Skip to content
Here s why one solar industry veteran is betting big on clean hydrogen. Solar hydrogen fuel cell

Here s why one solar industry veteran is betting big on clean hydrogen. Solar hydrogen fuel cell

    Here‘s why one solar industry veteran is betting big on clean hydrogen

    Raffi Garabedian spent a dozen years developing solar panel technology at First Solar, a photovoltaics company that currently has a market value around 8 billion. The technologist then went on to co-found clean hydrogen start-up Electric Hydrogen, which he’s currently building out as its CEO.

    Garabedian’s career path may seem surprising. While solar power is almost universally accepted as a clean energy source, hydrogen production is often perceived as a shady corner of the climate space where oil and gas companies are using smoke and mirrors to invent a reason to keep their own infrastructure relevant.

    But Garabedian knows all that. He also knows that not all hydrogen is created in the same way. And hydrogen is absolutely essential to life on Earth and has tremendous potential to be a linchpin in critical business sectors that will otherwise be hard to decarbonize.

    A decade ago, the solar industry was an arms race to develop the cheapest and best photovoltaics technology, he told CNBC. Technologists like me, we were in the hot seat, which is what excites me, he said. Now, the solar industry is in execution mode instead of quick-innovation mode.

    here, solar, industry, veteran, betting

    So he asked himself, What’s the next thing that needs to be done? What’s the biggest impact thing in decarbonization and climate tech that needs to happen? This is the thought process that led me to hydrogen.

    The promise and problems with hydrogen

    Hydrogen is already essential in chemical industrial processes, including refining crude oil into useful petroleum products and making ammonia-based fertilizer through the Haber-Bosch process, which has helped the world feed itself through massive population growth over the last century.

    Without it, millions of people die, Garabedian said.

    from CNBC Climate:

    Some purists argue that hydrogen should be produced and used only in chemical processes and to make ammonia, but Garabedian rejects that view.

    First, he argues, hydrogen fuel could reduce emissions in some sectors of the economy that would be very hard to decarbonize with electricity, like airplanes and large boats.

    For planes, the weight of the energy source is critical, and hydrogen is both energy-rich and very light — and generates minimal emissions when burned, unlike jet fuel. For long-haul shipping, freight liners need to be able to travel a long time and a far distance without refueling. Ammonia made from both clean hydrogen and compressed hydrogen is a contender for shipping industry fuel sources and cleaner burning than the bunker fuel most large ships use today.

    Hydrogen is also a potential option for long-duration energy storage, which is vital for scaling up solar and wind renewable energy.

    A lot of people are focused on battery technology for energy storage, and in fact Garabedian sits on the board of ESS, a battery company looking to develop batteries for utilities to store energy for four to 12 hours. But for ultra-long duration — 100 hours of storage or more — natural gas is the most common solution today.

    For ultra-long storage, hydrogen is less efficient than some other clean technologies, like batteries or pumped hydro, but the amount of energy (capacity) you can store is much greater, according to the Energy Storage Association.

    With the right technology and infrastructure, solar and wind power could be used to generate hydrogen, which could then be stored and burned later when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. It can also be shipped around the world to where energy sources are most needed — hydrogen can be converted into a liquid at a super cold temperature and stored and moved on in cryogenic tanks on special ships, similar to how liquified natural gas moves currently.

    The power of electrolysis

    But there’s one big caveat to the use of hydrogen to make the energy sector cleaner.

    The cheapest ways to make hydrogen today use natural gas. The process produces carbon dioxide, which contributes to climate change. over, collecting and distributing natural gas inevitably results in methane emissions from fugitive leaks — and methane is an even more potent and dangerous greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

    This so-called gray hydrogen and its cousin, blue hydrogen, which is produced in the same way but with an attempt to capture and sequester the carbon dioxide emissions, are nonstarters for Garabedian.

    Fundamentally, I think most companies in oil and gas see blue hydrogen as a way to perpetuate their business model, he said. He doesn’t think they can delay it forever.

    The end of natural gas is around the corner, he said. And having been through over a decade in solar, I have this sense that these transitions can happen a lot faster than the entrenched industry wants to believe they can happen.

    The answer, Garabedian believes, is to find a cost-effective way to generate hydrogen without the byproducts that warm the climate.

    One clean way to generate hydrogen is by using clean energy sources like solar and wind to power electrolysis — splitting water, H2O, into hydrogen and oxygen.

    Raffi Garabedian on a tour of a Hydrogen Electrolyzer Research Lab in the Energy Systems Integration Facility at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo.

    Electrolysis is expensive today, but Electric Hydrogen aims to fix this by building very dense electrolyzers to run inside gigantic and super-efficient plants that can generate as much as 100 megawatts of power, where conventional plants operate at about 5 MW.

    here, solar, industry, veteran, betting

    The kind of plumbing here is not cheap — think high-pressure stainless steel like you might see in a chemical plant, Garabedian told CNBC. Electric Hydrogen’s approach is meant to reduce the cost of each plant by minimizing plumbing and other infrastructural costs.

    That’s the idea, anyway — Garabedian wouldn’t share details of the chemical technology involved for fear of giving away trade secrets.

    Economics is what wins. It’s not that people don’t want to do the right thing. But it’s also not that people want to do the right thing. Businesses make economic decisions.

    It’s important to note that this is all at a very early stage, and the company has no revenue or customers today.

    The company is just over 2 years old. In 2019, David Eaglesham, the initial CTO at First Solar, was an entrepreneur-in-residence at Bill Gates’ climate investment fund, Breakthrough Energy Ventures, where he was studying how to produce hydrogen cheaply. Eaglesham learned Garabedian was interested in working on a new technology, and the two decided to work together to build a hydrogen company based on some ideas Eaglesham had in his residency. Two other key players on the team are Derek Warnick, who has spent the last decade and a half working in clean energy finance, and Dorian West, who has 25 years’ engineering experience, including 15 at Tesla.

    The company officially incorporated in December 2019 and self-funded until March 2021, when Electric Hydrogen first raised money. In June, the company announced 24 million led by Breakthrough Energy Ventures.

    Bottom line: It’s all about cost

    Garabedian knows that success will come only if his solution lowers the cost of energy.

    The key point is price. These are commodities. We’re not selling Teslas, which you buy not just because they’re clean, you also buy them because [they’re] really fun to drive, Garabedian said.

    The cheapest hydrogen today is gray hydrogen made from natural gas down near Henry Hub, Louisiana, where it costs around 1.50 per kilo, according to Garabedian.

    That’s our target. Our target is to turn renewable energy into 1.50-a-kilo-or-less hydrogen, thereby making it an economical alternative to the dirty gray source, said Garabedian.

    If blue hydrogen becomes the industry standard, then the baseline price is likely to move to between 2 and 2.25 per kilo, which makes it much easier for me to enter the market, he said.

    Garabedian learned the hard lesson about economics in his decade in the solar industry.

    A dozen years ago, the solar industry was supported with subsidies and regulatory mandates, and about 2015, solar energy reached grid parity, which means it costs the same as the wholesale price for electricity generated on the grid.

    Those incremental economic decisions made business by business, day by day, will move the energy transition, according to Garabedian.

    Economics is what wins. It’s not that people don’t want to do the right thing. But it’s also not that people want to do the right thing. Businesses make economic decisions.

    “Hydrogen House” Deploys Rooftop Solar Panels, But Don’t Call Them Solar Panels

    Researchers in Belgium are preparing to market rooftop solar-activated panels that produce hydrogen gas instead of electricity.

    The idea of a house that can produce its own hydrogen has been tossed around the Intertubes for a while now. It would be safe to assume that solar panels are involved somehow, but researchers in Belgium mapped out a different pathway. Their panels generate hydrogen gas instead of electricity.

    It’s Called A Hydrogen Panel

    CleanTechnica first spotted the hydrogen house concept back in 2008, when researchers in the UK launched a project aimed at deploying hydrogen fuel cells for home use.

    Right around the same time Scientific American took note of New Jersey innovator Mike Strizki, who was already on to the next step. Strizki outfitted an existing home with ground mounted solar panels and an electrolysis system, which jolts hydrogen from plain tap water. Strizki’s nonprofit organization, Hydrogen House, is an education center (hit them up for a tour some day).

    In 2020, the California utility SoCal Gas upped the ante when it announced plans to demonstrate the hydrogen house concept on a factory-built 2,000 sq. ft. LEED platinum home equipped with solar panels, a battery, an electrolyzer for green H2, and a fuel cell.

    The researchers in Belgium also developed a system that deploys solar energy, and their panels resemble solar panels, but they are different. The RD began as a student project at Belgium’s historic KU Leuven university and is progressing under the umbrella of the Solhyd spinoff, spearheaded by professor Johan Martens of KU Leuven. He talked about the difference during an interview in 2019.

    “A solar panel converts solar energy into electricity, while our panel converts moisture from the air into hydrogen gas,” Martens explained. “Sunlight is part of the picture, of course, and our panel does look like a solar panel, but we prefer to call it a hydrogen panel.”

    How Does It Work?

    Martens wasn’t giving away too much during the interview, as the team’s patent applications were still winding their way through the pipeline. However, it sure sounds like a photoelectrochemical reaction is in play. If you have any thoughts about that, drop us a note in the comment thread.

    Photoelectrochemical cells don’t produce electricity like photovoltaic cells. They act more like an artificial leaf, producing hydrogen through a direct chemical reaction in water, triggered by sunlight.

    KU Leuven’s contribution to the field is an all-in-one approach that deploys water vapor from ambient air. That eliminates the need to engineer a water supply system, though Martens noted that still leaves plenty of room for other challenges.

    “The temperatures on a solar panel can easily reach up to 50 or even 70 degrees Celsius, which doesn’t help when you’re working with water vapour,” he said. “over, how do you create a system that works in the pouring rain and in situations where the humidity is very low? The biggest challenge, in other words, is the aspect of water management.”

    The Sohlyd team does not expect their rooftop hydrogen panels to provide enough energy to power an entire house all year round, but in the 2019 interview, research co-leader Tom Bosserez stated that 20 panels could provide enough hydrogen to power a heat pump for a properly insulated house throughout a typical Belgian winter. He also noted that the addition of conventional solar panels and a thermal solar collector would enable a house to take care of its entire energy needs throughout the year.

    here, solar, industry, veteran, betting

    Here Comes The Hydrogen House

    The Solhyd project is zeroing in on the commercialization phase, and you can pick up a few more hints about the technology on the Solhyd website.

    “The hydrogen panel is able to capture moisture from the air and use energy from the sun to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen, by using innovative materials,” Solhyd explains. “The device only contains low cost, abundant materials and the use of precious metals is excluded.”

    That thing about low cost, abundant materials suggests organic materials are in play. That may come as a surprise, but researchers have begun to pick apart the obstacles that have prevented the use of organic semiconductors in photoelectrochemical water-splitting. One example is a study published in the journal Nature last year. Apparently the Solhyd project has been working along a similar track.

    As of this writing, the Solhyd team has only only built 10 prototype hydrogen panels, but they finally have enough financing at hand to make some big moves in short order. Last September Solhyd moved into new quarters near the city of Leuven. The initial plan is to manufacture “some dozens” of hydrogen panels for use in pilot-scale projects. The next step will ramp things up considerably.

    “These facilities can accommodate the production of hundreds and even thousands of hydrogen panels. This was made possible through Flemish government funding, to support the development and installation of a pilot production line,” Solhyd notes.

    And Now, The Agrivoltaic Angle

    The Solhyd team is already looking ahead to other applications, and agrivoltaics made the short list.

    CleanTechnica has spilled plenty of ink on the topic of agrivoltaics, in which crops are grown under and around solar panels that are raised a few feet higher off the the ground than a typical ground-mounted array. Initial efforts focused on grazing lands and pollinator habitats. recently, researchers and farmers are demonstrating the technique on food crops and wine grapes.

    Solyhyd points out that its hydrogen panels could be applied in the same way.

    “One can use solar photovoltaics, but hydrogen panels are equally suited. Using just one percent of the Belgian agricultural land for agrivoltaics, would suffice to replace 9% of industrial gas use by green hydrogen,” they note.

    The agivoltaic angle could help accelerate Solhyd into commercial production. Aside from energy applications, farmers could use hydrogen from the panels to produce their own green ammonia fertilizer.

    The Solhyd team will be applying their panels to KU Leuven’s newly launched Transfarm sustainability project, which aims to rev up the emerging circular bioeconomy.

    “The new research centre supports researchers in scaling up innovations in the bioeconomy and bioengineering from lab expertise to pilot scale in order to bring these new methods on the market and introduce them into society more quickly,” Transfarm explains.

    Transfarm is the latest iteration of a 1920s-era agricultural research center. In its new form, the center sports 6000 square meters of solar panels, heat pumps, and emission controls for livestock, all with the aim of demonstrating fossil-free farming methods.

    Image: House with rooftop H2 panels courtesy of Solhyd.

    I don’t like paywalls. You don’t like paywalls. Who likes paywalls? Here at CleanTechnica, we implemented a limited paywall for a while, but it always felt wrong — and it was always tough to decide what we should put behind there. In theory, your most exclusive and best content goes behind a paywall. But then fewer people read it! We just don’t like paywalls, and so we’ve decided to ditch ours. Unfortunately, the media business is still a tough, cut-throat business with tiny margins. It’s a never-ending Olympic challenge to stay above water or even perhaps — gasp — grow. So.

    If you like what we do and want to support us, please chip in a bit monthly via PayPal or Patreon to help our team do what we do! Thank you! Sign up for daily news updates from CleanTechnica on email. Or follow us on Google News!

    Have a tip for CleanTechnica, want to advertise, or want to suggest a guest for our CleanTech Talk podcast? Contact us here.

    Hydrogen-producing rooftop solar panels nearing commercialization

    KU Leuven researchers have developed rooftop panels that capture both solar power and water from the air. Like traditional PV modules, hydrogen panels are also connected, but via gas tubes instead of electric cables. The researchers are now preparing to bring the tech to the mass market via a spinoff company.

    The researchers have been fine-tuning the technology for over a decade. The hand-built prototypes were then cast into an attractive industrial design by Comate Engineering Design.


    KU Leuven researchers in Belgium have created a hydrogen panel that directly converts water vapor from the air into hydrogen gas, with the help of sunlight. They claim it produces 250 liters of hydrogen per day, at an efficiency of 15%. They are developing it under the Solhyd project, which is now in a transition phase from research to spinoff.

    In a nutshell, hydrogen panels are modules that use solar energy to split water molecules and produce hydrogen gas. This means only the most arid places on Earth are too dry for hydrogen panels to work efficiently. They are akin to classical solar modules, but instead of an electric cable, they are connected via gas tubes.

    Specifically, electricity is produced by the top layer solar panel, with a system of tubes underneath, where the hydrogen is produced from water molecules extracted directly from the air using a membrane.

    “Solhyd hydrogen panels are compatible with most commercial modern PV modules, which are directly plugged into our system. This way, we can benefit from the ongoing developments and cost reductions in the PV industry,” KU Leuven researcher Jan Rongé told pv magazine. “To further enhance this synergy, Solhyd hydrogen panels are compatible with common PV mounting structures.”

    The researchers described the hydrogen panel as small-scale, modular, and ideal for decentralized production. They estimated that 20 of the panels could supply electricity and heat for a well-insulated house with a heat pump all winter long. When installed alongside a solar thermal collector and traditional solar panels, hydrogen panels could help heat homes and provide electricity throughout the year.

    “The hydrogen panels themselves do not store hydrogen and work at very low pressure. This has several safety and cost benefits. The hydrogen is collected centrally from the hydrogen panel plant, and then compressed, if needed,” Rongé said. “Hydrogen can be stored indefinitely in compressed form. Of course, certain applications do not require compression, or will use other means of storage.”

    Popular content

    Hydrogen produced by Solhyd panels can be used in a wide range of applications, including mobility.

    “In the shorter term, we are mostly targeting mid-sized applications, such as backup power, logistics, heavy transport, but also providing energy in the Global South,” said Rongé. “Later, you could think of anything from large scale ammonia production down to small-scale off-grid systems.”

    The researchers said they foresee a similar system-price cost curve like the one seen in PV, and noted that they use non-precious materials to keep the hydrogen panels affordable. They have tested several prototypes since the project launch in 2011 and are ready to launch industrial production of hydrogen panels.

    In September, the Solhyd project moved from the university labs to a new 350 square-meter production space close to the Belgian town of Leuven, where pilot production lines were established with the help of Flemish government funding. Initially, the team will produce a few dozen hydrogen panels for small-scale pilot projects. But by 2026, the team expects to scale up production to 5,000 panels a year.

    “At this moment we expect that the product will be commercially available from 2026 onwards,” Rongé said. “When we achieve mass production, the price will be close to that of PV modules today.”

    This content is protected by copyright and may not be reused. If you want to cooperate with us and would like to reuse some of our content, please contact:

    Marija Maisch

    Marija has years of experience in a news agency environment and writing for print and online publications. She took over as the editor of pv magazine Australia in 2018 and helped establish its online presence over a two-year period.

    Elsewhere on pv magazine.

    31 Комментарии и мнения владельцев

    Now THIS is a promising development. If we can get these on homes, you can produce the hydrogen to power your hydrogen hybrid Prius. No range issues with a hybrid vs limitations with full electric. You could also heat your house but there are probably better ways to do that in most places (heat pumps with whatever is the most economical back up, etc.).

    here, solar, industry, veteran, betting

    Hydrogen is extremely flamable. It needs to be compressed very high to 10,000 psi to be stored and used to run a motor. I have solarcelectric pNels on my roof butvwould never put h2 panels on my home.

    Hydrogen energy storage and recovery is just a type of battery that is really bad. It has low efficiency and it requires many complex components that are expensive. If this actually worked in a cost effective way they would be having them mass produced this year in Asia. There is zero new technology here. This reeks of fantasy project. It’s a solar powered dehumidifier. Solar panels exist. Dehumidifiers exist. It then uses more solar power to crack the tiny amount of water it gets into hydrogen and then it uses more solar power to compress that hydrogen and pump it to a tank where it will slowly leak out. Eventually you will need a fuel cell to efficiently recover the energy. Each of those processes are ineffective and inefficient or expensive. All of that exists today. So why start with such a low production goal? Because it will produce a tiny amount of hydrogen for each square meter of panel and the costs will be very high. Let’s see the demonstration video on YouTube tomorrow. Throw one of these panels in front of a sun lamp and measure what comes out. It’s going to be perfect for that cool humid climate where it also happens to be sunny at the same time.

    250 liters of hydrogen produced by one panel with a full day of sunlight, at room temp and atmospheric pressure is 0.0209 kg of hydrogen. The Toyota Mirai has a 5 kg capacity high pressure hydrogen fuel tank. One of these panels producing 250 liters of hydrogen, which is 0.0209 kg would require 5 kg / 0.0209 kg/day = 239 days to produce 5 kg of atmospheric pressure hydrogen. You of course would then need much more energy to compress that to 10,000 PSI to get it into that tank. A single 350 Watt PV panel will charge a Tesla fully in 40 days. It looks like the Belgian government got scammed.

    No when you use the hydrogen it is recombined with oxygen and creates water again. In this process is when you get the release of an electron creating an electric potential. See when you add electricity you separate the hydrogen and oxygen the you release that electricity when you recombine it. You are using the processes as a battery.

    Dumb idea. Don’t put the gas making components that will require maintenance on inaccessible roof tops. Efficiency is terrible and hence even at comparable cost to PVs, this makes it payback so long as to be worthless

    This will affect the water cycle and the absorption of impurities by water molecules which in turn will accelerate air pollution. As a result global warming will accelerate as well. Using water itself to harvest hydrogen seems a better option.

    Sunlight is always available, even if the system has a low efficiency it will still produce hydrogen that can be stored. The stored hydrogen can then be used for power with fuel cells to produce electricity, along with burning for heat. If enough of these solar panels are used the volume of gas produced would be useable and only produce water vapor during combustion, or use in a fuel cell. So the efficiency is not an issue. Right now my roof has zero efficiency since I do not have any solar panels, if I installed panels deemed inefficient at least something would be produced from all of this free solar energy. Using batteries for power storage works for now but can be very dangerous as seen in vehicles that have caught fire, and batteries do have a rather short life span. Hydrogen will be the next big thing for non-fossil energy storage.

    INteresting to see the stubbornness in most reactions. These panels have been develeoped years ago and their then prototype showed to be working like a charm, they have perfected their product over time. I see the same arguments as when we we started to let cars drive on gas. Dangerous, highglu flamable and so on and so. Just because we have wasted hundreds of billios on subsidies to push windmills down the throat of people, and still because of these subsidies do not have a prodcut that earns itself back in a small ammount of time, doesnt mean the development on Hydrogen has stood stil. Japans has major breakthoughs ans is expected to go full hydrogen. Of course their breakthrough has to do with mass-production of Hydrogen. Elon Musk changed his opinion from Fool cells tot fuel cells again and has already said that the first Hydrogen Tesla will be presented in 2024. Their are many ways of producing Hydrogen, just because it used to be extremely expencive, doesnt mean it stays that way. Solarpanels which we can’t even recycle and will prove to be a nightmare in terms of chemical waste, broken panels will release superstrong greenhouse gasses into the atmosfhere and hevay metals which will find its way into the ground into our drinking water suplies. WIndmills do not get recycled, they get sold to countries where they dont care about the enviorment, where they will work some more years before ending in the ground. Oh we are so considered when we talk about the enviorment, not to mention the mining the resources of those green solutions. Hydrogen will be the way to go, the tanks it is stored in are of higher quality of those for simple natural gas. Even when it escapes unlike natural gas it goes straight up into the atmosfhere, simply because it is much lighter then the air surrounding it. Where Natural gas is heavier and hangs around. We dont even have enough resourches to produce batteries to make a small country like the Nethelands to only drive e-cars. Hydrogen specially when you can produce it off-grid is a excellent way to store energy, no highly polutiong windmills or solar panels, but a truly clean form of energy. As you are producing it the entire day through, you will have enough to fill your tank at home for the times it produces slightly less. Cars can do what we want in de first place, and filling your car up wont take an hour or more. The same reason why 100 years ago we wanted fossile, so we wouldn have to wait hours everytime the batteries were empty. Thank god technological advances continue where close minded people stop thinking. Japan is already proving we can produce Hydrogen chealy, and with these panels for your home you have real green solutions. It may give problems in air circulation, but so do windmills, they have proven to heat up the surroundings where they stand, they are desastrous for wildlife even when we build them on water, which also applies to solar panels, they all capture warmth, and where we place them in nature wildlife and nature are seriously affected.

    I think your entire dissertation is just a yell against wind power, which I understand to some degree and agree with, at least in part. But the entire rhetoric about how solar panels pollute and produce waste when they no longer work and the mining that goes on behind the scenes, while completely true, is a bit hilarious in this particular context (the Solhyd panel) since these panels use normal solar panels on top. It’s simply a traditional, run-of-the-mill solar panel with an atmospheric water vapor electrolyzer below it, nothing more! So, whatever you find appalling about solar applies in exactly the same way to the Solhyd panel. So, saying that “with these panels for your home you have real green solutions” right after literally destroying the solar panel’s greenness, is kind of contradictory. Personally, I can’t understand what the difference would be between using a Solhyd and just hooking up a good solar panel to a good domestic electrolyzer. Truth be told, I think it would be both safer and more efficient to do so, plus you wouldn’t need to add more weight to your roof (if, in fact, you can mount Solhyd panels on the roof to begin with, which isn’t clear at all).

    A fantastic technology whose time has come. Imagine a home in Europe with green hydrogen producing solar panels,the water taken from air and direct electrolysis in thin tubes shall ultimately increase efficiency of solar panels as in high temperature zones where there is always a very good radiation in the after when temperature rises above 42 degrees the efficiency of solar panels starts declining this system will ultimately help.Now imagine a home using organic waste and human extracts plus garden waste etc to produce methane and the residual manure wud make this home self sufficient as far as energy needs are concerned. Add to this the reduction in spending on local self administration involved in garbage collection and reduction on resources in suvage system etc wud be a great help in harmonizing community spending. It is high time that we humans realize the centralized systems for for day to day living is a big burden on resources and wud never work effectively and efficiently. If the things are sorted out at the source and utilized then and there our requirements shall reduce and there shall be less and less burden on Mother Earth. Now if the developers are interested in starting a few such prototypes in India under a collaboration we shall be interested in providing resources for such projects provided they come up a proper DPR( detailed project report) and a demonstration of the green hydrogen panels in a convincing manner. Di

    Leave a Reply Cancel reply

    By submitting this form you agree to pv magazine using your data for the purposes of publishing your comment.

    Your personal data will only be disclosed or otherwise transmitted to third parties for the purposes of spam filtering or if this is necessary for technical maintenance of the website. Any other transfer to third parties will not take place unless this is justified on the basis of applicable data protection regulations or if pv magazine is legally obliged to do so.

    You may revoke this consent at any time with effect for the future, in which case your personal data will be deleted immediately. Otherwise, your data will be deleted if pv magazine has processed your request or the purpose of data storage is fulfilled.

    Further information on data privacy can be found in our Data Protection Policy.

    Solar and Wind Power Could Ignite a Hydrogen Energy Comeback

    Peter Fairley is a science and environmental journalist who splits his time between Victoria, British Columbia, and San Francisco, California. Credit: Nick Higgins

    In Brief

    • Plans to fully power nations with renewable electricity will not succeed unless countries reconfigure all their energy systems, including fuels.
    • Excess solar and wind energy can run electrolyzers that convert water into hydrogen, which is distributed in pipelines and converted back into electricity when needed.
    • Hydrogen can be stored in tanks and underground caverns, forming a network that can energize industry and back up electric grids.

    Hydrogen is flowing in pipes under the streets in Cappelle-la-Grande, helping to energize 100 homes in this northern France village. On a short side road adjacent to the town center, a new electrolyzer machine inside a small metal shed zaps water with electricity from wind and solar farms to create “renewable” hydrogen that is fed into the natural gas stream already flowing in the pipes. By displacing some of that fossil fuel, the hydrogen trims carbon emissions from the community’s furnaces, hot-water heaters and stove tops by up to 7 percent.

    Cappelle-la-Grande’s system is a living laboratory created by Paris-based energy firm Engie. The company foresees a big scale-up of hydrogen energy as the cost of electrolyzers, as well as of renewable electricity, continues to fall. If Engie is right, blending hydrogen into local gas grids could accelerate a transition from fossil to clean energy.

    The company is not alone. Renewable hydrogen is central to the European Commission’s vision for achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. It is also a growing FOCUS for the continent’s industrial giants. As of next year, all new turbines for power plants made in the European Union are supposed to ship ready to burn a hydrogen–natural gas blend, and the E.U.’s manufacturers claim the turbines will be certified for 100 percent hydrogen by 2030. European steelmakers, meanwhile, are experimenting with renewable hydrogen as a substitute fuel for coal in their furnaces.

    If powering economies with renewable hydrogen sounds familiar, it is. Nearly a century ago celebrated British geneticist and mathematician J.B.S. Haldane predicted a post-fossil-fuel era driven by “great power stations” pumping out hydrogen. The vision became a fascination at the dawn of this century. In 2002 futurist Jeremy Rifkin’s book The Hydrogen Economy prophesied that the gas would catalyze a new industrial revolution. Solar and wind energy would split a limitless resource—water—to create hydrogen for electricity, heating and industrial power, with benign oxygen as the by-product.

    President George W. Bush, in his 2003 State of the Union address, launched a 1.2-billion research juggernaut to make fuel-cell vehicles running on hydrogen commonplace within a generation. Fuel cells in garages could be used as backup sources to power homes, too. A few months later Wired magazine published an article entitled “How Hydrogen Can Save America” by breaking dependence on dirty imported petroleum.

    Immediate progress did not live up to the hype. Less expensive and rapidly improving battery-powered vehicles stole the “green car” spotlight. In 2009 the Obama administration put hydrogen work on the back burner. Obama’s first secretary of energy, physicist and Nobel laureate Steven Chu, explained that hydrogen technology simply was not ready, and fuel cells and electrolyzers might never be cost-effective.

    Research did not stop, however, and even Chu now acknowledges that some hurdles are gradually being cleared. The Cappelle-la-Grande demonstration is one small project, but dozens of increasingly large, ambitious installations are getting started worldwide, especially in Europe. As the International Energy Agency noted in a recent report, “hydrogen is currently enjoying unprecedented political and business momentum, with the number of policies and projects around the world expanding rapidly.”

    This time around it is the push to decarbonize the electric grid and heavy industry—not transportation—that is driving interest in hydrogen. “Everyone in the energy-modeling community is thinking very seriously about deep decarbonization,” says Tom Brown, who leads an energy-system modeling group at Germany’s Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. Cities, states and nations are charting paths to reach nearly net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 or sooner, in large part by adopting low-carbon wind and solar electricity.

    But there are two, often unspoken problems with that strategy. First, existing electric grids do not have enough capacity to handle the large amounts of renewable energy needed to put fossil-fueled power plants out of business. Second, backup power plants would still be needed for long stretches of dark or windless weather. Today that backup comes from natural gas, coal and nuclear power plants that grid operators can readily turn up and down to balance sagging and surging renewable supply.

    Hydrogen can play the same role, its promoters say. When wind and solar are abundant, electrolyzers can use some of that energy to create hydrogen, which is stored for the literal rainy day. Fuel cells or turbines would then convert the stored hydrogen back into electricity to shore up the grid.

    Cutting carbon deeply also means finding replacement fuels for segments of the economy that cannot simply plug into a big electrical outlet, such as heavy transport, as well as replacement feedstocks for chemicals and materials that are now based on petroleum, coal and natural gas. “Far too many people have been misled into believing that electrification is the entire [carbon] solution” that is needed, says Jack Brouwer, an energy expert at the University of California, Irvine, who has been engineering solutions to his region’s dirty air for more than two decades. “And many of our state agencies and legislators have bought in,” without considering how to solve energy storage or to fuel industry, he says.

    Can renewable hydrogen make a clean-energy grid workable? And could it be a viable option for industry? Some interesting bets are being made, even without knowing whether hydrogen can scale up quickly and affordably.

    Dark Doldrums

    The few nations that have bet big on replacing coal and natural gas with solar and wind are already showing signs of strain. Renewable energy provided about 40 percent of Germany’s electricity in 2018, though with huge fluctuation. During certain days, wind and solar generated more than 75 percent of the country’s power; on other days, the share dropped to 15 percent. Grid operators manage such peaks and valleys by adjusting the output from fossil-fuel and nuclear power plants, hydropower reservoirs and big batteries. Wind and solar also increasingly surge beyond what Germany’s congested transmission lines can take, forcing grid operators to turn off some renewable generators, losing out on 1.4 billion euros (1.5 billion) of energy in 2017 alone.

    The bigger issue going forward is how nations will cope after the planned phaseout of fossil-fueled power plants (and, in Germany, also their nuclear plants). How will grid operators keep the lights on during dark and windless periods? Energy modelers in Germany invented a term for such renewable energy droughts: dunkelflauten, or “dark doldrums.” Weather studies indicate that power grids in the U.S. and Germany would have to compensate for dunkelflauten lasting as long as two weeks.

    Beefier transmission grids could help combat dunkelflauten by moving electricity across large regions or even continents, sending gobs of power from areas with high winds or bright sun on a given day to distant places that are calm or cloudy. But grid expansion is a slog. Across Germany, adding power lines is years behind schedule, beset by community protests. In the U.S., similar opposition prevents new lines from gaining approval.

    To some experts, therefore, dunkelflauten make wind and solar energy look risky. For example, grid simulations done in 2018 by energy modelers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology project an exponential rise in costs as grids move toward 100 percent renewable energy. That is because they assumed big, expensive batteries would have to be installed and kept charged at all times, even though they might be used only for a few scarce days or even hours a year.

    A California-based team of academics reached a similar conclusion in 2018, finding that even with big transmission lines and batteries, solar and wind power could feasibly supply only about 80 percent of U.S. electricity needs. Other power sources will definitely be needed, said team member Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science, when the study was released.

    Certain European experts say the M.I.T. and California studies are too myopic. For several decades European researchers have been zooming out from the power grid to a larger view, considering the full spectrum of energy used in modern society. Pioneered by Roskilde University physicist Bent Sørensen and several Danish protégés, such “integrated energy systems” studies combine simulations for electric grids, natural gas and hydrogen distribution networks, transportation systems, heavy industries and central heating supply.

    The models show that coupling those sectors provides operational flexibility, and hydrogen is a powerful way to do that. In this view, a 100 percent renewable electric grid could succeed if hydrogen is used to store energy to cover the dunkelflauten and without the price jump seen in M.I.T.’s projections.

    Some U.S. grid studies ruled out hydrogen energy storage because it is costly today. But other modelers say that thinking is flawed. For example, many grid studies being published about a decade ago downplayed solar energy because it was expensive at the time—this was a mistaken assumption, given solar’s dramatic cost decreases ever since. European simulations such as Brown’s take into account anticipated cost reductions when they compute the cheapest ways to eliminate carbon emissions. What emerges is a buildout of electrolyzers that cuts the cost of renewable hydrogen.

    In the models, electrolyzers scale up first to replace hydrogen that is manufactured from natural gas, used by chemical plants and oil refineries in various processing steps. Manufacturing “gray” hydrogen (as energy experts call it) releases more than 800 million metric tons of carbon dioxide a year worldwide—as much as the U.K. and Indonesia’s total emissions combined, according to the International Energy Agency. Replacing gray hydrogen with renewable hydrogen shrinks the carbon footprint of hydrogen used by industry. Some hydrogen could also replace natural gas and diesel fuel consumed by heavy trucks, buses and trains. Although fuel cells struggle to compete with batteries for cars, they may be more practical for heavier vehicles; truck developer Nikola Motor Company says the tractor-trailer rigs it is commercializing will travel about 800 to 1,200 kilometers (500 to 750 miles) on a full fuel cell, depending on the various equipment and hauling factors.

    If industry and heavy transport embrace renewable hydrogen, regional hydrogen networks could emerge to distribute it, and they could also supply the carbon-free gas to power plants that back up electricity grids. That is what happens in integrated energy simulations: as more renewable hydrogen is created and consumed, mass-distribution networks develop that store months’ worth of the gas in large tanks or underground caverns, much as natural gas is stored today, at a cost that is cheaper than storing electricity in batteries. “Once you acknowledge that hydrogen is important for the other sectors, you get the long-term storage for the power sector as a sort of by-product,” Brown says.

    That perspective comes alive in simulations by Christian Breyer of Finland’s LUT University. In his team’s latest 100 percent renewable energy scenarios, published in 2019 with the Energy Watch Group, an international group of scientists and parliamentarians, power plants burning stored hydrogen fire up to fill the grid’s void during the deepest dunkelflauten. “They are a final resort,” Breyer says. “Without these large turbines, we would not have a stable energy system during certain hours of the year.”

    In Breyer’s model, less than half of the wind and solar energy required to make and store hydrogen gets converted back into electricity, a big loss, and the hydrogen turbine generators sit idle for all but a few weeks every year. But the poor efficiency of the hydrogen-to-electricity conversion does not break the bank, because this pathway is used infrequently. Breyer says the scheme is the most economical solution for the energy system writ large, and it is not that different from how many grids use natural gas–fired plants today. “For decades there have been power plants that are switched on only once every few years,” he says.

    Repurposed Pipelines

    Even though today’s renewable hydrogen generation is meager, Europe is counting on hydrogen to decarbonize its energy systems. The European Commission anticipates renewable energy rising to greater than 80 percent of Europe’s power supply in 2050, supported by more than 50 gigawatts of electrolyzers—the capacity of approximately 50 nuclear power plants. Member states are setting their own goals, too. France is calling for its hydrogen-consuming industries to switch to 10 percent renewable hydrogen by 2022 and 20 to 40 percent by 2027.

    These goals will be difficult to reach without policies that encourage entrepreneurial firms to jump-start mass production of electrolyzers. Blending hydrogen into natural gas pipelines is a place to start because it uses existing infrastructure. Engineers had long assumed that molecular hydrogen—the smallest molecule and highly reactive—would degrade or escape from existing natural gas pipes. But recent research shows that blending of up to 20 to 25 percent hydrogen can be done without seeping from or hurting such pipes. European countries permit blending, and firms in Italy, Germany, the U.K., and elsewhere are injecting hydrogen at dozens of sites to help fuel customers’ heaters, cookstoves and other appliances, which do not need alterations as long as the hydrogen content stays below about 25 percent.

    Engie has been blending at Cappelle-la-Grande for more than a year without incident or opposition, according to project manager Hélène Pierre. She says that public acceptance is helped by extensive monitoring that shows that homes using the blend have cleaner air; adding hydrogen improves gas combustion in appliances, she notes, trimming levels of pollutants such as carbon monoxide that are created when natural gas burns incompletely.

    Europe’s next wave of renewable hydrogen projects could push production to a larger scale. Industrial consortia in France and Germany are seeking financing and authorization for 100-megawatt electrolyzers, 10 times larger than the biggest in operation. Two huge electrolyzer projects are vying for government support to boost a regional hydrogen economy around Lingen, a city in northwestern Germany that is home to a pair of oil refineries. One project that involves a large utility called Enertrag and several of Germany’s biggest energy and engineering firms could provide a blueprint for a nationwide hydrogen network. The project takes advantage of existing gas infrastructure but not via blending. Instead the idea is to repurpose spare gas pipelines to deliver renewable hydrogen to the local refineries, as well as a power plant and even a planned filling station for fuel-cell vehicles. “Our idea is to build up a 100 percent hydrogen gas grid,” says Frank Heunemann, who is managing director at Nowega, one of the partners on the project and the region’s gas-network operator.

    Nowega can reuse some empty pipes because the region has two natural gas networks. One carries standard natural gas that is nearly all methane. The other was originally built to deliver local natural gas that was high in hydrogen sulfide, and hydrogen can make some steel pipes brittle. Nowega is phasing out the local gas, leaving empty steel pipes that Heunemann says should be able to endure any reactivity with pure hydrogen. European energy supplier RWE will build the consortium’s main electrolyzer and plans to burn some of the hydrogen output at its Lingen power station. Engineering giant Siemens intends to optimize one of the station’s four gas turbines to handle pure hydrogen.

    The consortium is thinking about expansion as well. Lingen is about 48 kilometers from underground salt caverns created to store natural gas. Stocking some of Lingen’s hydrogen, more than 1,000 meters deep in one of the caverns, could be a logical next step, Heunemann says. (Hydrogen is already stored en masse in caverns in Texas and the U.K.)

    Nowega also envisions a 3,200-kilometer pipeline network that could reach most of Germany’s steel plants, refineries and chemical producers. The plan centers on repurposing natural gas pipes that were originally built to carry hydrogen-rich “town gas” produced from coal, which was common in Europe until the 1960s. Pipelines that historically coped with 50 percent hydrogen should also be fine “to use for 100 percent hydrogen,” Heunemann says.

    The Future is Tentative

    Europe’s growing interest in renewable hydrogen is not unique. Japan is planning a multidecadal shift to a “hydrogen society” that has been baked into official energy policy since 2014. Meeting one of Japan’s first goals—demonstrating technology to efficiently import hydrogen—is set to begin in 2020 with tanker shipments of gray hydrogen from Brunei, a tiny gas-rich nation nestled in Borneo. Australia’s rival political parties are developing competing plans to export hydrogen to Japan. In December 2019 energy ministers across Australia’s states and territories adopted a national hydrogen strategy, and the national government announced a 370-million (Australian; 252 million U.S.) hydrogen-stimulus package.

    Even in the U.S., there are signs of renewed interest. The federal government is once again setting goals for hydrogen technologies, some energy firms are investing and a few states are offering support. Los Angeles may be a leader. “L.A.’s Green New Deal,” unveiled by Mayor Eric Garcetti in April 2019, commits the city to reach 80 percent renewable electricity by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050. The mayor is advancing plans to build solar farms and is also constructing a new natural gas–fired power plant to ensure the city has a backup electricity source. That plant could be converted to burn renewable hydrogen; about 125 kilometers of pipelines already push gray hydrogen to the area’s refineries. And fuel cells are vying with batteries in plans to repower the roughly 16,000 trucks that haul freight at the region’s ports. Fueling those trucks with hydrogen instead of diesel could significantly improve L.A.’s hazy skies.

    Brouwer says the entire state needs to think more deeply about energy as it seeks to eliminate carbon emissions. The state may be wasting more than eight terawatt-hours of renewable energy potential every year by 2025, according to projections by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory—energy that Brouwer says California should instead be socking away as hydrogen to clean up its refineries and to meet soaring electricity demand during summer heat waves.

    Other experts agree that hydrogen can connect those dots. A recent study by the Energy Futures Initiative, a think tank led by former M.I.T. nuclear physicist Ernest Moniz, who was Obama’s second energy secretary, calls on California to tap the “enormous value” offered by renewable hydrogen and other low-carbon fuels. The study concludes that California’s carbon-cutting goals may be impossible to meet without them.

    A host of potential problems could still stall or prevent the scale-up of hydrogen infrastructure in California, Europe, and elsewhere. A persistent issue is public anxiety. Hydrogen is extremely flammable, and accidents happen. Last summer a faulty valve caused a hydrogen explosion at a Norwegian filling station for fuel-cell cars. Concrete blast walls minimized injuries, but media reports immediately questioned whether hydrogen energy would survive the incident. In November 2019 California governor Gavin Newsom asked the state’s public utility commission to expedite closure of an underground gas-storage facility, where a four-month leak of natural gas four years earlier had prompted the evacuation of thousands of families.

    All energy options have their risks, and community opposition complicates many paths to carbon-free energy. In many places, the public is not enamored with nuclear energy, transmission lines or wind turbines. The cost of electrolyzers may be the biggest challenge facing the renewable hydrogen future, however. To begin replacing gray hydrogen in industry, the cost of producing renewable hydrogen needs to drop from about 4 or more per kilogram today to 2 or less. Several studies indicate that could happen by 2030 if electrolyzer costs continue to fall as they have in the past few years.

    The studies also suggest that pattern may not emerge without government incentives. In a recent report, the International Energy Agency notes that hydrogen needs the same kind of government support that fostered early deployments of solar and wind power—industries that now attract more than 100 billion in annual investment worldwide. Those examples, the agency writes, show that “policy and technology innovation have the power to build global clean energy industries.”

    Improved technology may be arriving. A new class of electrolyzers is entering the market—solid oxide electrolyzers that produce almost 30 percent more hydrogen than the industry-leading proton-exchange membrane electrolyzers, which Engie is using. Former energy secretary and doubter Chu, now a professor at Stanford University, is working on a novel electrolyzer that relies on tighter spacing of components and other tricks to produce hydrogen faster with less energy. According to Chu, the changes could make “a huge difference in operating cost.” It’s just one more reason, Chu says, why he is warming up to hydrogen.

    This article was originally published with the title The H2 Solution in Scientific American 322, 2, 36-43 (February 2020)

    Solar Hydrogen Science Kit

    The Solar Hydrogen Science Kit lets students invent their own clean energy applications using fuel cells and renewable hydrogen created using solar energy and water.

    Solar Hydrogen Science Kit. product overview

    The Solar Hydrogen Science Kit lets students invent their own clean energy applications using fuel cells and renewable hydrogen created using solar energy and water. The kit also comes with a small electric motor and propeller blade as the starting point for motorized applications you can build using your futuristic solar energy storage device. The set comes with a complete curriculum on renewable energy with easy to follow experiment manual, assembly guide, flash animations, and background history on the technology.

    • Explore series and parallel circuits and other physics concepts with renewable enrgy power from a fuel cell and solar panel.
    • Use the power of the Sun to split wather and generate hydrogen gas while learning about chemistry concepts.

    Why Fuel Cells and Hydrogen?

    Fuel cells can be thought of as alternative energy devices that unlock the power of hydrogen. They convert chemical energy into electrical energy. Hydrogen fuel cells do this very cleanly, with no toxic emissions, and with a high efficiency. Hydrogen and fuel cell technologies have many potential clean energy applications –from running our vehicles, to powering our cellular phones and laptops, to heating our hospitals and homes.

    Fuel cells do not generate energy out of thin air. They use hydrogen. Hydrogen is an outstanding carrier of energy. Hydrogen is non-toxic, renewable, easily obtained, and packed with energy. When it combusts with oxygen, it turns into water. This water can again be split into hydrogen and oxygen via electrolysis. The generated hydrogen can be combusted once again, thus undergoing a limitless cycle without toxic emissions. With a fuel cell, you can convert hydrogen into electric current without combustion. Fossil fuels are converted into usable energy through combustion. The energy released during combustion is inherently difficult to capture and inefficient. It also produces carbon dioxide, which cannot easily be converted back into a usable fuel. A fossil fuel combustion engine at a power plant is only about 30 to 40% efficient. This means it coverts only 30 to 40% of the energy in the fossil fuels to usable energy (electricity). Engines in a car are even less efficient, and reach the level of 15 to 20% of efficiency. Where does the rest of the energy go? It escapes as heat, vibration, and noise.

    On the other hand, fuel cells can operate at 40 to 65% efficiency. This means that they can convert 40 to 65% of the energy contained in hydrogen into electricity. The development of hydrogen and fuel cell technologies and products around the world will improve the air we breathe, ensure secure and reliable energy, reduce the emissions that cause climate change and create highly skilled jobs.

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *