Alternative No More: How Hydrogen Can Make Solar and Wind Sticky

By Traver Kennedy, Chairman and CEO on May 01, 2018
Traver Kennedy
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A couple of weeks ago, we wrote about the electrification of everything and the growing prominence of electricity in powering more and more of our daily lives. We called electricity the “new green” and shared some of the findings that Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) presented in its U.S. National Electrification Assessment. According to their figures, by 2050, the share of electricity in the total energy sector will range from 32% to 47%, up from 21% today. The “critical and growing” role (as they referred to it) that electricity will increasingly play in the U.S. energy sector cannot be ignored.

Although the rapid uptake of green sources, such as solar and wind, to generate electricity can lead us to conclude that sustainable energy is no longer “alternative energy” anymore, there remain some obstacles to their wholesale adoption for global electricity generation. These environmental-friendly sources of power experience limitations when it comes to the on-demand, on-site, and on-board production of energy that true ‘electrification of everything’ requires. However, these barriers can be solved by hydrogen―the universe’s most energetic of elements.

The path to a bright future of sustainable power is no longer “alternative.”

The “Three-Third World”

The “Tree-Third World” is the terminology that Michael Liebreich, Chairman of the Advisory Board at  Bloomberg New Energy Finance, uses to describe the “new orthodoxy” when it comes to the rapid progress of sustainable electricity. In a recent article, he defined this term as: “By 2040 one-third of global electricity will be generated from wind and solar; one-third of vehicles on the road will be electric; and the world’s economy will produce one-third more GDP from every unit of energy.”

According to Liebreich, the progress of renewables is “unstoppable” and defies his own expectations. Indeed, the surge in renewable adoption over the past few years is something hardly anybody, expert or not, predicted. From the ubiquitous electric car to affordable wind and solar that galvanized utilities to become the largest users of these energies, we live in a world where green is no longer an expensive alternative for the environmentally conscious. In fact, to call sustainable energy “alternative” energy sounds out of touch with today’s reality.

The Barrier to Unlimited Sustainability

Liebreich caveats his enthusiasm by writing, “there is no emerging new orthodoxy on how to decarbonize the rest of the economy―industry, chemicals, aviation, shipping and, in particular, heat.” These sectors, which seem to represent a barrier for electrification, rely on a few characteristics that traditional energy delivered via electricity is not especially well suited for, such as on-demand, on-board, and on-site power generation, in addition to 24/7 availability.

Solar and wind, for instance, are variable in the sense that they depend on a sunny day and windy conditions, respectively. Historically, fossil fuels have provided the logical alternative. A car and a plane that use gasoline, for instance, “make” their energy on-board by converting fuel into energy as they move. That is convenient but not sustainable when it comes to limiting greenhouse gases or simply making cities smog-free and, thus, more livable.

Consumers, especially those who must endure the consequences of dirty air in cities, are increasingly demanding solutions to this problem. Industry is racing to find solutions that can minimize the trade-offs that sustainable power sources, especially in the sectors Liebreich noted above have historically presented.

The Answer Can be Hydrogen

In the same article, Liebreich stated that he is “bullish about hydrogen,” adding, “it is one of the most promising ways of dealing with longer-term storage, beyond the minutes, hours or days that could be met by batteries, or the limited locations in which pumped storage could work.” This bullishness is also echoed in a separate article by Nicolas Kraus, EU Policy and Regulatory Affairs Manager at Hydrogen Europe. He writes that hydrogen “provides a solid foundation for the development of the energy economy of the future.” He then goes on to enumerate the reasons for his statement: a) a solution for the seasonal storage of renewable energy in large quantities; b) an electro mobility solution; c) a de-carbonization solution for industrial processes; and d) a de-carbonization pathway for the heating sector. It is no coincidence that these four points seem like a direct response to Liebreich’s stated barriers; after all, hydrogen is an incredibly flexible source of energy.

Much like wind and solar, hydrogen has also made significant strides over the last few years with innovations in affordable, on-board/on-site production of hydrogen 24/7, such as Hydrogen 2.0. We are beginning to see the hydrogen industry follow the same trajectory as other sustainable energies when it comes to cost and availability. So much so, that some in the energy industry see a new “hydrogen economy” that is here to stay.

As the sustainable sources of energy that the world demands and needs―wind, solar, and hydrogen―work in concert to eliminate adoption barriers in all areas of our lives, it is encouraging to see that alternative energy is no longer “alternative.”


Photo courtesy of Christopher Michel.
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