Hydrogen has the potential to be a key player in the power industry due to its ability to help utilities achieve decarbonization goals with a diversified energy portfolio. With increasing interest and investment in hydrogen generation and usage technology, coupled with a strengthening decarbonization focus, hydrogen is positioned for wide-scale implementation sooner than expected.
Reducing Carbon Emissions
With conversations around environmental, social and governance (ESG) scores increasing and decarbonization goals growing, many industries are seeking options for sustainable and low-carbon initiatives. One potential way to meet these objectives is with hydrogen.
Currently, the vast majority of hydrogen is produced from natural gas using a steam methane reforming (SMR) process. This process creates approximately 9 tons of carbon dioxide for every ton of hydrogen generated. To help achieve decarbonization goals and improve ESG scores, it’s crucial to seek out opportunities to produce carbon-free hydrogen and/or reduce the carbon intensity of hydrogen production by capturing the carbon emissions that are emitted during the process.
Tackling Renewable Generation and Energy Storage
Renewable energy from sources such as wind and solar can be used to create carbon-free hydrogen via electrolysis, also known as green hydrogen. With the variability and intermittent nature of renewable generation resources, and as the penetration of renewable generation resources continues to increase, excess or “low-cost” electricity can be beneficially used to create green hydrogen.
Renewable generation sources are also accompanied by the challenge of their intermittent nature, including fluctuations in generation capacity and potential for peak generation to be out of sync with peak consumption and demand. To combat this, hydrogen can be used as an energy storage medium —generated with excess renewable energy, stored and converted to electrical energy when required.
The future generation landscape will require long-term energy storage solutions to allow for continued expansion of renewable energy generation, and the flexibility and versatility hydrogen affords make it a prime candidate to fulfill this need.
Putting Hydrogen in Action
According to the American Public Power Association, the U.S. Department of Energy announced a $40 million funding initiative for hydrogen generation, transport, storage and utilization projects.
For one of those projects, Burns & McDonnell is assisting the Orlando Utilities Commission (OUC) in integrating hydrogen into the company’s energy portfolio. The project will mainly focus on mitigating the effects of fluctuating solar generation, such as increased operational and maintenance costs, and generator shutdowns during periods of peak solar output.
The results of the project are anticipated to help smooth out swings in solar output using hydrogen. The electrolyzer for hydrogen production will be manipulated to ramp up and down to absorb grid fluctuations. Additionally, hydrogen will be collected and stored away for use in fuel cell electric fleet vehicles or in stationary fuel cells for later electricity production.
Leveraging Generation Technology
Industrywide, there is a large installed base of natural gas-fired generating units. As hydrogen develops and advances, many of these existing units provide an opportunity for continued operation with the introduction of hydrogen as a fuel source, offering added value to existing fossil generating units. While the capabilities vary depending on the specific equipment in consideration, many existing combustion turbines and reciprocating engines have inherent ability to accept varying amounts of hydrogen in the fuel stream.
Additionally, development of hydrogen-capable generators, such as combustion turbines and reciprocating engines, is a strong focus across the industry. Many equipment suppliers are establishing development pathways to commercially offer hydrogen-firing capabilities — up to 100% hydrogen fuel — in new equipment with the potential for retrofit of existing equipment over the next several years.
Diversifying the Future
As penetration for renewables continues and a need for dispatchable generation increases, the inherent value of hydrogen to provide on-demand generation and potentially serve as a long-term storage medium can offer convenience and flexibility.
With a large industrywide fleet of existing natural gas fired assets, hydrogen has the potential to allow these generating units to continue operations while also contributing to and paving the way for a low-carbon future.
By taking a closer look at hydrogen’s ability to reduce fossil fuel emissions, enable carbon-free dispatchable generation and more, electric utilities can be major participants in the evolution of this energy commodity.