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PE Live: Hydrogen ready for second phase of decarbonisation

Reducing emissions becomes more complicated once relatively easy transitions have been completed, but the technology for hydrogen is ready to facilitate the next wave of decarbonisation

With the first phase of decarbonisation progressing or even complete in several areas of the developed world, many countries are turning to hydrogen to facilitate a second wave of decarbonisation, panellists agreed on a recent PE Live webcast.

The first phase of decarbonisation can be characterised by the replacement of coal-fired power plants with renewable energy generation supported by natural gas. 

“We are not looking for a miracle or a breakthrough in technology, we are there today” Ducker, MHPS

“Tackling the long-term intermittency of renewable energy is currently managed by natural gas,” says Michael Ducker, vice president, renewable fuels and western region, at manufacturer Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems (MHPS). 

Although the carbon footprint of gas is roughly one-third that of coal this route cannot ever achieve net-zero emissions, he says. “The way you get there is with energy storage.”

As increasing renewable capacity beyond a certain point leads to rapidly increasing curtailment of generation, energy storage has become a central consideration. Excess electricity can be converted into green hydrogen and stored underground, given the right geological formations, or in pressurised vessels and pipelines before being converted back to electricity in a gas turbine.

“Storage is critically important,” says Sean McLoughlin, EMEA head of industrials research, global research, at bank HSBC. “It is part of enabling hydrogen to be integrated into the power system and to solve the long-term energy storage challenge. This clearly does not seem to be solved with just batteries, with the increasing mix of variable generation, solar and wind, and will continue to be an issue. It is a structural question for the power market.” 

Four signposts

Ducker identifies four ‘key signposts’ that indicate whether hydrogen will play an important role in an energy system: the regulatory environment promoting decarbonisation efforts; the need for energy storage due to renewable curtailments; the production cost of green hydrogen; and the availability of hydrogen-to-electricity technology. “In many parts of the world, particularly in west US, the answer to whether these signposts all exist today is ‘yes’,” says Ducker.

He says there are now “in many countries… very aggressive targets to reduce carbon emissions” that can be achieved only with substantial renewable generation and some form of energy storage. He says the costs of creating green hydrogen and a scalable solution to converting it back to electricity have become economic.

MHPS was awarded a contract by electricity generating cooperative the Intermountain Power Agency for its hydrogen-capable advanced class gas turbines in March 2020. The project will support the decarbonisation efforts of California and various municipalities and agencies in Southern California and Utah by utilising carbon-free green hydrogen in the power plant. 

In parallel, MHPS—through its Advanced Clean Energy Storage project in partnership with Utah-based gas company Magnum Development—will create a green hydrogen hub in Delta, Utah, that can take excess renewable energy, convert it into hydrogen and store it in massive salt caverns before reconverting it into electricity.

“We are past the first steps and it is just about finally applying production, storage and use at meaningful scale” Ducker, MHPS

“It would become the world's largest, most advanced hydrogen gas turbine project that by 2045 will be operating on 100pc green hydrogen,” says Ducker. 

The vast storage facility is just as important. “That provides the cost-effective storage necessary to utilise hydrogen at scale in many different applications, whether it be the power, industrial or transportation sectors,” says Ducker. He says that “robust interest” is building in each of these sectors in several regions of the world.

Improving competitiveness

Many commentators, including those on the panel, envisage the hydrogen industry developing along a similar trajectory to that of renewable energy over the last 10-15 years. “We are past the first steps and it is just about finally applying production, storage and use at meaningful scale,” says Ducker. 

While the Utah project benefits from salt formations unavailable elsewhere, the principles behind the project can be replicated. While Ducker acknowledges the caverns provide “the ability to neatly scale on a much shorter time horizon” hydrogen storage will “still be critical” in other geographies.

Hydrogen storage is already viable in certain other locations without such favourable geology.“In Caribbean Islands, or other islands where producing electricity is quite expensive,” says Aurelie Nasse, strategic marketing director, MHI Vestas Offshore Wind.

“There are already some economic activities involving hydrogen storage of excess power, and back into electricity, in those places. But clearly, in highly connected grids, like in Europe or the US for example, there still needs to be quite a lot of cost-out in the hydrogen value chain for it to be economically viable. And we would need a higher price for CO2

The technology is proven and ready to support the primary use case in the power industry “which is ultimately meeting the challenge of reducing carbon emissions to address climate change”, says Ducker. 

“We are not looking for a miracle or a breakthrough in technology, we are there today. It is just about starting to meaningfully apply these proven systems in our overall toolkit to combat climate change.”

A recording of  PE Live 9: Creating a sustainable hydrogen supply chain can be heard here.

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