Hydrogen and Energy Storage: Expanding Capacity

By Traver Kennedy, Chairman and CEO on October 30, 2018
Traver Kennedy
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With the rapid growth in the demand and supply of renewables, suddenly we have too much of a good thing. The problem before us now is how to use it all. Renewables, as I wrote last week, continue to disrupt the energy landscape, and sometimes, not in a good way. The cost of electricity in several markets around the globe has dropped to zero, or even to a negative price, during times of excessive wind and solar. However, their fleeting abundance just as quickly contracts during other times of the day or weather, driving high peak prices for electricity.

As the widespread adoption of renewables expands, the imbalance between supply and demand will continue to occur more frequently because we have not solved the inherent problem with renewables like solar and wind. The problem lies in how to store excess energy, so it can be used when these variable resources can’t produce it, such as at night or on a calm, windless day, for example.

To tackle this “too-much-of-a-good-thing” problem, new approaches to energy storage are sprouting everywhere. It seems like new energy storage solutions are appearing almost weekly or are being reinvented from earlier technologies. Wide-ranging research and performance optimization work are being conducted on redox-flow batteries, traditional lead-acid batteries, and new lithium-ion batteries. Other energy storage methods include traditional hydroelectric power, compressed air on both a small and large scale, the conversion of electricity or mechanical energy stored with a flywheel, and many other approaches. Clean and affordable hydrogen, however, seems to offer a better answer.

Sun and wind: calling for storage solutions

Traditional Energy Storage Methods Come with a Cost

As a society, we need to remain vigilant of the facts behind the energy systems we use and understand their obvious impacts as well as unintended consequences. Each of the technologies I mentioned above has a plus and minus equation―whether it is pollution made in the extraction of materials to manufacture the technology itself or the sheer scale of utility-sized installations that favor economies of scale.

For example, the way we’ve thought of water power historically is enabled by harnessing rivers and streams or by building dams and flooding the landscape―an approach that changes landscapes, habitats, and ancestral lands―none of which is good. While the benefit may seem to outweigh the drawbacks at the time of construction, the reality that has proven out over time is that, in most cases, the fishery, habitats, endangered species, and previous way of life are all negatively impacted.

Hydrogen’s Ability for Large-Scale Energy Storage

In society’s transition to renewable energy, hydrogen plays an important role as a storage medium that is both large-scale and long-term. An added benefit of hydrogen is that it can also be converted efficiently into electricity as needed. Rather than being wasted, renewables’ energy surplus can be used to produce hydrogen from water, which can then be stored and subsequently used to produce electricity when solar and wind are not available.

The graph below shows the storage sweet spot and capacity of the leading storage technologies, ranging from capacitors and batteries to hydrogen. The graph would make it seem obvious that hydrogen can provide renewables with the highest capacity and the longest energy release time, making hydrogen production a no-brainer when it comes to storing excess wind and solar power. However, the story is not that simple. First, there are capital and energy costs to bear depending on whether the hydrogen storage method is at ambient pressure or high pressure and whether it remains as a gas or is liquified. A second consideration is that traditional methods to produce hydrogen have one big hurdle that has kept hydrogen from being widely adopted, either as a storage medium or as a primary energy source, until recently―the cost of electricity itself.

Source: Keyou GMBH

A Virtuous Cycle

All forms of stored energy require conversion from their chemical state (batteries), kinetic state (hydro, compressed air, flywheel), or gaseous state (natural gas, biogas, hydrogen) to produce usable electricity. One of the most efficient, reliable, and lowest cost methods to convert stored gas into electricity is with a turbine. That is why most of the electricity in the world is produced using turbines connected to generators.

Gas turbines for electrical power generation are similar to the turbines found in jet engines on an airplane. The turbine spins in one direction as natural gas, propane, or hydrogen are burned to spin its main shaft. The shaft is typically attached to an electric generator to provide the electrons that go into the transmission lines and then into the distribution grid at a city, town, or neighborhood level. Think of an airplane engine with something that looks a lot like a big electric motor on the end of it.

An important consideration for using a turbine is that it can be throttled. Newer designs can use a range of gases and gas mixes, both traditional and renewable, such as biogas and increasingly, hydrogen. All of the major turbine manufacturers now have turbines that can use a combination of natural gas and hydrogen, and most manufacturers are working toward models that can use 100% hydrogen.

Storage Solved

Neil Eckert, chairman of Aggregated Micro Power Holdings Plc., was recently quoted by Bloomberg News regarding the world’s transition to renewable energy. Specifically, he said that “Bill Gates became the richest bloke on Earth off the end of the mainframe. We are seeing the end of the energy mainframe. The world will have to learn new techniques―how to invest in small-scale distributed energy.”

The reality is that the energy game has been disrupted by the broad-scale adoption of renewables and demand from consumers everywhere for sustainable energy. And just like the advent of PCs made the mainframe obsolete, there is no way back when it comes to renewables. What we have to apply, as Eckert told Bloomberg, are new techniques that play well in the new energy reality we face.

The good news is that innovative technologies are emerging from many corners to ease the transition. Hydrogen 2.0 is one of these new distributed energy techniques that can play well with those renewables already widely adopted and spreading. Hydrogen 2.0 perfectly complements other renewables by providing a way to “store” excess energy and subsequently produce electricity, on demand, when solar and wind are not available, keeping the flow of electricity constant. When it comes to sustainable energy to transition us to a cleaner and healthier planet, solar, wind and hydrogen is a triumvirate made to last and grow.


Image courtesy of Christopher Michel
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