generally. The climate change debate (which has become increasingly more important throughout HyNor's lifetime) has also boosted the role of hydrogen as a CO2-neutral fuel for transport. Consequently, the sustainability issue of HyNor lacks a specific focus. The argument of hydrogen as an environmental friendly alternative has also been questioned in the hydrogen-literature (e.g Cherry 2004; Shinnar 2003; Hoffman 1981). Kårstein (2007) notes that social studies on hydrogen-use raise the question of whether hydrogen is really such a good idea.

Global Coordination and Integration

1.8 Kårstein (2007) further observes that the hydrogen literature focuses on the need for stronger global co-ordination and integration: 'They emphasise the importance of distributing responsibilities and tasks, the sharing of knowledge and experience, and the possibility of getting more out of less through joint initiatives' (Kårstein 2007: 2-3). This is to a considerable extent also true for HyNor's visions and plans. Many of the actors underscore the importance of a European (or at least a Scandinavian) co-ordination and integration of hydrogen initiatives. A specific example of this is the efforts by the HyNor leadership in establishing a broader Scandinavian network for hydrogen-projects. This Scandinavian partnership – Scandinavian Hydrogen Highway Partnership (SHHP) – was founded in Copenhagen in June 2006 with a vision 'to make Scandinavia one of the first regions in Europe where hydrogen is commercially available through a network of filling stations'[2]. The establishment of SHHP has been a major effort for the Norwegian HyNor-project in recent years. The realisation of SHHP also indicates that HyNor is embedded in a global hydrogen niche market.

Industrial Development

1.9 Another important vision concerns the promise of an industrial lift. The industrial development vision is however ambiguous because it advocates local, regional and national industrial interests. The ambiguity is further reflected in HyNor's technological visions, as the various cities have chosen different production-concepts, ranging from reforming natural gas via electrolysis of water based on hydro power, to reformed methane from organic waste through a genuine new Norwegian technology. The literature on the 'hydrogen economy' also repeatedly stresses and discusses different technological concept's advantages and disadvantages in an industrial development perspective (see e.g. Dunn 2002 for an example).

Energy Supply

1.10 The issue of energy supply and security of supply has commonly been used as an argument for developing a hydrogen society (Barreto et al. 2003). In the case of HyNor, however, this argument is put at the bottom of the scheme. The lack of this argument is due to the extraordinary Norwegian energy situation created by the massive hydro power supply. Still, we see that energy supply and the security of supply is mentioned in different information from, and presentations of, the HyNor project. Consequently, security of supply remains a part of the arguments for building the hydrogen highway.

1.11 This initial presentation of HyNor's arguments indicates that their visions are conflicting, inconsistent and ambiguous. Further, HyNor's visions differ over time, between the different nodes, and between different actors. Consequently, this raises the question of exactly what initiative HyNor represent and prioritise? The project presents itself as '[…] a unique Norwegian joint industry initiative to demonstrate real life implementation of hydrogen energy infrastructure.'[3] In other contexts, however, the project is labelled a national development-project. This makes the question of what visions and idea the actors of HyNor deploy to a relevant question: Is HyNor a 'pure' demonstration project? Or, is HyNor maybe a cornerstone for the Norwegian H2-infrastructure? In the following pages we address the role visions have played in the establishment of the Hydrogen Highway. For studying visions we turn to some concepts developed within an actor-network theory (ANT) framework. ANT presents an instructive point of view for studying the interplay between technology and society. This interplay is certainly represented in visions, which carry, communicate and construct valid practices and meanings in technology. Three concepts are used and discussed; scenarios (Michel Callon), vision-work (Heidi Gjøen) and flexible interpretation (Bijker & Pinch). All three concepts provide theoretical insight to the empirical phenomenon which is studied, namely the Hydrogen Highway project in Norway.

Providing Hydrogen for Transport in Norway – Design of Study

2.1 The Western Norway Research Institute (WNRI), together with the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies of Culture, Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), has been studying HyNor since 2004. The backdrop of this project is that we are now entering a stage of hydrogen development that should be scrutinised because it will offer a wide range of possibilities concerning social learning related to the development and regulation of relevant technologies. Our project – Providing hydrogen for transport in Norway: A social learning approach – is financed by the Norwegian Research Council. The project investigates the successes and failures of the Hydrogen Highway of Norway. The Hydrogen Highway is thus studied through different approaches and the empirical basis for the research is diverse; qualitative interviews, document studies and observation of steering-group meetings have been engaged as research methods. NTNU's and WNRI's project started in 2004, and data has been collected, discussed and analysed throughout the whole project-period. The first interviews were conducted in August and September 2005, with results published in Kårstein (2005; 2007). Here fourteen informants – different representatives from important stakeholders at each of HyNor's nodes – were interviewed.

2.2 This particular paper also leans on those interviews carried out in 2005. In addition we present results from interviews conducted in February 2007. Here five key-actors from HyNor's birth were interviewed in depth in their offices. The interviews can be characterised as semi-structured, as they had a sequence of themes to be covered (Silverman 2001). The interviews lasted from 60 minutes to over two hours. The interviews were recorded and later transcribed for analysis. The purpose of the interviews was twofold: first to gain understanding of the actual outset of HyNor, and second to get a 'description of the life world of the subject with respect to interpretation of their meaning' (Kvale 1996: 124). Supplementary to these in-depth interviews, 12 telephone interviews with informants inside HyNor have been carried out. These interviews lasted from 30 to 60 minutes, and validated our interpretations and analysis. The interviews can be characterised as semi-structured, although they have a more 'instrumental' character than the in-depth interviews. The telephone interviews have also been recorded and transcribed for analysis. In addition, we have attended six steering group meetings in the HyNor organisation, and therefore have a 'thick' understanding of the discussions, themes and issues at stake. The participation in the meetings has also provided us with several important documents (such as proposals, presentations, minutes and internal documents) which forms the basis of our analysis. In sum, our research methods have provided a rich and diverse empirical basis for this paper regarding HyNor's visions.

Building a Highway on Visions: the Role of Visions in Technological Projects

3.1 The starting point for an analysis of visions in technological projects is that technology cannot be fully understood detached from the society it is included in. Hence, visions are a way to connect technology to its social surroundings. This, of course, challenges the notions of technological determinism. Actor-network theory (ANT) is a perspective that continues to give technological phenomena a prominent place in the analytical scheme. The 'material density' of technologies is focused upon. ANT was developed in the 1980s by scholars within the Science and Technology Studies, mainly Michel Callon, Bruno Latour and John Law. The perspective attempts to explain knowledge-creation, science and technology through studying networks of humans and non-humans actors. This perspective explores how technologies are formed socially, and further how these formed technologies are filled with meaning within the context they are implemented in (Latour 1987, Law 1987, Akrich 1992, Law & Hassard 2005). Such a starting point implies that new technologies do not create social change alone. Rather, change is created by a complex interaction between technology and social factors.

3.2 Approaches practiced in technological studies have tended to focus on controversies, the importance of social, economical or political interests in technological design, or the translation effort needed in creating networks that help make technologies operational and attractive. Common to these frames of analysis (e.g Bijker & Pinch 1987; Winner 1986; Latour 1987, Latour 2005) is the idea that technologies become successful when they are embedded in social networks and practices (Kårstein 2007: 3). One can say that one way of embedding technology in social practices is through visions. The role of visions in technological projects is however not easy to grasp. Heidi Gjøen (2001) introduces a sociological language which could be instructive for understanding visions in technological projects. The key-concept introduced is 'vision-work.'

3.3 Through her concept of vision-work, Gjøen stressed that visions are 'in the making' and are therefore exposed to resistance. The concept of vision-work also highlights the flexibility and instability of visions. Gjøen (2001) notes that visions are continuously given new meaning and shaped through resistances and successes. Vision-work is based mainly on two empirical observations: (1) visions are not static, but changeable; (2) visions change through the configuration of use and meaning from different actors. This change happens when actors try to arrange a totality, investigate how things will work in the future, consider relevance etc. Based on these two empirical observations, Gjøen defines vision-work as a collective process of negotiation that includes research-based knowledge, experience-based knowledge and politics (Gjøen 2001: 314).

The Vision-Work of HyNor

3.4 Vision-work points to a mutual construction of 'valid' enclosures and 'valid' practices and meanings. According to the Hydrogen Highway, visions have been important in carrying the environmental meanings of hydrogen cars to their users. This takes place through information material, information meetings and media reports. In accordance with Gjøen's vision-work concept (2001), the visions of HyNor are 'in the making' and have been influenced by resistance. An example of such changes and resistances – throughout HyNor's life-time – is the growing public focus on climate and climate change that led to HyNor being more concerned with GHGs, over noise, NOx, PM10- PM2,5, etc. It also led to a stronger focus on renewable energy sources for hydrogen production. Further, Gjøen emphasised the role of context. For instance, the hydrogen vehicles used in the HyNor-case are rebuilt combustion engine cars (Toyota Prius). These vehicles meet the emission-requirements of Super Ultra Low Emission Vehicles (SULEV). This is a contextualised type of meaning which is not communicated through technology alone. Rather, it has been subjected to visionwork, where the meaning of the Toyota Prius was further negotiated and shaped by the HyNor actors.

3.5 Heidi Gjøen's concept of vision-work draws on theoretical contributions from Callon (scenario) and Pinch and Bijker (flexible interpretation). Therefore, a short account of those concepts is instructive.


3.6 Michel Callon (1987) uses the concept of scenario to investigate and understand engineers' descriptions of a future society. The empirical basis on which the concept is developed is an analysis of the French 'VEL-case.' VEL was an ambitious project with a goal to produce and introduce an electric 'VEL'-car in France in the early 1970s. Callon argued that heterogeneous networks between social and technological phenomenon are important. Within these networks, the scenario played a significant role. The concept of scenario stresses that visions of 'future societies' are used in order to mobilise and assemble new actors to projects. In the case of VEL the constructed scenario was a future society with genuine new social structures and technological solutions. The traditional combustion engine car was linked to the 'old' industrial society, whereas the 'new' electric car was linked to a post-industrial society with strong anti-consumerism and environmental values. Hence, the scenario was constructed in order to shape/imagine a future society in which the electric car was planned to play an important role. The mantra was that this future society – with its new social structures – had no place for a combustion engine. Callon's point is that a scenario becomes a place where society is reflected upon – and shaped – to give space for technological development. Consequently, a scenario reconciles ideas and praxis, human and technology.

3.7 An essential point in Callon's (1987) argument is that the mobilizing of resources is central to technological work and the implementation of technology. This means networking, persuasion tactics, consensus- and vision-making. Callon emphasises that scenarios play an important role in mobilizing new actors/partners to projects. In accordance with this, visions can be strong efficient mediums (Gjøen 2001: 53). Gjøen highlighted, however, that Callon's scenarios include a certain element of rhetoric. Like Callon's analysis of the VEL-case, HyNor has also tried to mobilise actors and ascribe them to certain roles. We have observed both successes and failures in these attempted mobilisations.

Interpretive Flexibility

3.8 Callon's concept of scenario has been criticised by Gjøen. Gjøen argues that 'vision-work' better understands the broader issues concerning technological futures, mainly because it incorporates a broader 'public' for the creation of visions/scenarios than Callon's perspective. She explains that the incorporation of actors other than engineers and scientist can also be beneficial in shaping and negotiating scenarios. This is, according to Gjøen, not adequately considered by Callon. The notion of vision-work also underscores the point of weak and unsuccessful enrolment of actors. Consequently, dynamics and flexibility are stressed. The term interpretive flexibility (Bijker and Pinch 1987) could therefore be instructive. Gjøen (2001) bases her notion of vision-work on this perspective. Empirical examples and observations of the HyNor case can be used as an argument for engaging interpretive flexibility as a frame of analysis.

3.9 The concept of interpretive flexibility is based on an understanding that new technologies do not create social change alone. Rather, social change occurs due to relations between technical and social factors (Latour 1987; Bijker & Pinch 1987). Bijker & Pinch (1987) state that all phases of technology-development are characterised by interpretive flexibility. This means that technology is interpreted, shaped, adjusted and adapted to the user's understandings, interests and routines. It also implies that every new interpretation generates different problem-areas and solutions. Interpretive flexibility assumes that artefacts have more than one interpretation; they are interpreted differently from actor to actor and over time. Bijker & Pinch's (1987) further perceive interpretations as a driver for technological development.

3.10 Technologies are developed by humans and are used by humans. The purpose of new technologies is to solve specific problems, achieve specific goals and fulfil specific visions. From this perspective, an investigation of visions is both relevant and interesting. It is important to investigate the current stage of development because it offers a wide range of learning possibilities from the development and regulation of relevant technologies. The implementation of hydrogen in transport – like in the HyNor case – clearly involves the construction of an actor-network. This invites us to study the various strategies employed by participating actors in providing scenarios that will guide the implementation and scenario (re)translation, while also keeping networks functioning and, preferably, growing.

3.11 In the following pages we will analyse the Hydrogen Highway of Norway through the concepts of vision-work, scenarios and interpretive flexibility. The question of the role of visions implies however an historical excursion – a short retrospect, where the Hydrogen Highway initiative is presented, is therefore needed.

Building the Hydrogen Highway: In Retrospect

4.1 The HyNor project started as an initiative to demonstrate real life implementation of a hydrogen energy infrastructure in Norway. HyNor presents their ideas as,
A unique Norwegian joint industry initiative to demonstrate real life implementation of hydrogen energy infrastructure along a route of 580 kilometres from Oslo to Stavanger during the years 2005 to 2008.[4]
The Hydrogen Highway is based on eight different local nodes which includes filling stations and hydrogen vehicle users. There is also a centralised HyNor-organisation aiming at coordinating the eight nodes. The nodes comprise various hydrogen production technologies and uses of hydrogen. The hydrogen production technologies comprise of e.g. reforming methane from organic waste, surplus hydrogen from local industry, water electrolysis based on solar energy and hydro power and reforming of both natural gas and biogas.

4.2 The nodes work relatively autonomously from the centralised HyNor-organisation. As Asbjørn Kårstein (2007) has shown, it was decided that the local nodes should have an autonomous role, without strong direct control from the central HyNor organisation:

According to the first leader of HyNor's board, it was soon decided that the nodes in the project should develop without much interference from the HyNor office […] It was considered unrealistic and unwise to try to control how the nodes should organise their work and which technological concept they should choose (Kårstein 2007)

4.3 This perspective was also discussed in the interviews conducted in February 2007. However, the explanation and argument for autonomous nodes is surprising. Here, one of HyNor's early board members stated that autonomous and independent nodes were one of the premises for the project. This idea was learned from the CUTE-project (Clean Urban Transport for Europe), where all the CUTE-cities were connected to the CUTE-umbrella, but played an independent role. CUTE is an EU-financed hydrogen project comprising nine European cities, with a goal to promote fuel cell technology and hydrogen in busses (Andersen 2006). The argument for autonomous nodes was to copy the CUTE-model. In addition to HyNor's structure as connecting nodes/cities, it is also a partnership between different types of stakeholders. According to HyNor's first leader it was soon recognised that a larger group of different actors was necessary to help the project get started. The actors, it was decided, should range from energy and industrial companies, to transport companies, local and regional public authorities, R&D institutions and environmental organisations (Holden 2005).

The Birth of HyNor

4.4 In an attempt to understand the reasons for the establishment of HyNor, a representative from one of the main industrial partners (Norsk Hydro AS) was interviewed. This brings us back to HyNor's visions, and to what extent visions formed the basis of HyNor. The informant explained that HyNor's predecessor was a project aimed at demonstrating Hydrogen-bustransport in Oslo. This demonstration-project, called NEBUS, took place in the late 1990s and was a collaboration between a bus-company and Norsk Hydro AS (Hansen 2000). At this time, fuel cell producers were promising mass production in the course of a few years. As the informant stated:

The fuel cell had become an issue and the car companies said: 'We now have the fuel cell and in 2004 we will have mass production.' Based on this information we wanted to incorporate fuel cell busses in the project. (Former leader of the HyNor-board).

4.5 This indicates that HyNor's vision was driven by the fuel cell from the start. It seems that the late 1990s carried a promise about clean urban transport, exemplified in a forthcoming mass-production of fuel cells. Simultaneously, the CUTE-project was at its launching point. Although Oslo was on the list for becoming a partner in the CUTE-project, it was, unfortunately for the Norwegian initiative, not chosen.

4.6 The failure of becoming a partner in CUTE, was nevertheless the starting shot for HyNor:

We did not become a partner in CUTE – so there we stood. But then there was this attention about hydrogen, and little by little there was an interest for hydrogen in transport in Norway. Several projects emerged, and we became a point of contact for all those projects. Everything was very casual, every project wanted financing and everything was very pre-commercial; we could not just sell a bunch of electrolysers […] So we called for a meeting and suggested to connect those projects and make one Norwegian project called HyNor. (Former leader of the HyNor-board).
As can be read from this interview, the start of HyNor was not very visionary. It began as a failure (not becoming a partner in CUTE). The interview also indicates that the birth of HyNor involved picking up the pieces and trying to connect different initiatives. The start of HyNor was, in this perspective, not initiated by an overarching vision about a future society. At the same time, we observe that the promise of mass produced fuel cells by 2004 played an important role. If, as we argue, HyNor was founded in the wake of a failed vision, we must consider the possible effect on the ideas, or visions, that form the basis of the Hydrogen Road in Norway.

4.7 As we have observed, HyNor's visions seem to lack an overarching idea about the substance of a future hydrogen society. On the other hand, more visionary ideas regarding the Hydrogen Highway have been occasionally communicated. An example can be derived from the 2006 HyNor-conference in Drammen. Here, the leader of HyNor at that time stated that 'hydrogen is rocket-science, it is rocket-science.' Such statements and notions about the more futuristic aspects of HyNor, however, are seldom observed. Further, the message that hydrogen is a cutting edge technology for fuels and energy-carriers is not communicated through inconsiderable and low-scaled hydrogen dispensers placed at relatively anonymous and conventional filling stations. Through the vision-work – exemplified in the HyNor leader's comment – valid practises and meanings are constructed. Consequently, it is the visions which have carried the filling station's significance and meaning. The tension between HyNor's futuristic and more down to earth aspects will be discussed in detail later.

4.8 When analyzing the HyNor project in retrospect it is difficult to find one overarching and prominent vision. A representative from the Norwegian Research Council, which finances HyNor, mentioned this point in an interview. He states that

We too are searching for a good vision. So, what do we really want from hydrogen-projects in Norway? It is very possible that there are different visions in the different nodes, but maybe that doesn't really matter. […] HyNor is many projects, many activities. Some of them are financed and looked upon as pure research projects. Others are financed to demonstrate; some are financed to construct filling stations. All projects contain this continuum. (Officer in the Norwegian Research Council).

4.9 Given HyNor's heterogeneity, according to technology, actors and visions, it is the project's variety and multitude which attracts the eye, not the overarching visions about a 'green' hydrogen-energy future. Consequently, few of the actors in, and partners of, the Hydrogen Highway in Norway seem motivated and committed towards such an ambiguous vision. Rather, their motivation stems from more down to earth and pragmatic visions.

4.10 Based on this retrospect concerning the birth of HyNor – or at least the actors' perception of this birth – it is tempting to conclude that HyNor lacks a prominent vision. At any rate, it seems clear that HyNor lacked an obvious vision at its starting point. In short, HyNor was founded upon fragmented and diverse visions, which lead to an impression of ambiguity. HyNor's visions differ from node to node and throughout the project's life time. Apparently the visions of a hydrogen society in HyNor are down to earth, pragmatic and irresolute. The next part of the paper will scrutinise this in detail, exemplified in the tension between pragmatism and futurism.

Visions and the Tension between Pragmatism and Futurism

5.1 A distinctive feature of the HyNor's visions is that they have elements of pragmatism and that the arguments for establishing a project like HyNor are relatively 'down to earth.' However, the visions are not part of a broader vision about what kind of society is wanted. In comparing HyNor's visions with Callon's concept of scenario and his empirical case VEL, we have observed a certain distinction. Whereas the VEL engineers acted as engineer-sociologists, trying to shape and imaging a new society, the HyNor partners are more pragmatic and delimited. The VEL engineers attempted to redefine the car, as Høyer (2007) described it. In the case of HyNor, it is more difficult to find such redefinitions. For instance, the car which is used in the project is a Toyota Prius and the filling stations are connected to existing petrol stations. In this sense, both the cars and H2-infrastructure are very similar to the existing petrol-regime in transport.

5.2 Another aspect of HyNor's pragmatism involves their overwhelming focus on arguments concerning local and regional industry- and business development. This has ranged from consultancies, via hydrogen sales, to technology export. The commercial interests for HyNor actors are long-term oriented and connected to pragmatic and down to earth visions about developing and implementing technology, winning experience and knowledge, profiling oneself as 'green' and environmental friendly, bringing about acceptance for hydrogen and paving the way for further hydrogen efforts in the case of 'hydrogen breakthrough.'

5.3 Although industry and business development seem to be important arguments for the HyNor actors, it is difficult to find a 'pure' commercial or economic vision. In the following interview-excerpt, one of the main industrial actors presents the financial visions behind his company's participation in HyNor. We observe that those visions are long-term, and not explicitly connected to HyNor. Contrarily, they are linked to hydrogen in a more general and broader sense:

Interviewer: Could you tell about the visions of the project? Informant: Well, one way or anther we want to make money on this. But not in this project. This project will never generate money. (Former leader of the HyNor-board, and representative from one of the main industrial actors).

5.4 The pragmatism in HyNor's visions could maybe be explained by the more general Norwegian efforts to introduce hydrogen. One of our informants spoke about the general Norwegian hydrogen strategy. This informant was a member of a Norwegian commission, who's task was to elucidate hydrogen as an energy-carrier for the future. The commission's work lead to a green paper report (Norwegian Official Report 2004).What we learned from this interview is that it was difficult to find one privileged vision for hydrogen in Norway. An excerpt from the interview also showed that the visions are not effectively expressed;

There seems to be different arguments different places: What is really the reason for implementing hydrogen in Norway? It is not very obvious, because there are many other things to be done, which could be answers to the challenges hydrogen is said to be solving. Those challenges could be solved through a number of ways in Norway. So what we arrived at was that there is a international 'boost' for hydrogen, and that Norwegian industry and businesses could be based on a market we see coming. (Officer in the Norwegian Research Council).

5.5 Other actors are pragmatic in their interpretations of HyNor's contributions. For instance, considering the climate change issue, one informant said it is 'important to contribute one's share,' implying that HyNor's effort is really not a very big issue. The informant's statement can at any rate be interpreted as a fatalistic approach towards HyNor. Consequently, the actors' visions are relatively pragmatic and down to earth. This pragmatism is also reflected in one oil company's arguments for taking part in HyNor. This oil company did not commit fully to the project; however their reflections and considerations are interesting. What we see is that the oil company's initial interest in HyNor was driven by the possibility for acquiring oil-drilling licenses. The oil company hoped HyNor-participation would generate friendliness from the government:

Operating an oil company 'up-stream' is basically a play for oil-drilling licences. To get a licence in a good area you need good relations to the government. Hence, you do certain things that the government wants you to do […] So our oil company had an interest in participating in the HyNor's project, not due to hydrogen-commercial considerations, but due to commercial considerations from the oil and gas parts of the company. (Former HyNor-participant from a major oil company).

5.6 As we see, a distinctive feature in HyNor's visions is that they are small, local and pragmatic. In this way, the project is in contrast to the scenarios presented in Callon's study of the French electric car initiative (Callon 1987). In our study of HyNor, we have seldomly observed ideas, visions and scenarios similar to those presented by the VEL-engineers. Contrary to the VEL-case, HyNor does not redefine the car. The same cars and infrastructure are used, and the visions which could be carrying the scenarios do not refer to or portray a future containing 'new' values, attitudes or social structures. However, HyNor's pragmatism is occasionally accompanied by a certain flowery presented futurism. This is, for instance, exemplified in the Oslo node's bold plan concerning the launch of 125 fuel cell busses by 2015. It is also visible in some of the informant's reflections about what HyNor really represents. The following excerpt is an example of a more visionary approach to HyNor. Here, one main actor from the Oslo nodes reflects about the HyNor-project:

So you can either sit on your backside and wait until the Japanese discovers something or you can do something in the meantime […] So this is one part of several different initiatives for environmentally friendly transport: This is to develop positive environmentally friendly attitudes and values towards public transports. That is what HyNor is. And we know that some time we will have the perfect battery and some time we will use hydrogen in transport – but it will take some time. (Governmental officer participating in the HyNor-Oslo node).

5.7 Such approaches were most common during HyNor's early years. In the beginning of the project's lifetime there was an anticipation that fuel cells were just around the corner, leading to a certain degree of (over-)optimism. This (over-)optimism is evident in the fact that fuel cell cars do not presently operate HyNor's nodes, and that HyNor has postponed their time goals several times. It can further be argued that a more naïve take on HyNor 'showing the way internationally' has been part of such an optimism. One of the HyNor participants, who later resigned from the project, said that the plans were too ambiguous, mainly because of the stated possibilities for buying hydrogen cars. To balance this presentation of over-optimism it is however necessary to empathise that many informants stress that optimism in the start of the project was essential to gain commitment and participation.

5.8 It is evident, however, that the visions of HyNor are intimately related to the Norwegian oil-industry. The project's visions are almost exclusively negotiated within the frame of a fossil fuel-society. The political and social origins of such positions stems from the symbolic and discursive value of oil in the Norwegian society. Since the mid 1960s – when oil was discovered in the North Sea – the value of oil- and gas-production in Norway cannot be underestimated. It has transformed the Norwegian society and economy totally. As evident in the case of HyNor, it still plays an important role in other technological, industrial and environmental projects. The fact that different facets of HyNor's visions all relates to this petro-society is however interesting. A reasonable assumption about the futuristic aspects of HyNor, is that it strongly relates to environmental values. However in the case of HyNor we observe a linkage to a certain Norwegian 'oil-optimism,' harshly illustrated in the hunt for drilling licences.

5.9 In the light of these discussions, we deduct that HyNor's visions have been ambivalent; with pragmatic and down to earth arguments on one side, and more futuristic visions concerning the selling of project parts on the other side. This ambivalence has been observed in the central HyNor organisation, in the different nodes and, to a certain extent, in the various informants. Although ambivalent, the visions are discursively rooted in a fossil-fuel society. The 'pragmatism' stems from industrial development within the petro-structure, whereas the 'futurism' originates from a certain Norwegian 'oil-optimism.'

5.10 The differences in HyNor's visions can of course be due to different communication settings. In certain settings the project's visions are communicated in a flowery way; for instance, when the project is to be 'sold' to other partners, authorities etc. However, one cannot rule out that this is due to a real ambivalence concerning the project and its visions. Hence, it could become problematic if the discrepancy between these settings of over-optimism and the more pragmatic visions is too large. Nonetheless, this discrepancy certainly highlights an unsettled aspect within the HyNor projects.

The Flexibility of HyNor's Visions

6.1 As shown, the visions of HyNor do not bear a similarity with the French scenario described by Callon (1987). This is due to a pragmatism that does not emphasise new approaches to transport carrying new values, new prioritisations and new social structures. However, as previously discussed, there has been a discrepancy between HyNor's pragmatic visions and it's more futuristic and flowery aspects. This leads us to question what perception the HyNor actors have towards the project. Do they understand it as pure demonstration? Do they perceive it as a socio-technical experiment? Or, is it understood as a cornerstone for a coming hydrogen future? The discrepancy between the pragmatism and futurism also makes us wonder about the flexibility of interpretations inside the project.

6.2 In their presentation, HyNor often stresses that it is a demonstration-project. An example is the application from the central HyNor organisation sent to the Norwegian Research Council. This application states,

The goal of HyNor is to demonstrate the market-introduction of hydrogen in the transport sector in Norway. This introduction is to take place within the frames of local initiatives which seeks the most environmental friendly solutions and demonstrates the variety in hydrogen-supply[5]

6.3 This excerpt shows that the demonstration part of the project is emphasised. A common strategy in demonstration-projects is to focus upon what is technologically possible at a given time. Demonstration-projects also focus upon gathering experience and knowledge from the project. As we discussed in the initial presentation of the project, the precursor of HyNor – the NEBUS-project in Oslo – focussed solely on demonstration. However HyNor's perspective has been more unsettled in this respect. Although demonstration is an important part of HyNor, we have observed that actors occasionally perceive the project as a cornerstone for a permanent hydrogen infrastructure in Norway. Here, we refer to the parts of HyNor that aim at being the first brick in the hydrogen road. It is not difficult to find such perceptions among the different partners in the project, as demonstrated in press-releases and media-reports. An example can be drawn from the press-release at the building-start of the Grenland-node. One HyNor partner presented it as a 'cornerstone for the future.'[6] In agreement with this perception, another former HyNor partner stated,

Realistic, I perceived this project as a development-project for Norwegian suppliers of technology towards a potential market in the future. Then one has to 'buy a lottery ticket.' HyNor is the Norwegian lottery ticket to see if we can do something smart with hydrogen. (Former HyNor-participant from a major oil company).

6.4 Such a perception of the HyNor-project is not exceptional. Other informants expressed that the HyNor project is, in several ways, presented as the start of something and as a possibility to take part in a global 'hydrogen-race.' In addition, and interestingly, attention has been allocated to the distance between Oslo and Stavanger. The Oslo-Stavanger route is one of the main transport-corridors in Norway and is given priority in Norwegian policy-documents. The HyNor-project's attention to this distance can be interpreted as an effort to integrate the use of hydrogen in long-term national transport-planning. Consequently, HyNor appears to be a cornerstone for a permanent future hydrogen infrastructure.

6.5 A third perception of HyNor, presented by the participants in the project, is that HyNor is a socio-technical experiment. This perception focuses on HyNor as a testing-arena for hydrogen in the Norwegian transport sector. This depiction of HyNor portrays it as a learning experiment for what should be done to realise the necessary infrastructure. Such a perception is implicit in the following excerpt,

Gradually the HyNor board developed a taste for the Think car. They understood that HyNor could be a home ground testing arena for a promising fuel cell hydrogen car. This was also due to the problems HyNor had experienced in getting hold of fuel cell cars. (Representative from the Think-node).

6.6 The emphasis on HyNor as a testing arena indicates that HyNor has been perceived by its partners as a socio-technical experiment. The organisational structure of the HyNor project also points in this direction. From the presentation of HyNor's history, we learned that HyNor is organised as a network between local nodes. These nodes are relatively autonomous, and have the opportunity to test and demonstrate different technologies and solutions. However, the cornerstone issue is an important feature concerning how the partners of HyNor perceive the project. This seems to be especially important when the project is presented to the public.

6.7 As shown the HyNor-project has been perceived and presented differently. At least three different interpretations have been observed. In a sense, this corresponds with Pinch and Bijker's notion of flexible interpretation. Bijker & Pinch (1987) state that all phases of technology-development are characterised by interpretive flexibility. This means that technology is interpreted, shaped, adjusted and adapted to the user's understandings, interests and routines. Interpretive flexibility assumes that artefacts have more than one interpretation. Further, artefacts can be interpreted differently from actor to actor and over time. In the case of HyNor, the subject is not a concrete artefact, but a complex project. This project includes production, infrastructure and the use of hydrogen. Hence, the subject here is a variety of artefacts and a complex and heterogeneous network including numerous and dynamic visions.

Conclusions: Visions in the Making

7.1 As discussed earlier, Gjøen defines vision-work as a collective process of negotiation that includes research-based knowledge, experience-based knowledge and politics (Gjøen 2001: 314). Her notion of vision-work stresses that visions are in 'the making,' underscoring that visions are exposed to resistances and successes. Partly as a polemic against Callon's notion of scenario, Gjøen emphasises that actors other than engineers and scientists can also play central roles in shaping and negotiating scenarios. In the following concluding paragraphs we will – through Gjøen's frame of analysis – investigate how HyNor's visions can be understood as 'in the making.'

7.2 Interviews conducted throughout HyNor's lifetime indicate that the participants' perceptions and visions of HyNor have changed. A reasonable interpretation of the project's visions is that they have changed from an optimistic approach to a more pragmatic and sober approach. These changes are connected to an optimistic fuel cell expectation, presented by the car industry, in the period when HyNor was to be established. HyNor's pragmatic and down to earth approach is probably due to the fact that expectations concerning the fuel cell were not fulfilled. However, the growing focus on climate change and CO2-reducing strategies has altered HyNor's visions, but not in a way one would expect.

7.3 Over the last two years, there has been a growing focus from the Norwegian public on issues concerning climate change. In this context, different strategies for GHG-gas reductions have been scrutinised. This scrutiny has influenced HyNor's strategies and visions. The press-release connected to the opening of a hydrogen filling station in Grenland in June 2007, can be used as an example. This press-release describes HyNor as 'tomorrow's climate-solution for transport.'[7] Such climate-reductionism has not been evident in HyNor's lifetime until now. Earlier in the project-period, the focus was mainly on local pollutants. However, due to this shift, one could expect more optimistic visions from HyNor. This is so, particularly considering the growing focus on a 'technological fix,' which has been dominant in the Norwegian GHG-reduction strategies[8]. This technological fix-strategy, however, does not include hydrogen and HyNor. In the Norwegian context the technological fix is CO2 capture and storing-technology (CCS). It is therefore interesting to observe that one of the nodes in HyNor – Stavanger – has changed their view on CCS. In the first phase of the project the production of hydrogen included a CCS-component. In the second phase of the Stavanger-project the focus is altered from reforming natural gas with CCS, to reforming biogas. Paradoxically, the CCS-component in the Stavanger-node was then removed from the HyNor-project just as CCS became the main Norwegian GHG-reduction solution. This indicates that, although the climate change debate has influenced the project's character and nature[9], its visions were not changed and altered in the same direction.

7.4 Callon (1987) shows how scenarios were constructed in order to shape and imagine a future society. In the case of HyNor such image and scenario is not very evident; it is the social and economic structure of the existing petro-society which still is the starting point. HyNor contains no idea of a 'new' society with green values and anti-consumerism ideals, as was present in Callon's VEL-case. HyNor – as a project – does only reflect upon society within the frames of an industrial and oil-dependent society. As shown the concept of scenario can be criticised for not including a broader public. This becomes important when reflecting upon the development of HyNor's visions. It is clear that other actors than engineers and scientists contributed to, and negotiated, HyNor's vision. Here the public debates on climate change altered and influenced on the project's visions to a large degree. Although the climate change debate became more and more important, HyNor's visions still underlined industrial development. The visions also continued to relate to the oil- and gas-production in Norway. In this respect HyNor's main challenge is not the lack of an overarching vision, linked to a certain scenario about a future society, but it is the fact that the participants too late realised that the public's attitudes towards the project is flexible. This highlights Bijker & Pinch’s (1987) notion on interpretive flexibility. HyNor has throughout its lifetime been constantly interpreted, shaped, adjusted and adapted.

7.5 This tendency in HyNor's visions corresponds to Gjøen's notion of 'vision-work.' We have clearly observed that politics influences the project's visions, although in a different manner than may be expected. The history of HyNor, so far, is therefore a history of 'ups and downs.' The project's position in the field of technology development, environmental politics and global car industry makes it difficult to predict forthcoming changes. However, this paper shows that HyNor's visions are numerous, flexible and dynamic. Whether this is promoting the project or not remains to be seen. Nevertheless, the diversity and tension in the project's visions present a challenge that needs to be reflected upon and dealt with by the HyNor-organisation.


This paper is based on a project funded by the Research Council of Norway. I would like to thank Dr. Erling Holden at Western Norway Research Institute for comments and his contributions for carrying-out some of the interviews. Thanks to Professor Knut Holtan Sørensen at the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies of Culture, Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) for comments on early drafts of this paper. In particular Asbjørn Kårstein at the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies of Culture, NTNU, has been important for this paper. In addition to conducting some of the interviews which the paper relies on, he has also contributed substantially to the interpretations.


1The project partners have been careful in using the term 'fuel cell – vehicles.' In documents from the early HyNor-period terms like hydrogen-cars and hydrogen-driven cars are used instead of fuel cell vehicles or synonyms. However an interview with one of the early HyNor participants confirms that fuel cell-vehicles were the aim at the beginning of the project.

2According to the press-release from Norsk Hydro AS (



5Application sent to the Norwegian Research Council October 2006 (HyNor 2006).


7 [12 June 2007]

8This is exemplified in the Norwegian commission report on low emissions (Norwegian Official Report 2006). Another example is the Prime Minister's New Year's address to the nation. Here PM Jens Stoltenberg characterised the development of a full-scale CO2 capture and storage facility as a Norwegian 'lunar landing.'

9Another sign of this change is that all the nodes are now focusing on renewable energy sources for the production of hydrogen.


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