Sat, Sep 09, 2017 - Page 9 News List

Better than a battery? Big energy backs hydrogen power storage

While the corporate-backed projects are seeking ways to hold electricity for weeks or months, the technology remains expensive and might take decades to develop

By Reed Landberg  /  Bloomberg

The secret to switching the global energy system entirely to renewables might lie in the universe’s most abundant substance.

Hydrogen has drawn backing from big energy companies from Royal Dutch Shell to Uniper in addition to automakers Bayerische Motoren Werke (BMW) and Audi. They are supporting research into how the element can be used to store energy for weeks or even months beyond what lithium-ion batteries can manage.

While the industry’s investment in hydrogen is small at just US$2.5 billion over the past decade, the work offers an answer to the elusive question of how electricity could be kept for use in the future.

Batteries are increasingly shifting power from day to night, but they tend to go flat after a few weeks. Hydrogen can be kept indefinitely in tanks. That would allow, for example, voltage collected from solar panels in the summer to be used in winter.

“The years 2020 to 2030 will be for hydrogen what the 1990s were for solar and wind,” said Pierre-Etienne Franc, vice president of advanced business and technologies at the French industrial gas maker Air Liquide and initiative secretary of the Hydrogen Council, a trade group promoting the work. “It’s a real strategic shift.”

The technology to use hydrogen as energy storage is well known, although not yet demonstrated in a commercial setting.

Excess power from wind or photovoltaics would drive electrolysis, separating water into its component hydrogen and oxygen elements. The hydrogen captured by that process could, whenever needed, feed natural gas power plants or fuel cells to make electricity. Industrial plants like oil refineries can also use hydrogen for chemical processes.

The energy industry has focused mainly on hydrogen’s potential in fuel cells, which use the element in a chemical reaction to generate electricity. For power storage, most of the money is going into batteries like the lithium-ion cells widely used in mobile phones and laptop computers, but those tend to lose their charge if not topped up and frequently discharged.


Hydrogen storage is attractive because it preserves energy for longer periods. The only real alternative at the moment is pumping water onto a hilltop reservoir, where it can dammed up until grid managers are ready to let it flow down through hydropower turbines. That so-called pumped storage requires the right geography.

If hydrogen could be made to store energy cheaply enough, it would allow utilities to scale back on fossil fuel plants by making it easier for the grid to handle intermittent power flows from wind and solar farms.

For example, about US$3.4 billion of revenue was lost in China last year because wind farms were forced to remain idle due to congested electric lines.

“If you want to get to 100 percent renewables, hydrogen could play a key role,” Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) analyst Claire Curry said. “You could have natural gas plants, but that would, of course, not be 100 percent clean.”

The work on hydrogen is in its infancy, but support with big business is growing.

The Hydrogen Council was formed at the last World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, with 17 major companies looking for ways to integrate the gas into cleaner energy systems.

Its members include Shell, Total, Engie, Toyota, BMW, Audi and the Japanese industrial gas supplier Iwatani. General Motors is in the process of joining.

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