Renewable Hydrogen Dream Challenged By New Coal Project

It’s two steps forward, one giant step back for the sparkling green hydrogen economy of the future. Many H2 fans are looking to break ties with the fossil industry, but the ties that bind are strong, as demonstrated by a new brown coal project in Australia.

renewable hydrogen wind solar

Hydrogen 101

For those of you new to the topic, hydrogen is an abundant, zero emission fuel, but it doesn’t pop up out of the ground by itself. It must be extracted from other sources.

Currently, the main source is natural gas, and to a lesser extent coal.

So much for the zero emissions! If you only look at the tailpipe, hydrogen is practically irresistible. It’s the supply chain issues that mess things up.

Putting aside coal for the moment, let’s focus on natural gas.

Start with the mounting pile of evidence linking poor health outcomes with local air and water impacts from drilling and wastewater disposal. Now consider the impact of greenhouse gas emissions from wellhead to transportation, storage, and distribution, and it all adds up to one big, global mess

As for coal, that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms. In the latest development on that score, our friends over at The Age report that a controversial coal-to-H2 project in Australia has just been fast-tracked.

Here’s the rundown:

Japan has identified Gippsland’s abundant brown coal reserves as a cheap source of fuel to be converted to liquid hydrogen and exported in a project valued at $496 million.

But its viability is dependent on the ability, still unproven, to sequester carbon emissions from the brown coal in porous rock formations beneath the Bass Strait seabed.

Yikes!

Renewable Energy To The Rescue

If that sounds like an awfully complicated way to get a “clean” fuel into the export market, you’re on to something.

The project is ostensibly aimed at supporting economic growth in the Latrobe Valley region, but it looks like alternatives are already emerging.

In an interesting coincidence of timing, Australia is also launching a renewable H2 project. Our friends at Reuters have the scoop:

The Australian government said on Monday it would provide half the funding for the country’s biggest trial to produce hydrogen using solar and wind energy, which could then be used as a back-up for gas supplies.

The A$15 million ($11 million) project is being run by gas pipeline company Jemena, which plans to build a 500 kilowatt electrolyser in western Sydney that will use solar and wind power to split water into hydrogen and oxygen.

If you’re wondering why a natural gas pipeline company is interested in the renewable H2 angle, that’s a good question.

Hydrogen gas can be transported in the same infrastructure as natural gas. The use of existing infrastructure is one of the angles that renewable H2 fans hope to play in terms of cost-cutting and competition with fossil fuels.

Scaling Up Renewable Hydrogen

With the cost angle in mind, let’s get an update on the EU’s renewable H2 project, HyBalance.

HyBalance is aimed at using hydrogen as an energy storage medium as well as a fuel, and it is looking at scaled-up solutions that provide for a competitive, sustainable supply.

As with the Australian project, the HyBalance solution is based on electrolysis, a technology that uses electricity to “split” water into hydrogen and oxygen.

To take advantage of economies of scale, HyBalance will rely on wind power. The recently completed pilot site has a capacity of 1.2 megawatts, which is enough to churn out about 500 kilograms of hydrogen daily.

Air Liquide, the project coordinator, is looking to fill the market for hydrogen buses and forklifts as well as passenger cars.

Aside from fueling vehicles of various kinds, HyBalance also aims at to use hydrogen as an energy storage platform and grid stabilization service. Air Liquide explains:

Wind power is fluctuating and requires adequate flexibility options to ensure balance in the electricity grid. Dynamic water electrolysis offers such flexibility using electricity when the prices are low or there is a need for balancing and transforming it into hydrogen.

Green H2 For The USA

That brings us to the USA, where President* Trump has leaned heavily on the support of the fossil fuel industry.

It would be safe to assume that renewable H2 doesn’t have much of a future in the US under the Trump administration, but take a look at some recent Department of Energy hydrogen and fuel cell projects and see if you can spot the disconnect between White House rhetoric and the agency’s continued pursuit of renewable energy.

One area of particular interest is the interplay of concentrating solar power and hydrogen production.

The Energy Department became a huge fan of CSP during the Obama Administration and the enthusiasm has continued to build.

Regardless of Energy Secretary Perry’s apparently half-hearted attempts to salvage Trump’s coal policy, the Energy Department is plowing full steam ahead on its renewable energy mission. As part of that, the agency recently made the case for treating CSP plants as baseload power plants that could substitute for coal and natural gas.

Researchers are also looking at ways to combine CSP with H2 production, leveraging the high heat from solar energy to ramp up production.

Meanwhile, the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory is exploring other pathways for producing cost-competitive, renewable H2 including fermentation and biomass conversion. CleanTechnica is reaching out for an update on those projects, so stay tuned.

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*Developing story.

Photo (screenshot): via HyBalance.

Tina Casey

Tina writes frequently for CleanTechnica and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.