Imagine a windfarm that doesn’t need a grid connection, that ‘exports’ molecules rather than electrons and dispatches the energy it produces around the world to energy-hungry countries, opening up a new route to market for offshore wind.
The concept of the ‘hydrogen economy’ has waxed and waned a little in the last few years but hasn’t gone away. Recognition of hydrogen’s potential is growing again in the UK, France, Japan and the US.
Hydrogen is incredibly flexible, which is what makes it so potentially useful in low-carbon energy systems. It’s been called the Swiss Army knife of energy solutions.
In a November 2017 report, the Hydrogen Council saw it “enabling the deployment of renewables by converting and storing more than 500 TWhr of otherwise curtailed electricity… allowing international energy distribution, linking renewable-abundant regions with those requiring energy imports… acting as a buffer and strategic reserve for power.”
Hydrogen can be produced from a variety of resources – including wind – and can be used in a wide range of applications, including power generation, transport for low-carbon vehicles, the chemical industry and heating, although storing and transporting it remains challenging.
Back in 2012, Professor Nigel Brandon at Imperial College London also noted in a piece for The Guardian that one of hydrogen’s most important attributes is that it can store renewable energy from intermittent sources – for example, when the wind is blowing but there is not high demand for electricity. In this context, it is an alternative to large-scale batteries or other storage systems. Moreover, hydrogen is already used extensively in the chemical industry, so industry is familiar with its production, handling and distribution on a large scale.
For all these reasons, Professor Brandon said many experts see hydrogen as a key enabler of the lowest-cost low-carbon energy system. Hydrogen can help to decarbonise our energy system, he noted, but it is important to be specific about where and when hydrogen can help, so it might be better to think about when and where hydrogen can help. In that sense, it might be better to think about ‘hydrogen in the economy’ rather than ‘a hydrogen economy.’
More recently, Japan, which depends very heavily on imports for the energy it needs, has been investing in the concept of ‘hydrogen in the economy.’ In fact, since Fukishima, the Japanese Government has accelerated its search for new energy sources, spending more than US$16Bn on hydrogen research and development.
One such initiative proposes using hydrogen produced by sun power in solar-rich Australia. As our sister journal LNG World Shipping reported last year, Japanese classification society ClassNK has released guidelines for a gas carrier that would transport hydrogen on a long-distance trade to Japan from Australia. Japanese shipbuilder Kawasaki Heavy Industries has designed a liquefied hydrogen (LH2) carrier.
As I noted here, interest is growing in using offshore wind to produce hydrogen. There are technical issues to overcome and more work needed on electrolysers it is argued, but here’s a little conceptualising to think about on the beach this summer and how offshore wind might one day play a role in the hydrogen economy.
Imagine a multi-GW floating offshore windfarm in deep water, far offshore where the wind is most reliable and capacity factors are high. Imagine if you will that this massive windfarm does not have an export cable. It doesn’t need a grid connection either, and the substation is a floating platform with new-generation electrolysers using the electrons from multi-MW offshore turbines to electrolyse water into hydrogen molecules.
Existing gas transmission infrastructure could play a role transporting that hydrogen ashore, or it could be stored and brought to market in other ways. If an LH2 tanker of the type being developed in Japan is feasible, and if guidelines have been developed by a class society, is an LH2 shuttle tanker that would offload produced hydrogen from the windfarm (like a shuttle tanker in the offshore oil and gas industry) such an outrageous idea?
However, when the gas came to market, the owner of such a windfarm could export energy around the world to countries where there was sufficient demand for hydrogen – such as Japan – opening up new markets for offshore wind.
Maybe this is all a little fanciful, but it is not far removed from what the Hydrogen Council envisages.
Not long ago the idea that offshore wind would be competitive with gas and new nuclear seemed fanciful, as did the idea that costs would fall by 50-60% in a short space of time and that the first large-scale offshore windfarm in the US would actually save consumers money.
Enjoy the summer!