Royal Dutch Shell, Uniper, BMW and Audi are among the companies looking to develop hydrogen as an optimal means of power storage.
Bloomberg reports that the firms are all in various stages of research into the possibility of the element being capable of longer duration storage than lithium ion batteries can manage.
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 president of the Hydrogen Council, a trade group promoting the work. “It’s a real strategic shift.”
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.
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. 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.
Hydrogen has drawbacks. Government incentives are required to create a market for storage capacity. And for now, batteries are the alternative for the functions hydrogen would fulfill.
The whole idea of converting power into a gas and then back into power strikes some as convoluted. Erik Fairbairn, chief executive officer of Pod Point Ltd., an electric-car charging network in the U.K., believes that hydrogen’s role should be limited to allow more simple technologies to flourish, particularly when a battery could do the job.
“Generally speaking when you change energy from one form to another, you lose efficiency,” Fairbairn said. “You create hydrogen mainly by electrolyzing water, using electricity to split the hydrogen from oxygen and right off the bat, you lose a quarter of your energy to this.”
Still, the companies involved are optimistic about the technology and are prodding governments to back it.
Uniper started its Falkenhagen plant in August 2013 to converts excess wind power into hydrogen, which is fed into a plant that combines it with carbon dioxide to make methane — natural gas. That gas is transported and stored in the existing pipelines.