The ability to store electricity using hydrogen could make wind and solar power a secure energy source, freeing Europe from its dependency on imported fossil fuels, according to Bert De Colvenaer, executive director of the Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking, a public-private partnership.
In terms of the research you are funding at the Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking, what are the priorities?
‘To make the technology more efficient, more durable and cheaper. These are the three main research themes we have to look at, and that is valid for the fuel cells themselves, for the systems to make hydrogen, electrolysers for example, and for hydrogen storage systems.
‘In addition to the research is the technology demonstration aspect. We have to show that this technology is not only perfectly suitable for sustainable transport such as cars and buses, but that it is equally important for stationary energy uses in houses and utility-scale generation. It could also be used for large energy storage or buffering in electricity networks. Large underground hydrogen storage caverns (which can be used to store electricity) do exist in the UK and the US in a very similar way as they are currently used in (mainland) Europe to store natural gas. The mined cavities in salt layers, a few hundred metres underground, are very suitable for storing large quantities of pressurised hydrogen which can be released again when needed.
‘Just as important as making the technology cheaper, more efficient and more durable is to demonstrate that this fuel cells and hydrogen combination can indeed be a cornerstone of Europe’s energy self-reliance strategy.’
What role does hydrogen have to play in Europe’s energy network?
‘Renewables give us clean and sustainable electrical energy, but the intermittency is something which is difficult and expensive to manage. The main problem is the insufficient buffering or storage capacity. If we inject the electricity immediately into the grid, we may encounter situations with either too much electricity, which blows the whole network, or we rely too much on renewables and suddenly we don’t have enough electricity. This would also cripple the network, unless there is a buffer or storage allowing excess electrical energy to be absorbed or re-injected into the network when supply is limited.
‘For instance electrolysis technology, which basically consists of splitting water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen by using electricity over two electrodes, would absorb electricity in surplus situations. And then later, once you’ve made the hydrogen, you can use it as a clean transport fuel, convert it back to electricity using fuel cell technology or inject it into the natural gas grid.’
Does this type of application mean it could be worthwhile for companies to invest heavily in hydrogen technology?
‘Then the whole of Europe would be conveniently served with a higher degree of self-reliance on sustainable energy provision.’
Bert De Colvenaer, executive director of the Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking
‘Yes indeed, and then the whole of Europe would be conveniently served with a higher degree of self-reliance on sustainable energy provision, which, these days, would perfectly serve the political debate. That is what we need to work on. But again, if it’s so easy and, for the moment, affordable to pay for the natural gas, why would we bother? We pay more than one billion euros (overall) per day to import natural gas and oil. Why don’t we invest a small fraction of it in our own economy to build energy storage systems, based on electrolysis and hydrogen? Combined with the renewable electricity from wind turbines and photovoltaics we could become more and more independent of fossil fuel import.
‘In practice, it’s a little more complicated of course, but there is no fundamental technological barrier which would not allow us to do this, everything is proven, everything works. Not yet to the gigawatt hour scale as we would like, but by integrating smaller units to bigger and more efficient systems; this will be achieved over the next couple of years.’
When do you expect that critical mass to arise and encourage a move across to hydrogen-based technologies?
‘This is a very difficult question to answer precisely, but I’m sure that this will happen sooner or later. History shows that society reacts best the sooner a big trigger event occurs, like for instance a major environmental catastrophe, a nationwide black out, an earthquake, an energy crisis, etc. Of course, nobody wants to see that happen. On the other hand, if we just waited for normal societal evolution, things would change at a slower pace. The macroeconomic energy supply and demand model can easily illustrate this: the rate of economic recovery will, to a certain extent, determine the increase in energy demand. Supply will follow with some delay. Strong growth of the Asian economy will put pressure on energy prices and Europe may need to look for cheaper but at the same time cleaner and more sustainable alternatives. When exactly this will happen though is difficult to judge.
‘What is the alternative anyway? Since fossil fuel resources are limited, how can we imagine a world where electricity is not going to play the prominent energy role? Again, energy is not really the problem as there is more than enough sun and wind energy available. The challenge is to capture and store that energy for times when we actually need it. Mankind has not yet found the perfect solution for large energy storage as a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels.’
Is there anything you would like to add?
‘What I would like to call for is a wider political awareness. Everybody is always talking about European industrial competitiveness and employment, about worldwide climate change, about the security of the energy supply; the fuel cells and hydrogen technology can contribute to solving these issues. This is especially so given that the technology is horizontal - it addresses each of these issues at the same time, therefore making the potential of fuel cells and hydrogen technology very apparent.
‘We need to get wider political interest to confirm that fuel cells and hydrogen technology contributes to solving societal challenges, including employment. In 2011, we consulted the wider fuel cells and hydrogen community and our project beneficiaries and it showed that, on average, industrial companies see an increase in turnover of 10 % annually and, even more importantly, an annual increase of 6 % in employment. We do recognise that the fuel cells and hydrogen community in Europe is still rather young and small with only about 10 000 people; but the continuous growth figures would trigger interest in many ministries in each of the European Member States. With this horizontal perspective, we must consider the clear added value of this technology on several issues in parallel. Once you see this wider picture, the choice is easy and that is why the political interest and visibility at the political level is so crucially important.’
The Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking was launched by the European Commission together with the European industry and research community on fuel cells and hydrogen to fund research and innovation using a combination of public and private financing.
The first phase of the initiative was launched in 2008 and has helped to fund about 150 projects, including projects such as a fleet of London black cabs during the 2012 Olympics. It will be continued by the Fuel Cells and Hydrogen 2 Joint Undertaking, which will start in 2014 and will fund research and demonstration projects until 2020.
By the time it finishes, the EUR 1.33 billion initiative (half public, half private funds) will have contributed to making fuel cells and hydrogen systems for a variety of zero emission applications cheaper, more efficient and more durable.
The initiative will launch its first calls under Horizon 2020 on 9 July 2014 at a joint event in Brussels. On 12 November 2014, the annual stakeholder forum of the Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking will take place in Brussels. For more details see the FCH JU website.
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