Hydrogen: The Answer to the Problem of Renewables Variability

By Vicky Harris, Vice President Marketing on May 21, 2019
Vicky Harris
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Thriving with Hydrogen Series: Part 3

Storing energy has always been a task that necessitates creative minds. It has also been a problem which, once solved, opens up entire industries. The tiniest of transformative devices, mobile phones, were not possible until energy storage technology advanced enough to produce a small battery that could fit in your pocket and last a decent amount of time to power your day. While at the other end of the spectrum, some of the largest and most transformative communities and cities were boosted by building dams (which function like huge batteries) to supply energy from nearby waterways.

For the full adoption of renewables, like wind and solar, storage is also a problem. Once solved though, it will change the entire game. Industry innovators are working to solve this problem through several different approaches. These include big batteries like those Tesla is developing to store excess wind and solar energy generated in homes and buildings. They also include the use of hydrogen as an energy carrier to store large amounts of surplus energy for long periods of time―and even to export renewable energy to different geographies.

Today’s post, the third in our “Thriving with Hydrogen Series” (check out Part 1 and Part 2), explores some ingenious ways hydrogen can be used to store and transport clean energy.

You may see a puddle. Industry innovators see clean energy storage.

A Full Energy Transition Needs Hydrogen

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 intermittency problem of renewables, like solar and wind. A report by the Hydrogen Council points out, “Without long-term storage, additional renewable capacity above a certain threshold would not be efficient to build, and other non-zero-emission technologies would be required (e.g., gas-based peaker plants). By providing seasonal storage, a higher share of renewables could become feasible.”

In this regard, hydrogen plays an important role as a storage medium that has both the highest capacity and the longest energy release time. An added benefit is that hydrogen 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.

Hydrogen holds the potential to be the clean, versatile energy carrier required for society’s full-scale energy transition. Looking into the future, the Hydrogen Council projects that by 2050, “Hydrogen enables the deployment of renewables by converting and storing more than 500 TWh of otherwise curtailed electricity. It allows international energy distribution, linking renewable-abundant regions with those requiring energy imports. It is also used as a buffer and strategic reserve for power.”

Hiring all Microbes!

Despite their explosive adoption by utilities and favorable economics, renewables like wind and solar continue to generate just a small fraction of the electricity we use because there is no reliable way to store all the excess energy they generate. This is a big problem that is being tackled by some of the most creative minds.

A recent article by Engadget explains why we do not have an effective way to store surplus energy from renewables for those periods when the sun is down or on windless days. This article explores an interesting “biology-based battery alternative,” an initiative by Stanford University, which basically uses microbes as batteries. According to  Alfred Spormann, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford University, and his colleague Thomas Jaramillo, the process provides a “practical way to use microbes to convert surplus renewable electrical energy into methane, which could be burned at those times when solar and wind power aren’t available, or during times of peak demand.”

Hydrogen plays a critical role here, as they describe it:

“The released hydrogen atoms carried electrons to the microbes, where the arrival of that energy prompted the microbes to pluck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and form methane. Because the methane doesn’t dissolve in the water, it’s easy to capture and store. The critical novelty was using electrodes to free many hydrogen atoms for methane conversion. Using electricity to split water and microbes to make methane provided the speed of methane synthesis and storage that had been previously lacking.”

Their work has gained funding from the Department of Energy and the collaboration of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Southern California Gas to design efficient ways to store excess renewable energy using their microbes-to-methane method.

Taking Clean Energy to Far-Away Places

When hydrogen is used to store clean energy seasonally, it enables the large-scale integration of solar and wind into the energy system to balance supply with demand around-the-clock. In this vital role, hydrogen solves one of the biggest headaches that utilities face every day: managing peak periods without interruptions. It also plays a vital role in serving as a buffer to increase overall system resilience.

Additionally, hydrogen can help take renewable energy from places of abundance to places of scarcity, opening opportunities for clean energy trading across the globe. A recent article by FuelCellsWorks highlights the successful export of hydrogen across geographies. In this case, green hydrogen was transported from Australia to Japan “in a major step towards the development of a new sustainable fuel export market.” The article reports that Queensland University of Technology (QUT) took part in the “first production and export of green hydrogen derived from water from Australia,” adding, “the landmark shipment was a proof of concept test using a proprietary technology owned by JXTG, Japan’s largest petroleum conglomerate, and QUT’s solar power facilities at Redlands, south of Brisbane.”

Here’s how the process worked:

“The green hydrogen was created by adding water and acid to a chemical called toluene in an electrochemical process using solar energy. The toluene was converted into a substance called methyl cyclohexane (MCH) using JXTG’s process powered by QUT’s solar arrays.  MCH looks like and feels like oil, which means it can be shipped using conventional road tankers, pipelines, and supertankers.”

This initiative is just one of many proof-of-concepts to capitalize on Japan’s mandate to “focus on green hydrogen as fuel,” and forecasted “trillion-dollar” hydrogen economy by 2050, as noted in the article. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has underscored the important exportability of hydrogen stating, “When a fuel can be easily transported and/or stored long term, its production can be locally detached from its consumption for a minor transportation cost. The affordability of these easily transportable fuels as well as limitations on renewable capacities in densely populated regions, will most probably give rise to a new era of international energy trade based on renewables rather than fossil fuels.”

Knocking Down the Barriers to Massive Renewable Adoption

The initiatives explored in today’s post are just two examples of the many creative ways hydrogen is being put to good use to store and transport clean energy. The flexibility and scalability of the universe’s most abundant element can help eliminate the barriers to the massive adoption of renewable energy everywhere.


Photo courtesy of Christopher Michel.
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