Big Energy Backs Hydrogen Power Storage
The secret to switching the global energy system entirely to renewables may lay in the universe’s most abundant substance.
Hydrogen has drawn backing from big energy companies from Royal Dutch Shell Plc to Uniper SE in addition to carmakers BMW AG and Audi AG. They’re supporting research into how the element can be used to store energy for weeks or even months beyond what lithium-ion batteries can manage.
While industry’s investment in hydrogen is small at just $2.5 billion over the last decade, the work offers an answer to the elusive question of how electricity could be kept for use in the future. Batteries increasingly are shifting power from day to night, but they tend to go flat after a few weeks. Hydrogen can be kept indefinitely in tanks. That would allow, for example, voltage collected from solar panels in the summer to be used in winter.
“The years 2020 to 2030 will be for hydrogen what the 1990s were for solar and wind,” said Pierre-Etienne Franc and vice president of advanced business and technologies at the French industrial gas maker Air Liquide SA and initiative secretary of the Hydrogen Council, a trade group promoting the work. “It’s a real strategic shift.”
The technology to use hydrogen as energy storage is well known, although not yet demonstrated in a commercial setting.
Excess power from wind or photovoltaics would drive electrolysis, separating water into its component hydrogen and oxygen elements. The hydrogen captured by that process could, whenever needed, feed natural gas power plants or fuel cells to make electricity. Industrial plants like oil refineries can also use hydrogen for chemical processes.
To date, the energy industry has focused mainly on hydrogen’s potential in fuel cells, which use the element in a chemical reaction to generate electricity. On power-storage, most of the money is going into batteries like the lithium-ion cells widely used in mobile phones and laptop computers. But those tend to lose charge if not topped up and discharged frequently.
Hydrogen storage is attractive because it preserves energy for longer periods. The only real alternative at the moment is pumping water onto a hilltop reservoir, where it can dammed up until grid managers are ready to let it flow down through hydropower turbines. That so-called pumped storage requires the right geography.
If hydrogen could be made to store energy cheaply enough, it would allow utilities to scale back on fossil fuel plants by making it easier for the grid to handle intermittent power flows from wind and solar farms. For example, about $3.4 billion of revenue was lost in China last year because wind farms were forced to remain idle because of congested electric lines.
“If you want to get to 100 percent renewables, hydrogen could play a key role,” said Claire Curry, an analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance. “You could have natural gas plants, but that would, of course, not be 100 percent clean.”
The work on hydrogen is in its infancy, but support with big business is growing. The Hydrogen Council was formed at the last World Economic Forum in Davos, with 17 major companies looking for ways to integrate the gas into cleaner energy systems. Its members include Shell, Total SA, Engie SA, Toyota Motor Corp., Bayerische Motoren Werke AG, Audi and the Japanese industrial gas supplier Iwatani Corp. General Motors Co. is in the process of joining.