A Bridge to a Sustainable H2 Energy Future

by Robert L. Mauro, Executive Vice President, National Hydrogen Association
NHA staff presented two papers at 1996 World Hydrogen Energy Conference held in Stuttgart, Germany, in June. One was an update to the paper presented at the Paris WHEC in 1992. The other was an outline of TTC’s approach for developing markets for new renewable technologies and the relevance of those technologies for hydrogen.

I presented the first paper, “A Bridge to a Sustainable Hydrogen Energy Future: Reassessing the Transition.” The context for the paper is globalization. Global products, global information, and global environmental issues conspire to create informed groups of individuals who have a common vision of what an energy system might look like using hydrogen and electricity as the principal “energy carriers.” The vision that emerges is sustainable, renewable, and environmentally preferred over the current energy mix.

The first “bridge” initially uses existing natural gas pipelines to supply hythane (15% hydrogen in natural gas). The hydrogen can be produced from methane through steam reforming, a process which will make hydrogen widely available. Experience with hydrogen then will increase, with technologies like fuel cells for stationary and vehicle applications and magnetic refrigeration deployed in niche markets and coming into widespread commercial use. The final phase has hydrogen rapidly supplanting natural gas for security, environmental, and economic reasons.

The second bridge is for locations without a natural gas infrastructure in place; it is renewable from the start. Using local energy resources, such as biomass, is the key to its success. Demonstration of and gaining experience with the technologies for power production and hydrogen generation are the first stage. The next phase more broadly integrates production, storage, and use of hydrogen into a system. Finally, standardization of components and designs will allow all components to interconnect and operate properly. At this point, there also will be easy access to small-scale hydrogen liquefaction equipment.

Renewable energy sources are the key to sustainable hydrogen development. The incremental addition of hydrogen production and storage to installed renewable technologies is likely to emerge as the path to energy independence for village power and a bridge to a hydrogen energy future. Fuel cells are the linchpin that connects renewable systems to meet electric production, space conditioning, and ground transportation needs.

Commercialization Strategies

The second paper, “Commercialization Strategies for Emerging Renewable Energy Technologies,” was presented by NHA Vice President Susan Leach for Technology Transition Corporation (TTC) and was coauthored by TTC Business Development Manager Wendy Rodenhiser and me. It is not included in the conference proceedings. The paper identifies future energy opportunities in transitional economies where renewables are economical today. The world population in 2020 is projected to reach 8.1 billion and 85% of that population will live in developing economies. In these countries, economic development and improved living standards—rather than environmental concerns—are the important driving forces.

There is growing interest by utilities in the use of renewable energy sources. More countries are viewing renewables as secure, sustainable energy technologies which will allow them to remain politically and economically independent. The barriers to this expansion include high start-up costs and inadequate infrastructure. To lower renewable technology costs requires large increases in energy production volumes. This ultimately depends on market acceptance by potential buyers. To break the cycle of developer investments depending on market assurance and markets being reluctant to buy until cost goals are met, new approaches must be undertaken.

The paper outlines TTC’s approach to this issue. Strategies used include:

The goal of this approach is the development of market confidence by having consortia share the technical risk and define the economics and performance criteria for the technology and its components. The paper presents TTC’s commercialization activities, approach, and progress in photovoltaic energy, molten carbonate fuel cells, biomass power, and hydrogen. Among the strategies employed to create early markets for clean and renewable energy technologies are royalties and declining subsidies for large volume purchases to market-makers. Government financial and policy support can assist by stimulating the market and mitigating early risks.

Renewables may not begin with hydrogen but they cannot succeed without it. The electrified world’s power systems can accept up to 20% of their energy supplied by intermittent renewables; beyond that, there are potential energy delivery problems. Renewably produced hydrogen can serve as a storage mechanism for intermittently produced electricity, as well as an entrée into transportation fuel. For a renewable energy source to ever become a major power source, it must be available to meet any load. Renewably produced hydrogen provides renewables with the flexibility to meet and follow electrical load on demand.

©1996. All Rights Reserved. A Publication of the National Hydrogen Association.
This material may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

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