Dr Jon Moore, Intelligent Energy, UK

Dr Jon Moore, co-founder of Intelligent Energy, offers his view on how the current global economic crisis is creating the opportunity for hydrogen to play a significant role in the world’s future energy markets.

Dr Jon Moore, co-founder of Intelligent Energy
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The current economic downturn has perhaps provided a pause for thought on the prospects for global energy markets. The price of oil may be closer to $100 per barrel right now, but long-term forecasts place it in the $120-$140 window for some years to come. Similarly, inflation in China is being checked, and western economies are stagnant or contracting.

But none of these facts can diminish a greater trend that is shaping an important part of our future: The world has limited oil reserves and demand for energy continues to grow rapidly.

Whether we have reached peak oil or not, the rising costs associated with extracting and refining oil will be a feature of the 21st century. Geopolitical factors make energy security a real challenge, as highlighted by the recent political turmoil around the Russian Federation.

Much of the available crude oil supplies are concentrated in politically unstable regions of the world and the resultant petrodollars are being utilized by national and quasi-national bodies to further political agendas. In short, we cannot be sure of consistency of supply from current sources once oil reserves begin to decline. We need energy diversity. It must be sustainable, both practically and economically sustainable.

The case for hydrogen energy

At Intelligent Energy, we develop fuel cell devices that generate power from hydrogen. Hydrogen can be generated from numerous feedstocks such as natural gas, oil, coal or biomass, and when subsequently utilized to generate power in a fuel cell, produces significantly reduced amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) than would be generated by burning such fuels. In addition, hydrogen that is produced via renewable energy and the electrolysis of water is totally emissions free.

Hydrogen is an energy carrier, and not an energy source. It can be generated and stored for when power supplies falter. Using hydrogen in tandem with electricity is the key to future energy security and supply. Putting these ‘twin carriers’ together delivers a sizeable opportunity for profit as well as flexibility and modularity. Put simply, a power grid using electricity from a variety of renewable sources can be reinforced by the availability of hydrogen, to buffer it against variations in supply and demand.

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Renewable energy generation is not consistent, varying with intensity of sunlight or wind strength, for instance. Similarly, demand on existing power grids fluctuates both seasonally and through the day, so there is a real issue matching supply and demand, which will be exacerbated as we begin to source more and more electricity from renewables.

For example, consider the situation of low grid demand coupled with favourable wind conditions, or vice versa. Furthermore, most current power generation grids have minimum storage capability, so that providing energy storage technologies in the future will be a key aspect of successfully matching renewable energy sources to electrical grids.

Storage technologies that are currently available such as batteries do not have the capacity to store meaningful amounts of energy, are expensive and have a limited lifetime.

Hydrogen offers a promising solution in this regard. When supply exceeds demand hydrogen could be produced, which would be stored for later use in a fuel cell to put power onto the grid at times of low supply or traded as a commodity in itself.

Cost-effective energy storage

Bulk hydrogen can offer cost effective energy storage in the two-day to one-week range, deferring significantly the need to increase overall capacity in the system. Production of hydrogen in this manner is not only beneficial in terms of power generation, but it will also allow the producer to enter a market with which it traditionally has had little interaction: transportation.

Traditional power plants can also produce a mix of both electricity and hydrogen. Typically, coal, natural gas or biomass can be processed at high temperatures to make a synthetic gas or ‘syngas’, which can be converted into hydrogen or electricity, or both. An integrated gasification combined-cycle (IGCC) plant, for example, already contains the required equipment to produce hydrogen (although compression and purification equipment would be required).

Intelligent Energy’s fuel cell system has a simple, highly-efficient design
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Such power plants, in combination with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) offer another route to low emission or emission-free power generation. Considerable benefit is to be gained in terms of capital expenditure when considering the CCS implementation.

If CCS is added to a hydrogen production plant, the incremental increase in cost is of the order 14-19 per cent. If CCS is added to an electricity producing plant, this escalates to the 32-36 per cent range. Consequently, co-production of hydrogen and electricity could facilitate cost effective carbon capture and have a dramatic impact on emissions reductions in the electricity generation sector.

According to the International Energy Agency’s latest World Energy Outlook report, the transportation industry worldwide is over 90 per cent dependent upon crude oil. The introduction of hydrogen as a transport fuel for use in fuel cell hybrid or other hydrogen vehicles would increase diversity of supply as well as improving the carbon footprint for the sector.

According to a recent report by ExxonMobil, The Hydrogen Economy: Possibilities, Hurdles, Progress & Managing a Transition, the introduction of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles could lead to a reduction of as much as 50 per cent on the projected consumption figures of petroleum for 2035, which would additionally have the effect of reducing CO2 emissions from light duty vehicle transportation by 50 per cent; translating to 20 per cent of total US emissions.

A recent article in the International Journal of Hydrogen and Engineering predicted that if fuel cell vehicles achieved 25 per cent penetration of the US passenger vehicle market, the US electricity industry could expect annual revenues of up to $100 billion, assuming that they used electrolysis as a means to generate their hydrogen. That is a huge opportunity.

The arguments in favour of phasing in hydrogen to our energy ecosystems are strong, but it must be achieved with care. Public support for zero-emissions technology and vehicles is robust, but it must also ultimately make economic sense. It is an opportune time to look at the factors influencing energy supply and demand, and against that backdrop, hydrogen offers numerous solutions.

The way forward begins with an investment in hydrogen production and storage by a range of stakeholders in the energy sector. This promises a ready supply of reliable power for the next generation of power grids and hybrid fuel cell vehicles. Hydrogen alone cannot solve the issues we face in energy supply and CO2 emissions, but it most certainly has a powerful role to play in providing stability and versatility in the energy networks of the near future.

Dr Jon Moore, co-founder of Intelligent Energy

Intelligent Energy’s fuel cell system has a simple, highly-efficient design