In the world of alternative energies, hydrogen fuel cells offer plenty of positive attributes which has attracted a great deal of research around the world in working towards greater development of these fuels. Hydrogen can be captured from energy generation processes involving fossil fuels or readily available biomass and can even be culled from the application of an electric current to water. Decomposing water into hydrogen and oxygen through this process creates none of the harmful pollutants caused by combusting fossil fuels. Hydrogen must be created from other sources, as it does not exist freely in nature by itself, but many see it as a potentially effective means for generating useful energy in a more sustainable manner than fossil fuels.
Many of our readers will be familiar with efforts to incorporate hydrogen fuels into vehicle technologies for cleaner modes of transportation. Previously, we’ve discussed research and development aimed at creating hydrogen fuel cell technologies for use as renewable energy resources. Even larger scale applications for hydrogen fuels are currently being contemplated, in some cases by national governments. Japan, for example, recently released a white paper discussing the ability of that country to convert to a “hydrogen economy” and make hydrogen a main energy carrier for electrical utilities. Government officials believe that, by the year 2030, hydrogen-fueled energy could make up 10 percent of the total electricity needs of Japan.
Before widespread application of hydrogen in electrical utilities can be addressed, however, a number of shortcomings have yet to be solved. Although hydrogen can be derived from a number of sources, most of the world’s current hydrogen manufacture requires natural gas, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Natural gas is still a fossil fuel and releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere when combusted for these processes. Storing and transportation of hydrogen is also very important as hydrogen, compared to other fuels, has a low energy for its volume even though it has a high energy for its weight. The ability to store and transport hydrogen in cost-effective ways is currently a stumbling block on the path towards greater use of this alternative energy carrier in electrical systems.
Incorporating Hydrogen Into the Energy Infrastructure
A recent webinar presented by the U.S. Department of Energy, entitled “Increasing Renewable Energy with Hydrogen Storage and Fuel Cell Technologies,” reported some interesting advancements in the area of hydrogen-powered alternative energies. The findings, presented by Josh Eichman and Monterey Gardiner, both of the DoE’s Fuel Cell Technologies Office, support the idea that hydrogen can be increasingly incorporated into multiple sectors of America’s energy infrastructure in the coming years.
This ability of hydrogen to be incorporated into the use of multiple forms of energy generation is one of the more remarkable aspects of this form of alternative energy. Hydrogen can be used to support energy supplied by natural gas grids through pipeline injections, a method of energy conversion known as “power-to-gas.” Although hydrogen fuel cells are commonly associated with alternative energy technologies for vehicles, they can also provide a supplemental source of energy for electrical grids.
These multiple interactions make the prospects of developing hydrogen energy technologies very valuable. If efficient ways of generating, storing and transporting hydrogen were developed, it could be used to contribute to most major parts of the energy infrastructure in our own country and across the world. “Hydrogen can compete in electricity markets,” said Eichman, owing in no small part to its potential flexibility in energy systems.
The electrolyzers which provide power-to-gas or fuel cell energy generation have also shown a great capacity for quick response to energy needs, according to the Fuel Cell Technologies Office findings. In some instances, it may take 30 minutes after a power plant failure for some conventional reserves to provide an adequate amount of backup electricity for restoring normal grid operation. In electrolyzer flexibility tests conducted by the office, 40 kilowatt electrolyzer units were capable of responding effectively to grid needs by ramping up hydrogen production by 50 percent within 1.5 seconds.
Hydrogen’s Current Potential and Its Drawbacks
The cost-effectiveness of alternative energy incorporation is always a major concern when considering the practicality of developing new technologies in this field. During the webinar presentation, Eichman discussed a couple of models which looked at the economics of hydrogen generation. One major takeaway from these findings is that the ability to sell hydrogen to consumers through energy markets can greatly increase the profits available through hydrogen generation operations. Predictions on hydrogen sale revenue show that plants that can sell 80 percent of the hydrogen created through electrolysis can reach revenues approaching $1 million each year.
However, storage devices for hydrogen still pose some serious drawbacks. Over time, the costs of storing hydrogen begin to far outpace the revenue that can be earned from its sale, and it seems as though the current models reach a tipping point at about eight hours of storage. Not only must the technical capacity for storing hydrogen improve, the presenters mentioned that policy decisions, such as better mechanisms for supplying production tax credits, which could also improve the situation for hydrogen technologies.
Major pushes for the development of hydrogen energy technologies have been seen in Germany, the United States, Spain and Canada. Germany especially has a robust system of hydrogen projects, which includes 22 green hydrogen power-to-gas projects which are operational, according to Eichman. These production processes include energy storage for sewage gas to hydrogen or wind energy to hydrogen production as well as mobile hydrogen applications. A two-megawatt power-to-gas project for grid energy storage recently announced for construction in Mississauga, Ontario, was also cited in the presentation as another example of increasing production in this field. Storage capacity requirements for energy grid participation have been reducing in some countries such as Germany; its strong activity in hydrogen energy engineering may suggest that reducing these requirements in other countries can also support further development of energy generation from hydrogen.
The Next Steps Towards Hydrogen-Enabled Energy
More work is needed to develop solutions to the barriers against hydrogen energy storage, according to Eichman. He briefly discussed a series of hydrogen energy storage projects being pursued to identify challenges and benefits of hydrogen energy implementation among 65 participants, including state agencies, federal agencies and industrial applications. A thorough list of U.S. DoE-funded workshops and meetings for this and other areas of hydrogen energy development is maintained online by the federal agency.
One of the aspects of implementing hydrogen-fueled energies into which these projects may provide some insight is the potential for hydrogen use in developing energy infrastructures. During a question and answer session in the webinar, Eichman was asked if it made sense to invest in hydrogen storage and transfer projects in emerging economies with unstable grids. “A developing market might present opportunities to actually come onto scene and achieve higher capacity value,” responded Eichman. With the proper implementation, hydrogen services from electrolyzers could provide services for any electrical grid.
Federal policy involving demand response in energy markets can also impact the ability to monetize hydrogen production. Eichman stated that a shift towards week-ahead capacity away from day-ahead capacity would allow hydrogen production facilities to better capitalize on their operations. Capacity markets for demand response may provide very valuable opportunities for energy production from hydrogen.
Although hydrogen energy technologies may not yet be economically competitive where storage is concerned, its capacity to provide adequate demand response to electrical grids may bring this area of alternative energy a brighter future. Especially as electrolysis equipment is able to provide adequate demand response within seconds, these technologies may be viewed as increasingly competitive with traditional fossil fuels in the coming years.