Two leading academics and economists have mapped out what they claim is an economically-viable path to renewables-based hydrogen production.
They believe that hydrogen production based on windpower can be commercially viable today and add that this technology can be “a key component in the transition of the energy system”.
Gunther Glenk of Technical University of Munich (TUM) and Professor Stefan Reichelstein of the University of Mannheim and Stanford University, have completed an analysis demonstrating the feasibility of zero-emission and profitable hydrogen production. The study has been published in the journal Nature Energy.
In it, they highlight how as a coolant for power stations or in fuel cells for cars, hydrogen is “a highly versatile gas”. However, they point out that today, “most hydrogen for industrial applications is produced using fossil fuels, above all with natural gas and coal”.
But they argue that “in an environmentally-friendly energy system, hydrogen could play a different role: as an important storage medium and a means of balancing power distribution networks. Excess wind and solar energy can be used to produce hydrogen through water electrolysis.”
In this process – known as power-to-gas – the hydrogen can recover the energy later, for example by generating power and heat in fuel cells, blending hydrogen into the natural gas pipeline network or converted into synthesis gas.
And Glenk says that despite the fact that “power-to-gas technology has always been seen as non-competitive”, there is one essential factor in current market environments in both Germany and Texas in the US: “The concept requires facilities that can be used both to feed power into the grid and to produce hydrogen. These combined systems, which are not yet in common use, must respond optimally to the wide fluctuations in wind power output and prices in power markets. The operator can decide at any time: should I sell the energy or convert it."
Reichelstein explains that in Germany and Texas, up to certain production output levels, such facilities could already produce hydrogen at cost-competitive levels with those facilities using fossil fuels. In Germany, however, he stresses that the price granted by the government would have to be paid for the generation of electric power instead for feeding it into the grid.
"For medium and small-scale production, these facilities would already be profitable now," says Reichelstein. “Production on that scale is appropriate for the metal and electronics industries, for example – or for powering a fleet of forklift trucks on a factory site.”
The economists predict that the process will also be competitive in large-scale production industries by 2030, for example in refineries and ammonia production, assuming that wind power and electrolyte costs maintain on the downward trajectory seen in recent years. “The use in fuel cells for trucks and ships is also conceivable,” adds Glenk.
"Power-to-gas offers new business models for companies in various industries," says Glenk. "Power utilities can become hydrogen suppliers for industry. Manufacturers, meanwhile, can get involved in the decentralized power generation business with their own combined facilities. In that way, we can develop a climate-friendly and intelligent infrastructure that optimally links power generation, production and transport."
The developing role of hydrogen, and the energy choices for the commercial and industrial sectors, is a key topic at European Utility Week and POWERGEN Europe later this year in Paris. Click here for details.