Is hydrogen the golden egg for energy transition?

Our electricity grid is under severe pressure due to increases in both consumption and decentralized generation from renewable sources, such as solar panels and wind turbines.

Grid congestion hinders the realization of the renewable energy transition. So the next chapter in the energy transition is entitled: energy storage. Is green hydrogen the golden egg everyone is looking for? “We absolutely see the potential,” states Berend Schols of ProfiNRG. “At the same time, the business case is not conclusive right now.”

Renewable energy

Every year we produce more energy in the Netherlands in the form of wind and sun. By 2020, 19 percent of Dutch electricity came from wind turbines and solar panels, according to recent figures from Agora Energiewende and Ember. The Netherlands thus showed a 40 percent increase last year, the largest increase in green power of any European country.

“Such reports sound hopeful, and at their core they are,” says Berend Schols, Solution Manager Energy Storage & Flexibility at ProfiNRG. “Yet we are increasingly entering the phase where the shore threatens to turn the ship. Indeed, there are now two major problems for renewable energy: the power grids are filling up AND electricity can only be efficiently stored for short periods of time.”

Smart grids

If we as a country want to get rid of natural gas, and not deploy other gas (such as hydrogen), the pressure on the power grid will increase much further. “Part of this problem can be solved with ‘smart grids,’ by consuming locally generated energy directly locally as well,” Schols explained. “Unfortunately, this is a solution with limitations due to the influence of the seasons. After all, you can’t count on the same yield of solar and wind power year-round. Also, electricity cannot be stored for long periods of time, so energy storage in the form of green hydrogen and batteries will boom.

What is green hydrogen?

You can use an electrolyser, running on green electricity, to split water (H2O) into hydrogen gas (H2) and oxygen (O2). You let the oxygen dissipate and you can store the hydrogen gas in a tank to keep it longer. Then you can either burn that gas, just like natural gas in a central heating boiler, or convert it – via a fuel cell – back into electricity.

Another potential of green hydrogen, also called renewable hydrogen, is that you can combine the H molecules with nitrogen (N), for example, to then make ammonia (NH4), which in turn is needed for fertilizer production. Currently, the production of fertilizer releases a lot of CO2 because it is made with gray hydrogen from natural gas. This creates a huge climate burden. With green hydrogen, the CO2 is not released.

Hydrogen new?

Green hydrogen: How promising is this relatively new shoot on the energy tree? Schols: “New? Funnily enough, hydrogen is not that new. Amsterdam had city gas up until the 1960s; that was before we switched en masse to natural gas. The nice thing about city gas was that half of it already consisted of hydrogen; in fact, city gas was ahead of its time. Because of city gas, we in the Netherlands have a lot of experience with transporting hydrogen gas through gas pipelines. So it is not new. However, it is coming back into the spotlight because we are looking for an alternative to natural gas in which both production and combustion do not cause CO2 emissions.”

Unfeasible

So cold-heartedness about hydrogen gas through gas pipelines is unnecessary, Schols believes.

“Hydrogen gas has a different risk than natural gas, but it is not more dangerous when used properly. It escapes more easily than natural gas because it is thinner. It is also less easy to pump through the pipes because of pumps that are too coarse. But there is no question that any adjustments to the gas network will be many times cheaper and faster than building all kinds of new electricity facilities.”

Because, Schols continues, the average completion of a high-voltage line takes 20 years. “And I’m talking about just one project. And if you want to replace the energy value that now goes through a gas line with electricity, you have to add an eightfold increase in high-voltage pylons for that. Unfeasible map of course to boost the energy transition and reduce pressure on the grid.”

Eternal talent

Yet criticism is also heard. For example, some see green hydrogen as the eternal talent that will never really break through big. In short, we need something else to make great strides in the energy transition. “It is good to use green hydrogen for what it is good at: it is CO2-free, can be stored for long periods, has a high energy density and is a link between ‘electrons and molecules. By this I mean that with green energy from wind or sun, a green gas (the molecules) can also be made.

But it is true that because of these properties, hydrogen is not by itself the only solution for the entire energy transition. What is true, however, is that hydrogen has a unique niche because of its properties that we don’t have a better alternative for.”

Electrolyser

So ProfiNRG sees green hydrogen as a promising solution, for example, for new solar farms that will have too small a connection to the electricity grid. “That’s starting to become a tricky story, and all the while there are still many solar farms to be added in our country,” Schols observes. “Unfortunately, buying an electrolyser is still very expensive. To compensate for that, a lot of production must be run to be profitable. Fortunately, an electrolyser has a production range between 15 and 100 percent. If there is little renewable energy available on the grid, for example in the middle of the night, you can run it at a lower rate. If you have a bright day then you turn the electrolyser on to maximum. In this way we contribute to the energy transition and the prices move with the sustainable energy production. For the earnings model, that’s beneficial.”

Business case

Another route to bypass grid aggravation is to install batteries. These can buffer energy when there is a lot of energy production, and put it on the grid later, when less green power is produced.”

That battery world Schols talks about is coming, he looks ahead, especially since battery technology is developing at lightning speed. “The wait now is for the ideal battery that is affordable and at the same time can handle a lot of storage. We still have to be patient for that, because the prices of current batteries are still too high. Or, as a client at this stage, you have to weigh the innovative aspect heavily in the investment decision and at the same time dare to take a certain risk. Fortunately, we see that the price of batteries is falling sharply and the market is moving very much. We are getting more and more requests to come up with new energy storage solutions for solar parks and other applications. As ProfiNRG, we are constantly responding to this with our experience.”

Text: Maarten Nota

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