New Hydrogen “Water Battery” Could Make Wind and Solar Greener
A new device that converts water to hydrogen gas could help solve an emerging carbon emissions dilemma for businesses and other electricity consumers. Companies want to be applauded for switching to wind or solar energy, but here in the US that choice is not necessarily as green as it could be. As long as coal and natural gas account for the lion’s share of power generation in the US, companies that order up grid-supplied clean power may be unwittingly supporting a cushion of fossil fuels in the grid, too.
Part of the problem is that utilities are responding to the addition of wind and solar by adding new natural gas power plants, to smooth out supply and demand bumps. Grid stakeholders can also use energy storage to keep leveraging natural gas and coal into the grid. That’s because they can store energy at night when rates are low, and then sell (or use) the low cost electricity during the day when peak demand grid prices kick in.
A Liquid Solution To The Carbon Emissions Problem
The good news is that the carbon emissions problem doesn’t necessarily have to be in force forever. As more renewable energy enters the grid, the profile of natural gas and coal will keep shrinking.
So far natural gas has been the main driver pushing out coal. More recently, wind and solar are also beginning to gain an edge over both natural gas and coal (nuclear energy is a whole ‘nother can of worms).
That’s great, but it still dumps the issue of reliability onto the laps of utilities and grid operators.
Part of the solution is to manage demand. That can be complicated because it depends on behavior change, but solutions are already beginning to emerge. Some examples include “virtual power plant” technology that motivates consumers to change their habits. Incentivizing energy efficiency is another factor that could be ramped up.
Electric vehicles can also assume a larger role in their capacity as mobile energy storage units. Owners could be incentivized to charge up when demand is low, and even contribute their stored energy to help avoid reliability issues during peak demand periods.
That thing about EVs leads right back around to the energy storage problem. As the economy decarbonizes, the demand for energy storage will rise. Distributed solutions like EV batteries can pull some of the load, but energy insiders seem to agree that utility scale or bulk storage will also be needed far into the foreseeable future.
At this time, the consensus is that pumped hydropower is the only available strategy that makes economic sense for storing wind or solar energy in bulk.
Hydrogen gas is another water-based energy storage solution that Triple Pundit has been exploring at length, and that’s where the new Stanford research comes in.
From water to hydrogen to energy storage
For those of you new to the topic, hydrogen is commonly used in food processing and other industries. It is also used for rockets and other space operations (NASA is a big fan) and it is increasingly used to power fuel cells, which generate electricity through a chemical reaction.
That fuel cell connection — for forklifts, passenger cars and even semi trucks as well as stationary power sources — means that in effect, hydrogen is an energy storage resource.
Hydrogen is cheap and abundant, but it doesn’t come naturally. The main source of hydrogen today is natural gas. That’s a problem of immense proportions in terms of local environmental impacts as well as greenhouse gas emissions.
Fortunately, natural gas does not have a lock on hydrogen production. Energy stakeholders are beginning to explore the use of biogas, and teams of researchers and industrial partners around the globe have been racing to develop technology that uses an electrical current to “split” hydrogen from water.
Ideally, that electricity would be generated by wind, solar or other renewables. The result is renewable hydrogen.
Finally, low-cost hydrogen energy storage
Water-splitting is a proven technology. The challenge is to make it more efficient and scale it up for bulk energy storage, while making it less expensive.