Siemens, the German power engineering giant, is talking to Australian wind and solar energy firms and state governments about hydrogen storage as the technology edges closer to becoming a commercial energy source.
Some large solar and wind farm developers want to use their surplus power to turn water into hydrogen and even ammonia – which is easier to transport – for conversion to fertiliser or back to hydrogen for energy at another location, such as a city.
Development of hydrogen after years of frustration adds to a crowded field of energy technologies than can help balance variable wind and solar power in the electricity grid, Siemens chief technology officer Michael Weinhold said.
Professor Weinhold said hydrogen could also be mixed with natural gas in gas turbines – with the mix ranging from a few per cent to 20 per cent – if it can be produced cheaply, providing a carbon dioxide-free alternative to natural gas.
Minister for Environment and Climate Change, Simon Corbell, Chief Minister Andrew Barr, and ACT director of Energy and Waste, Jon Sibley, admire a Hyundai powered by hydrogen supplied by wind farm developer Neoen. Canberra is to get a fleet of 20 of the vehicles. Photo David Ellery.
"The business case is being looked for. Many projects so far were funded (subsidised) projects but maybe in Australia we can identify the first business case without funding because with the falling price of wind and solar power it becomes more attractive."
French wind farm developer Neoen bought the first Siemens SYLIZER – a device for separating water into hydrogen and oxygen – sold outside Germany to refuel a small fleet of Hyundai hydrogen vehicles purchased by the ACT government.
The state governments discussing hydrogen storage with Siemens likely include South Australia, where the government will soon announce the winner of a tender to supply 100MW of battery storage to shore up its fragile power grid, which derives two-fifths of its power from variable wind and solar energy and suffered blackouts last summer.
News of hydrogen’s progress comes as the coal lobby badgers governments to invest in a new coal fired power stations – which power companies insist won’t stack up – to help stabilise the grid as more wind and solar energy comes in and speeds the demise of ageing coal generators.
Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott and the coal lobby are agitating for the government to build a new coal-fired power station
Professor Weinhold said batteries could provide one or two hours of storage for wind and solar plants, but "for an extended time (of, say, two or three days) you have no other choice but to burn molecules."
But he said the fact that these molecules could include carbon-free hydrogen in future showed that "it’s a mistake to exclude any technology".
Germany has built some new brown coal fired power stations to fill the gap left by the closure of its nuclear fleet – a move decided after Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster – but wind and solar power now supply more than 30 per cent of the nation’s electricity and will continue to grow.
Professor Weinhold said he didn’t know if Germany would build any new coal fired power stations because the role of brown coal – which has the highest carbon emissions of any fuel – is hotly debated.
There’s also a growing number of alternative ways to match supply to demand in the grid – including burning gas and hydrogen in turbines, better forecasting of weather and wind and solar output, curtailing household and business demand during peaks and drawing on solar panels and batteries using "demand response", and using DC transmission – which is much more efficient than AC transmission.