A new application of hydrogen is being deployed which is helping solve humanity’s ever-evolving energy woes. Traditionally, hydrogen has a large number of non-energy based applications – everything from industrial products to food packaging. Ammonia fertilizer production, which hydrogen is a main component of, amounted to 160 Million tons in 2011.
But while market demand for hydrogen is driven heavily by fertilizer and manufacturing, new demand is emerging for hydrogen in the energy sector.
Power plants in Germany as well as Canada (using wind and natural gas, respectively) are today supplementing their primary electrical generators with advanced configurations of hydrogen technologies. These retrofits help the plants save money by smoothing supply, converting excess electricity generated into storable hydrogen gas, which can be returned to electricity using either a turbine or a fuel cell.
Supply-demand balancing act
For natural gas fired plants, there are huge expenses associated with starting the generators from stop – both from the amount of fuel it takes, and the time it takes to reach generating speed. To mitigate this concern, operators often run their turbines non-stop, regardless of demand for the energy created, and therefore using fuel even though the electricity the plant can generate is more than the plant will be paid for.
Wind farms face a similar supply-demand problem, but though wind is free – unlike natural gas – the economics are still concerning for wind farm operators. Wind energy is often generated at times when there isn’t a demand for the electricity being produced (known as off-peak) and therefore there is an abundant supply of low cost, renewable energy that goes unused – and unpaid for.
To cut costs and expand margins, the new hydrogen power plant strategy is simple; store extra electricity supply as high energy hydrogen gas, and deliver it as demanded and generating max revenue.
In the last two years there has been increased attention towards hydrogen, and today there are operational hydrogen energy plants reducing carbon intensity and saving money.
To be clear, hydrogen is an energy carrier not a source, as it doesn’t actually make energy – it needs the reaction with a catalyst and oxygen to release its contained energy, which often occurs in a fuel cell.
Hydrogen is not naturally occurring anywhere on Earth like, say, oil or coal or even sunlight. Rather, hydrogen must be obtained from processes like electrolysis (running direct current through water to make H2) or reforming natural gas (which contains hydrogen.)
Seeing as the former method demands energy usually derived from fossil fuel, and the latter is derived directly from a fossil fuel, it would seem that hydrogen isn’t a clean energy solution after all. Hydrogen produces only pure water when used for energy, but if it takes carbon intensive fuels to make the hydrogen, then why explore it as a source of clean energy at all?
Well, as there are many crayons in a box, there are also many sources of energy in the world and many aren’t fossil fuel based. Indeed, hydrogen can – and has been – created through electrolysis powered by clean energy, and more projects combining renewable energy and hydrogen are being developed right now.
Powering the wind market
In no industry are the benefits of supplemental hydrogen systems more apparent than for wind energy. Diminishing tax credits and subsidies have encouraged developers, operators and owners to explore new ways to increase margins on current and developing wind projects. In the wind industry, everyone knows and fears the concept of ‘curtailment’ – the forced shutdown of renewable energy infrastructure by utilities or other power purchasers.
Curtailment occurs when the grid is overloaded by electrical supply, and transmission does not accept electricity from wind farms. Therefore, when curtailment occurs, wind turbines and solar panels lay idle providing no energy to the grid even when there is wind or solar resource to be harvested. During curtailment, renewable energy operators’ assets generate little or no revenue. In Texas and Oklahoma, curtailment occurs as often as 50% of generating time.
Auxiliary hydrogen storage provides operators of wind assets a solution to the issues of:
- generating during off-peak hours;
- intermittent energy supply.
Hydrogen is a dispatchable form of energy with several applications, including:
- power plant coolant
- industrial product
The differences in tariff prices written into power purchase agreements (PPAs) are often considerable enough to consider storage, and many inherent characteristics of hydrogen technology make it the front runner for energy storage.
Power producers can convert energy generated in curtailment or off-peak periods into hydrogen, and return the energy to the grid in higher value on-peak times. As the proliferation of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles continues, wind farms may be able to sell their off-peak generation as a valuable transportation fuel.
Further, as many wind farms are sited near (or on top of) agricultural land, wind farms can produce extremely valuable fertilizer with a very small amount of upfront capital. The variety of value-producing scenarios that hydrogen offers is just the beginning of the technology’s benefits.
Commercially, hydrogen has been gridlocked for years, without much attention in political and business agenda because of the high cost of the technology. Today though, hugely innovative development activity and
unique new business models present a strong case for implementing hydrogen paired with renewable energy sources.
Angstrom Advanced – out of Braintree, MA – has worked with national laboratories, industry giants, and universities to create innovative new electrolysis products that are specifically designed for use with intermittent energy sources. Similarly, fuel cell design has vastly improved and companies are now deploying fuel cells in multiple MW configurations for commercial and utility applications.
Compared to alternate energy storage methods, hydrogen has consummate advantages in cost reduction and margin expansion. For one, the cost of electrolyzers has decreased 25% in the last 10 years.
In work with one national laboratory last year, Angstrom Advanced declared its electrolyzer stack efficiency around 77% (+/- 2%) and found that producing hydrogen from wind is not only possible, but economical also.
Its electrolysis techniques have reduced the need for additional transformers so systems can adapt to the current and voltage of wind turbines and transmission facilities. This reduces capital cost for additional transformers and increases system efficiency due to the system losses associated with transformer technology.
For grid storage applications, fuel cells are a much more suitable technology because they provide a constant level of energy as opposed to alternative methods like batteries or compressed air which decrease in output over time. Additionally, late stage development metal hydride storage technology and other more compact (and safer) storage methods has opened the door for exploring hydrogen energy systems for a range of applications.
Leading the way
Niche markets and innovative people are fully embracing the potential of hydrogen:
- Germany has hydrogen power plants and a new transportation project building 50 new refueling stations to supply hydrogen powered vehicles.
- Hydrogen powered forklifts have increased in popularity dramatically. Large US companies like Sysco are switching their entire distribution fleet to hydrogen power because of the benefits over traditional systems.
- In the US, hydrogen buses are in operation in Austin, Birmingham, Cleveland and several other cities;
- There is also a large bus fleet in Reykjavik, Iceland where the vast supply of renewable energy inexpensively creates hydrogen fuel.
Hydrogen energy, it seems, is no longer an idyllic power solution but, rather, a market-based clean energy solution. In instances where electricity is plentiful and therefore cheap, hydrogen power is a viable option to cleanly power our world.
The demand for hydrogen is perhaps not as once predicted, the decades-old discussion of hydrogen based transportation infrastructure still unrealised. Though widespread hydrogen powered transportation is still a future goal, the barriers to hydrogen vehicle deployment are much greater than simply solving the economics of producing hydrogen gas; the marketability of hydrogen energy in the near term is a result of the volatile electrical generation industry.
Truly, expanding electrical generation capacity in developing and developed markets facilitates greater utilisation of more innovative ‘smart-grid’ solutions, hydrogen storage being one of them. The most clearly defined energy market for hydrogen is renewable energy operators looking for a solution to low off-peak and curtailment energy prices.
In regions where transmission congestion and curtailment practices are commonplace, augmenting wind farms with efficient storage technology is a practical solution to maximising revenue and producing a responsible, clean energy source. In order to capture a note-worthy share of the energy market, the hydrogen industry must continue to innovate and improve. For now though, hydrogen has finally found a seat at the table.
Samuel Sterling is Business Development Manager for Renewable Hydrogen at Angstrom Advanced Inc. is a technology manufacturer based in Braintree, MA. Angstrom Advanced specializes in designing and deploying residential, commercial, and industrial scale electrolyzers used for: renewable energy storage, industrial processing, transportation fuel, natural gas plant peaking and cooling, fertilizer manufacture and distributed generation. They have an extensive network with national laboratories, commercial/industrial partners, and universities as well as products in operation around the world.