By Sanjoy Sen
It’s not every week that we get two major government announcements on energy (luckily, some might contend) but that’s exactly what we saw recently: firstly, Greg Clarke’s initiative on battery technology quickly followed by Michael Gove’s post-2040 ban on petrol and diesel car sales.
Whilst the first refers to power generation and the second to transportation, the overlapping issues are presumably not too hard to spot. As we move away from feeding our power stations and cars with fossil fuels, we’re going to need alternatives. And these need to be (amongst other factors) ready in time, economically-viable and environmentally-sound.
Part of the solution might involve hydrogen. And note the ‘might’ here: the technology and the economics are at a relatively early stage. But the gaps it potentially addresses and the interest shown abroad suggests it at least merits consideration here in the UK as a complement to both renewable power generation and electric vehicles.
(But before going any further, let’s just be clear that no-one’s pushing renewables, with or without hydrogen back-up, as the sole answer. Responding to a LinkedIn story that Portugal had gone five consecutive days on green energy, a former colleague somewhat dented the positive vibe with his “Great, only another 360 days to go!” riposte. And, of course, he was right to then push proven, affordable nuclear as a key baseload contributor.)
With the costs of offshore wind energy falling (although still some way to go), the main barrier to further development is fast becoming the challenge associated with adding further intermittent (read unreliable) output to the grid. Converting some of that renewable power into storeable, ‘green’ hydrogen gas (via the electrolysis of water), however, effectively creates a form of large-capacity battery capable of adjusting supply fluctuations with demand.
Across the water, the Netherlands faces similar challenges to ours. Spurred in to action by falling domestic gas production (North Sea fields in natural decline, plus earth tremors impacting the giant onshore Groningen field) and the grid implications of their commitment to major offshore wind capacity, the Dutch are actively investigating hydrogen concepts.
A recently-sanctioned pilot project will use solar power to generate hydrogen, again by ‘zapping’ water. This can be stored in natural underground salt caverns (already used for gas storage) and transported by adapting the existing gas network ahead of use in power generation, transportation or the chemical industry. And an alternative proposal would see defunct gas platforms re-born as electrolyser stations using power from nearby offshore windfarms. Whilst other Dutch concepts might not be realised (artificial North Sea islands for power generation and distribution), it’s encouraging to see the ambition.
But for a major commitment, look to Japan, an energy-hungry nation lacking fossil fuels reserves and facing a post-Fukushima loss of faith in nuclear. Facing energy challenges even tougher than the UK’s, it is aiming to have 40,000 hydrogen vehicles and 160 filling stations ready to showcase at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Japan is looking to source lignite coal from Australia (a cheap, abundant energy source from a politically-stable partner) and convert it to hydrogen via established gasification and reforming processes. The resultant carbon dioxide could be captured and stored locally whilst the hydrogen product would be shipped to Japan (various transport technologies are under investigation). With infrastructure in place domestically, alternative hydrogen sources, including renewables, could follow.
Meanwhile, much as the BBC manages to attract simultaneous criticism from both the right and left, the post-2040 petrol-diesel ban didn’t seem to land well on either side. Mark Wallace wondered if this level of intervention in the market was compatible with conservatism itself. Over at Guardian towers, it was yet another case of too little, too late to save the planet.
Despite this, these two sides have a shared understanding of the underlying issues. Both noted that the post-2040 cut-off isn’t that momentous: as products improve and prices fall, the likely take-up rate of hybrids and ‘pure’ electric vehicles (EVs) may well see the transition occurring earlier. (Or, as one industry commentator observed, you might as well announce the outlawing of the steam engine by 2040).
Both sides also noted that if we leap on the (ultra-low emissions) bandwagon too early, a raft of new issues potentially emerge. Even if we all find somewhere to plug in, doing so at once risks grid chaos. And once fully-charged, do we still have enough range to meet our needs? And how much further forward are we if our EVs charge-up from inefficient or polluting sources?
Hydrogen vehicles might act as either a stepping-stone or a long-term complement to EVs. Offering similar performance to today’s cars but running near-silently and emitting just water vapour, these fuel-cell vehicles avoid both lengthy recharging waits and range anxiety issues. Needless to say, the Japanese are in there early, Toyota recently launching the Mirai, the world’s first purpose-built hydrogen car.
And as autonomous technology kicks in, our whole attitude to vehicle usage and ownership could shift radically; it’s not unthinkable to be whizzing around town in pay-as-you-go electric ‘pods’ but renting or leasing a larger hydrogen car for longer journeys or rural living.
Of course, switching filling stations over to hydrogen is an infrastructure challenge not to be under-estimated. A (relatively) painless solution might therefore be to target buses, taxis and delivery vans for early, phased switchover. Covering relatively large mileages (mostly on diesel) these contribute disproportionately to urban emissions; re-fuelling daily at a handful of depots might be achievable in the short-term. In a pilot in Aberdeen, a small fleet of hydrogen buses is supplied by two filling stations now also open for public use with Mirais available via a car club.
So many energy and transportation topics spiral into a debate over the accuracy (or even veracity) of climate change and pollution fatality data. But beyond these exists a less widely-discussed yet critical topic: energy security. With UK North Sea production past its peak (although there’s still plenty economically recoverable, I should add), renewables can help reduce dependence on imported energy often sourced from unstable regions.
But they can only do so via an ordered transition and a means of back-up. Its technology is still in its infancy (especially those small electrolysers) and its unit costs remain high but let’s see if renewables-sourced hydrogen can play a useful part here.