Is America ready for Wind Hydrogen?
David Gross, WaveLength Market Analytics LLC
With turbine prices under $2 per watt and installed capacity growing over 30% last year, the wind energy boom is advancing beyond standard electricity generation. And few applications have gotten as much press as wind hydrogen, which promises a nearly unmatchable combination of low prices and low emissions.
While hydrogen is typically regarded as a clean technology, much of this reputation comes from its ability to create electricity without the SOx and NOx emissions that have plagued coal-burning plants for years. Nonetheless, 95% of U.S. commercial hydrogen is produced through stream reforming natural gas, a process which creates significant amounts of carbon dioxide and subjects hydrogen to the price swings of another commodity.
No Longer a Science Experiment
Eager to demonstrate that wind hydrogen is not just a lab experiment that looks good when modeled on a spreadsheet, electrolyzer manufacturers like Hydrogenics and Norsk have setup demonstration projects that have probably created as many press stories as there are customers connected to their power sources. Norsk’s Utsira project in Norway is showcasing hydrogen’s ability to store intermittent wind energy, albeit with just ten homes connected to the generating turbines. Hydrogenics’ Prince Edward Island Hydrogen Village in Canada is a more ambitious effort, and uses the company’s electrolyzers to create an energy source that can power vehicles as well as store the often unpredictable surges and drops in wind generated electricity. But is there any chance these projects can be replicated in a larger scale in the U.S.?
Domestic investment in wind projects is approaching $5 billion annually, more than the amount spent each year to install new high voltage and extra high voltage transmission lines. With utilities struggling to get new transmission lines into the rate base, some see hydrogen as a means to distribute wind power and deliver it to population centers hundreds of miles from the dusty plains that account for much of the nation’s wind generating capacity. Yet this could be even more expensive, especially with so few pipelines capable of transporting hydrogen.
Can’t get There from Here
The U.S. has just 700 miles of hydrogen pipelines, nearly half of which is accounted for by Praxair’s Gulf Coast system. Natural gas, on the other hand, is pumped through a 310,000 mile transmission network that reaches all corners of the country. While actual costs vary significantly, on average a new or retrofitted pipeline requires $500,000 per mile to construct. This means in order to match the route mile capacity of the nat gas network, a hydrogen pipelining system would require $150 billion. With labor costs persistently challenging the construction or retrofitting of any transmission system, this amount could actually increase over time.
Neither the Norsk nor Hydrogenics wind hydrogen project relies on any transmission network to move electrons or hydrogen atoms. And with such huge constraints imposed by both the grid and the pipeline network, and so few fuel cell-powered vehicles on the road, output balancing applications hold the most near-term promise economically for wind hydrogen.
Does Windpower Really Need Hydrogen?
While flow batteries and other devices can be used to compensate for wind’s intermittent output, it’s difficult to match the investor and political enthusiasm for hydrogen. As a result, the emerging wind hydrogen industry is starting to take care of its own, with wind operators seeking to deploy hydrogen electrolyzers where possible, and electrolyzer manufacturers creating products for wind-produced electricity.
Wind Hydrogen Ltd. is hoping to exploit the interest in both technologies, and has recently proposed a hydrogen-producing wind farm in Ladymoor, Scotland with a first phase generation capacity of 125 MW. With a price tag well over £100 million, this is no showcase project like the PEI Wind Hydrogen Village. However, sitting just 12 miles from Glasgow, this development has access to wind resources and nearby population centers that would be hard to replicate in the U.S.
The Ladymoor project is just one example of how the economic potential of combining wind with clean storage technologies is getting stronger. While faced with significant distribution challenges, wind hydrogen could be just the first of many such opportunities to develop