California wastes its extra solar, wind energy. Could hydrogen be the storage key?

At-a-Glance:

No amount of solar panels and wind turbines alone will be enough for California to reach its goal of a clean electrical grid unless the state can solve its energy storage problem. The state already generates an abundance of energy from wind and solar farms, particularly during the sunny and blustery spring and early summer months. But it loses much of that energy because it has nowhere to store it, and unlike fossil fuels, the sun and wind are not dispatchable, and therefore are unable to be called on to generate power 24 hours a day. Utilities must rely on gas-fired power plants to keep up with California’s energy demands during peak demand periods. To learn more, read California wastes its extra solar, wind energy. Could hydrogen be the storage key? Reading this article may require a subscription.

Key Takeaways:

  • Some experts and legislators say the missing puzzle piece could be hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe, which can be used as a zero-emission fuel for power plants, vehicles and machinery.
  • “I would say it’s almost the missing piece of the puzzle,” said Jussi Heikkinen, Director of Growth and Development at Wärtsilä Energy, a Finnish technology company that has built battery storage systems in California. “We don’t need to get rid of the power plants, but we need to get rid of fossil fuels.”
  • State Senator Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, is carrying a bill, SB18, that specifies the state’s climate and electrical grid plans include “green hydrogen,” or hydrogen gas that is produced using electricity from renewable sources.
  • According to Jack Brouwer, director of the National Fuel Cell Research Center, hydrogen is more effective for longer storage than batteries because it doesn’t lose energy over time and can be stored underground easily and cheaply.
  • Hydrogen advocates say that California ultimately needs a mix of hydrogen and batteries to reduce carbon emissions.

Path to 100% Perspective:

Investing in green hydrogen will be important as California looks to decarbonize its energy system. The state can turn this into a win-win by harnessing the excess power generated by existing wind and solar farms to produce hydrogen. The hydrogen can be stored and turned back into electricity using flexible thermal assets. Policies that enable rapid reductions in fossil fuel use and rapid increases in renewable generation in the electricity sector are a valuable piece to accelerating the decarbonization process. Legislation should steer electricity-sector decisions about investments, infrastructure and technology toward decisions that quickly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and pave the way for a 100% renewable energy future

 

 

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Green Hydrogen in Natural Gas Pipelines: Decarbonization Solution or Pipe Dream?

At-a-Glance:

Can carbon-free hydrogen augment, or even replace, the fossil natural gas running through pipelines to fuel furnaces, boilers, stoves and other building applications today? Or will the effort get bogged down in challenges related to pipeline safety and upgrade costs, loss of energy density, the long-term cost discrepancies compared to electrifying natural-gas-fired heat and appliances in buildings, or the pressure to direct green hydrogen to hard-to-decarbonize sectors? Natural-gas utilities around the world are seeking real-world answers to these kinds of questions. To learn more, read “Green Hydrogen in Natural Gas Pipelines: Decarbonization Solution or Pipe Dream?”

Key Takeaways:

  • In the U.S., the HyBlend project involving NREL and five other DOE labs intends to examine the long-term effects of hydrogen at different blends on different pipeline materials and create publicly available models for industry use. This kind of research will help determine how much it will cost to upgrade existing pipeline networks to make the shift.
  • “Hydrogen also burns very differently than methane”, said Jussi Heikkinen, the Americas Director of Growth and Development for Wärtsilä Energy and Path to 100% community expert, which is investing in engines that can run on 100 percent hydrogen. “It burns almost as an explosion. It’s a blast, and then it’s done. That’s good for efficient conversion of gas into heat, but it also brings safety and engineering challenges,” he said.
  • Making green hydrogen using carbon-free electricity also costs four to six times more than making hydrogen from fossil fuels. Those costs are expected to fall with advances in electrolysis efficiency, lower costs of renewable energy to power them, and economies of scale from the industrial hubs being built around the world.

Path to 100% Perspective:

When utilities go beyond 25 percent hydrogen in the fuel, in most places in the world, they are no longer able to use the same equipment. Electronics, for example, must be explosion-proof. There should be no sparks because hydrogen ignites with almost any air-to-fuel ratio.

Hydrogen is also about three times less energy-dense than methane. That means that as the ratio of hydrogen rises, the volume of energy being delivered through the same pipelines decreases.

Photo by American Public Power Association on Unsplash

Sempra utilities pitch demonstration program as first step to California hydrogen injection standard

At-a-Glance:

Sempra Energy subsidiaries Southern California Gas (SoCalGas) and San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) plan to launch California’s first hydrogen blending demonstration program as a first step toward creating a hydrogen injection standard for the state. The first proposed project would begin with a 1% hydrogen blend in an isolated section of primarily polyethylene plastic distribution system and eventually could increase to as much as 20% hydrogen. The location of the project will be selected in early 2021 and the utilities plan to implement more such blending demonstrations in their service territories. To learn more, read “Sempra utilities pitch demonstration program as first step to California hydrogen injection standard.”

Key Takeaways:

  • Adding hydrogen to California’s resource mix could allow the state to build a much more efficient power system, and reduce the need to overbuild solar and battery storage capacity, according to Jussi Heikkinen, Director of Growth and Development, Americas at Wärtsilä Energy Business.
  • Blending hydrogen with natural gas is part of SDG&E and SoCalGas’ strategies to decarbonize their natural gas systems, according to Sempra — the utilities envision using excess renewable energy to produce green hydrogen, which can then be injected into the natural gas grid.
  • SoCalGas and SDG&E briefed regulators on the safety precautions they intend to take with the program, including ensuring that the blend is compatible with behind-the-meter appliances, implementing leak surveys, and creating a specific customer protocol and emergency response for hydrogen.
  • The proposed blending projects are an important first step in the right direction, Heikkinen said — but to reach a high level of decarbonization, it is necessary to blend fairly high shares of hydrogen into natural gas because of its lower density. In a 25% hydrogen, 75% natural gas blend by volume, for example, less than 10% of the resulting energy comes from hydrogen, he explained.”When we start blending, then we should go for higher blends as fast as possible. When you start to go beyond 50%, then you start to make a difference,” Heikkinen added.

Path to 100% Perspective:

There are some safety risks. Hydrogen is extremely flammable and burns very fast. Special caution needs to be taken when engineering a product using more than 25% hydrogen.

Special safety regulations for its use need to be in place before it becomes widely available. In some locations, these regulations are still under development. A bigger issue is that there is no infrastructure globally to produce, store, and distribute hydrogen at scale. It all needs to be built. This infrastructure will be expensive and will also take some time. Additionally, there is the risk that hydrogen will not be the fuel of choice, so there is some hesitation to invest in the necessary infrastructure. This in turn limits the attractiveness of hydrogen, so it’s a difficult challenge to solve.

 

Photo: Sempra

How to Build a Green Hydrogen Economy for the US West

At-a-Glance:

Out in Utah, a coal-fired power plant supplying electricity to Los Angeles is being outfitted to eventually be able to run on hydrogen, created via electrolysis with wind and solar power and stored in massive underground caverns for use when that clean energy isn’t available for the grid. This billion-dollar-plus project could eventually expand to more renewable-powered electrolyzers, storage and generators to supply dispatchable power for the greater Western U.S. grid. It could also grow to include hydrogen pipelines to augment and replace the natural gas used for heating and industry or supply hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle fleets across the region. To learn more, read “How to Build a Green Hydrogen Economy for the US West.”

Key Takeaways:

  • The Western Green Hydrogen Initiative (WGHI) is a group representing 11 Western states, two Canadian provinces and key green hydrogen industry partners. WGHI launched in November to align state and federal efforts to create a regional green hydrogen strategy including a large-scale, long-duration renewable energy storage regional reserve.
  • At the heart of this effort are two projects in central Utah. The first is the Intermountain Power Project, a coal-fired power plant operated by the state-owned Intermountain Power Agency, which supplies municipal utilities in Utah and California, including the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. By 2025, Intermountain will be converted to turbines to supply 840 megawatts of power using natural gas blended with 30 percent hydrogen, a proportion that will rise to 100 percent hydrogen over the coming decades.
  • The second project is the Advanced Clean Energy Storage (ACES) project, which will invest roughly $1 billion to develop a nearby underground salt dome to store compressed hydrogen. ACES will provide up to 150,000 megawatt-hours of energy storage capacity, a scale that dwarfs the lithium-ion battery capacity being installed in California and across the Intermountain West.

Path to 100% Perspective:

Whether green hydrogen can cost-effectively replace natural gas for its myriad current uses will depend largely on the carbon-reduction drivers involved. But it will also require a redefinition of what it’s doing for the broader electrical system, said Jussi Heikkinen, Director of Growth and Development for the Americas division of Wärtsilä Energy Business. Wärtsilä’s engines power about one-third of the world’s cargo ships and a good deal of electricity generation, he said. It’s been making strides in converting its engines to run on 100 percent hydrogen and is developing hydrogen generation projects in the U.S. and Europe. In a study focused on California, Wärtsilä showed that zero-carbon hydrogen, or methane generated with carbon-capture technologies, to fuel power plants is a much less expensive alternative to building the battery capacity needed to cover the final 5 percent to 10 percent of grid power needed to reach its 100 percent carbon-free energy goals. “When there are huge load peaks, cloud cover or unusual weather, these plants kick in, and allow you to build a much smaller battery storage fleet,” he said.

 

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