Hydrogen – the power of progress
Jeremy Herbert, Communications Manager, HyDeploy
As the impacts of climate extremes begin to bite around the globe, with landslides and floods, droughts and species extinction all becoming routine headlines, the need to take action now to reduce human generated carbon dioxide emissions has never been so clear. Climate change is no longer a theory – it is a stark reality.
The Paris Climate Agreement has set the context for action, with the vast majority of nations worldwide giving their backing to the objective of keeping growth in world temperature increases to a maximum of 2 degrees centigrade above pre industrial levels. This is generally agreed to be the point beyond which we enter a dangerous feedback loop where climate change will become uncontrollable.
Over 170 nations have committed to develop their own targets for reductions in carbon emissions. For example the EU has committed to reduce its emissions by 40% by 2030 compared with 1990 levels.
Taking action to reduce carbon emissions needs to be a combination of changing the way we consume energy (conservation) and changing the source of that energy (carbon free technologies).
So far much of the focus on energy generation has been on electricity and there has been stunning progress in the development of carbon neutral wind and solar electricity generation over the last decade. Wind turbines and solar energy systems are now cheaper than nuclear and coal generation and closing the gap with gas. And new technologies are emerging fast.
Emissions from transport too need urgent action. Governments around the world are seeking to bring to a close the age of the internal combustion engine with a surge in the production of electric vehicles.
But putting all the focus on electricity production could create further problems in trying to tackle the carbon cuts deficit. The growth in solar and wind is simply not enough to deliver all the demands of a modern economy.
A carbon free gas which we can burn using conventional technologies would obviate all the costs and challenges of rebuilding energy distribution systems. Using existing infrastructure would mean we could get on with transforming the carbon balance in our energy systems fast.
And for many scientists the answer is obvious and it’s already out there – it’s hydrogen.
Hydrogen is a flexible and readily available alternative energy carrier. When hydrogen is burned it produces just water and oxygen. Across the world, research and development into how hydrogen can be used for low or zero carbon energy gathers pace.
Hydrogen Fuel Cell solutions
Hydrogen Fuel Cells combine hydrogen and oxygen and to create energy to power vehicles. Fuel cell cars, bus, trains and boats are now available and are very effective performers.
Fuel Cell powered trains can run for about 600 miles (1,000km) on a tank of hydrogen, similar to the range of diesel trains. Germany has just rolled out the world’s first hydrogen-powered train built by Alstom; and the UK is keen to follow suit.
Since the Fukushima nuclear plant tsunami induced meltdown in 2011, the Japanese Government has invested more than $16 billion on hydrogen research and development. Working with Australia there are plans to provide hydrogen to power the 6000 cars and 100 buses needed for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Hydrogen fuel cell powered taxis are already zipping round South Korea, Paris and London. California is busy building 200 hydrogen refuelling stations by 2025.
A project in sunlight soaked Queensland plans to use solar power linked to an electrolyser to create renewable ‘green’ liquid hydrogen which will then be shipped to Japan on specialised ocean tankers, already under development by Kawasaki Heavy Industries.
Hydrogen – heat, power and electricity storage
There is still a serious issue though. Almost half of the energy we use in the UK is for heating homes, offices, schools and factories. The vast majority of that heat is generated by burning natural gas. Decarbonising heat is a problem that can no longer be ignored.
Even if we wanted to go down an all-electric future for heating then the process of replacing all the gas boilers, central heating systems and cookers around the world would be massively expensive. And much of our current electricity supply is generated by burning natural gas.
Here too the political and commercial world are starting to come together, sometimes with the environmental movement, in what is increasingly looking like a tide of change.
Wind turbines may have really proved their worth and are now a major contributor to the electricity network in many countries across Europe – including the UK. But, the problem with wind is matching electricity production with demand. Finding ways of storing excess electricity production when the wind is blowing hard, so that it can be used when the country is becalmed, has been a challenge. But industry and Governments are working hard to find storage solutions. And here again hydrogen provides a real opportunity.
In Germany Greenpeace Energy has set up a project called Windgas using hydrogen as a balancing mechanism in the existing sustainable energy grid. In these ‘Power to Gas’ projects, electricity generated from excess wind is used to generate hydrogen via an electrolyser. This hydrogen is then either be used to supply zero carbon hydrogen for transport solutions, stored for conversion back into electricity when wind levels are low, or can be fed as a mix into the existing methane gas main network for use to heat homes.
In Orkney islands in northern Scotland a project called Surf n’ Turf is working to become energy independent by generating hydrogen from excess wind and tidal energy – using it to power the island’s ferry services, cars and buses, and storing it to burn to generate electricity when needed.
But the issue for domestic and commercial heating is concentrations. The Windgas project has been mixing hydrogen into the natural gas supply in Germany up to around 8%. This is making a contribution to reducing carbon emissions but the higher the concentration the higher the carbon saving. So more needs to be done.
France have also kicked off their first live gas main hydrogen/methane mix trial in Dunkirk, providing heating and cooking gas for 100 new homes and a health centre. The aim of GRHYD to deliver significant carbon savings through hydrogen blending.. The project will run the live trial for two years to investigate the potential for a wider roll out.
HyDeploy @ Keele – leading change
These programmes are all positive progress and we are keeping pace in the UK with the HyDeploy project, being hosted at Keele University in Staffordshire.
A consortium of experts from academia, industry and regulatory bodies is working together to check all the parameters for a roll out of hydrogen in the national gas network – delivering a massive potential carbon saving for the UK.
Keele University has provided the foundation for a project which has brought together gas network companies Cadent and Northern Gas Networks, alongside the Health and Safety Laboratory, hydrogen technical specialists ITM Power and clean energy experts Progressive Energy.
Keele has the largest university campus in the UK with 12,000 students and staff. With 350 mixed-use buildings, the campus provides domestic properties, university facilities and a science park, giving the campus a profile similar to the size of a small town.
After a year of rigorous appliance testing, materials research and network checks, the team have been given the go ahead by the UK’s Health and Safety executive to run the live trial. So, from mid-2019 for 12 months, HyDeploy will trial a blend of up to 20%vol hydrogen with natural gas in part of the University’s private gas network, providing the blend for 100 homes, and approximately 30 university buildings.
There is high level of interest from Government in the potential that hydrogen offers for delivering significant carbon savings fast – without the need for major changes to the UK’s gas infrastructure.
“Hydrogen shows huge potential as a vector in a clean, safe, flexible, future energy system; which is why we’re investing over £60m in hydrogen projects as part of our modern industrial strategy.”
Energy Minister the Rt Hon Claire Perry MP, Minister for Energy and Clean Growth
Looking further into the future, the gas appliance and distribution networks are exploring the development of pipe networks, infrastructure and appliances that could operate on 100% hydrogen, for example through Northern Gas Network’s H21 programme. Early adoption of high hydrogen to reduce carbon emissions will likely see application for industrial gas users, alongside blending into the domestic network unlocked by the project at Keele as soon as the 2020s, as envisioned in Cadent’s HyNet project.
The hydrogen age is coming, and the race is on.