Sustainable fuels are key to a clean energy future, but the time to start the transition is now

Across the world, the Path to 100% clean energy is underway. To get there, countries must transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources like wind and solar. It sounds easy, but there are many questions remaining, and the answers likely vary by region. Nearly everyone agrees that we have to find a way to balance the intermittent nature of those renewable sources which are so highly dependent on the weather. Battery storage technology will be essential, but it won’t be enough to cover any long periods of poor renewable conditions or extreme seasonal weather events.

Global energy leader Wärtsilä believes that flexible power plants, which are capable of running on sustainable fuels, are critical to reliable power generation now and in a clean energy future, according to its recent white paper, “Get Ready for Sustainable Fuels with Flexible Wärtsilä Power Plants.” 

Because of the way they are designed, legacy thermal power plants have to run constantly, even when solar and wind are producing an adequate amount of energy. The plants can’t shut down when they aren’t needed and start back up quickly if there’s an issue. They are also constantly using fuel that can cause carbon emissions. And often, surplus wind and energy are wasted.

Engine power plants, on the other hand, are more flexible. 

“Engine power plants can ramp up and down an unlimited number of times per day and reach full power in as little as two minutes, granting operational flexibility by short response times. Having sustainable fuels in storage will facilitate the long-duration backup that is needed to ensure a stable electricity supply,“ according to the white paper.

Sustainable fuels include anything from hydrogen to biofuels to biogas made from waste. The white paper details each one, but most development today is focused on hydrogen and its primary derivatives— ammonia and methane. These gasses could be the key to long-term energy storage via the Power-to-X-to-Power (P2X2P) process, which enables long-term energy storage.

“P2X2P turns excess and low-priced renewable electricity via electrolysis into hydrogen. This hydrogen is stored and converted back to electricity by balancing power plants when needed,” according to the white paper.

Wärtsilä believes that hydrogen could be the last piece of the decarbonization puzzle.

“Hydrogen is carbon-free, has the highest production energy efficiency of the P2X fuels and with time it is predicted to become the most cost competitive due to low renewable electricity prices,” according to the white paper.

 The white paper breaks down the different kinds of hydrogen based on how it’s created:

  • Green hydrogen is produced through electrolysis of water utilizing renewable electricity.
  • Pink hydrogen is otherwise the same, but the electricity used in the electrolysis is generated by nuclear power.
  • Blue hydrogen is produced by splitting fossil natural gas into hydrogen and CO2 and then capturing and storing or utilizing the CO2.
  • Grey hydrogen is created in the same way as blue hydrogen, except the carbon dioxide is not captured but released into the atmosphere. This is how the majority of hydrogen is produced today

“When it comes to which fuel will be used, availability and cost are of course important, but there are other parameters to consider such as footprint of production and storage, and operational safety,” according to the white paper. All of those elements could vary widely from place to place.

It is key to invest now in available technology that can be easily modified as needs and fuel sources change. If we are to reach global net zero emissions by the year 2050, a goal agreed on by countries all over the world, the transformation must begin now.

“Wärtsilä power plants can already now run on carbon neutral fuels, and we will have solutions available for new sustainable fuels as those become available – both for new power plants and conversions of existing assets. Wärtsilä’s continuous research on future fuels and engine technology will ensure reliable power generation with a wide range of sustainable fuels,” according to the white paper.

You can read the full white paper here.