Resiliency at Scale: Using Hydrogen to Solve Clean Energy Storage by Satchel Kostelnik

The largest challenge that we face in shifting towards clean power is resiliency: how do we meet energy demand at all hours of every day, given the somewhat unpredictable variability in natural sources like the sun and wind? The general solution is storage: if excess clean power can be stored in such a way as allows for flexible and immediate release when necessary, then utilities can more efficiently employ clean energy sources while decreasing reliance on traditional fossil fuels. Furthermore, energy storage methods are a crucial part of electric vehicle technology, with different technologies affecting the cost, efficiency, and range of these vehicles. Across these two uses, battery storage has the head-start in funding and familiarity, but hydrogen fuel cells appear to provide a more effective and sustainable solution to the challenges ahead. Given this conclusion, I propose a shift away from the specific focus on batteries proposed by President Biden’s American Jobs Plan so that better technologies may be allowed to rise.

There are several energy storage methods currently being explored. The first is a niche industry and utilizes simple mechanics: turning kinetic into potential energy to be released when necessary.[1] The next method is battery storage. Batteries are by far the most commonly referenced solution to clean energy storage, but the technology faces significant challenges. These include high costs, longevity, and material sourcing. MIT Technology Review found that “not only is lithium-ion technology too expensive for this role, but limited battery life means it’s not well suited to filling gaps during the days, weeks, and even months when wind and solar generation flags.”[2] This means that solar power generated in the summer cannot be efficiently stored via batteries to hold utilities over during the winter season. Consequently, more solar farms must be built to meet winter demand while maintaining a commitment to renewable energy, adding costs and increasing land-use impacts.

Another controversial aspect of large-scale battery storage is the environmental impact of lithium extraction. According to BBC, “hard rock mining – where the mineral is extracted from open pit mines and then roasted using fossil fuels – leaves scars in the landscape, requires a large amount of water and releases [16.5 tons] of CO2 for every [ton] of lithium.”[3] Furthermore, lithium is a finite resource – some studies find that the amount of lithium on the planet will not be able meet the exponential growth required to shift utilities and vehicles over to clean power globally.[4]

A final method of energy storage is hydrogen fuel cells. Hydrogen can be produced through a process called electrolysis, which uses electricity to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen. If renewable energy is used to electrolyze water, hydrogen can be produced with zero emissions. The uses of hydrogen are widespread and can replace many traditional GHG-emitting activities.

As a fuel, hydrogen is preferable to batteries in both light-duty personal and heavy-duty industrial transportation. It is lightweight and thus significantly decreases the payload of any vehicle which would alternatively use a battery. This fact makes hydrogen fuel especially attractive for plane and cargo ship transportation. Furthermore, hydrogen vehicles have a higher range than batteries and refilling is much faster.[5] Finally, a high proportion of battery-powered personal vehicles would require a massive investment in electricity grids to support nighttime charging, whereas hydrogen would essentially replace gas stations.

As an energy storage method, hydrogen is more efficient over longer durations than batteries, which leak power over time. This makes hydrogen a better solution for yearly power balancing, as summertime power production can be stored for lower-supply winter months. The largest challenge to hydrogen storage is volume: because hydrogen is not as dense as other fuels, it requires either pressurization or high-volume storage infrastructure. One interesting option being explored at UC Irvine is the possibility of filling existing natural gas pipelines with hydrogen, allowing for both storage and transportation across large swaths of the country.[6]

Given the widescale benefits and various interrelated uses of hydrogen as a fuel and as a storage method, state and federal governments focused on improving the technology to support a transition to clean energy should primarily act to support further research in the hydrogen fuel industry. President Biden recently announced his American Jobs Plan, which proposes “$174 billion to encourage the manufacture and purchase of electric vehicles by granting tax credits and other incentives to companies that make electric vehicle batteries in the United States instead of China,” and to pay for the construction of 500,000 EV charging stations.[7] While electric cars are a crucial part of the country’s transition to clean energy, such decisive action could skew future development in favor of battery-powered vehicles, though hydrogen looks to be a more sustainable solution in the long run. This clause should be made more flexible to account for and encourage the development of alternate technologies like hydrogen, so as to avoid misguiding the industry at such a crucial junction. For example, some of the allotted money for fueling stations could go towards building hydrogen fuel stations. At scale, hydrogen is projected to be cheaper than gasoline, with payload, range, and convenience advantages over batteries, and the ability to power the entire vehicle network, including both personal and commercial uses.[8]

The American Jobs Plan also calls for $35 billion in research and development programs for new technologies related to clean energy. Much of this could be directed into solving some of the largest challenges to adopting hydrogen fuel. Two especially important areas of focus are hydrogen storage infrastructure – the physical repositories which can safely and efficiently hold and distribute hydrogen – and salt-water electrolysis to meet the challenge of sourcing adequate quantities of water to support electrolysis at scale.[9]

Given the numerous advantages of hydrogen fuel cell technology, the most basic policy action that can be taken is simply recognizing hydrogen as a viable alternative to batteries. If this concept is built into clean energy policies going forward, competition between the two technologies will emphasize the benefits of each while minimizing the various economic and environmental costs.

[1] Energy can be stored by pumping water into elevated reservoirs or by pushing rail cars up a hill. See ARES for more: https://aresnorthamerica.com/

[2] Temple, James. “The $2.5 trillion reason we can’t rely on batteries to clean up the grid.” MIT Technology Review, July 27, 2018. https://www.technologyreview.com/2018/07/27/141282/the-25-trillion-reason-we-cant-rely-on-batteries-to-clean-up-the-grid/

[3] Early, Catherine. “The new ‘gold rush’ for green lithium.” Future Planet, BBC, November 24, 2020. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20201124-how-geothermal-lithium-could-revolutionise-green-energy

[4] Brouwer, Jack. “Why We Need Hydrogen and Fuel Cells for our Renewable Future.” Ohio Fuel Cell Symposium, October 3, 2018. PowerPoint Presentation.

[5] “Hydrogen Storage.” Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, Department of Energy, accessed March 20, 2021. https://www.energy.gov/eere/fuelcells/hydrogen-storage

[6] “UCI Podcast: Solving climate change with clean hydrogen fuel.” UC Irvine News, January 27, 2021. https://news.uci.edu/2021/01/27/uci-podcast-solving-climate-change-with-clean-hydrogen-fuel/

[7] Tankersley, Jim. “Biden Details $2 Trillion Plan to Rebuild Infrastructure and Reshape the Economy.” NYT, March 31, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/31/business/economy/biden-infrastructure-plan.html

[8] “UCI Podcast: Solving climate change with clean hydrogen fuel.” UC Irvine News, January 27, 2021. https://news.uci.edu/2021/01/27/uci-podcast-solving-climate-change-with-clean-hydrogen-fuel/

[9] See “Electrolysis of Sea Water Could Provide a New Boost for Hydrogen as an Energy Source.” FuelCellsWorks, May 22, 2020. https://fuelcellsworks.com/news/electrolysis-of-sea-water-could-provide-a-new-boost-for-hydrogen-as-an-energy-source/

One thought on “Resiliency at Scale: Using Hydrogen to Solve Clean Energy Storage by Satchel Kostelnik

  1. Really interesting post here Satchel. I’m a big fan of Tesla so it’s really interesting to hear about other technologies out there that might be better that lithium battery technology. I really think the most interesting part of this is the potential for large storage facilities that can use hydrogen. I think a lot of influential companies are pushing for more electric vehicle production and it could be difficult to make the pivot to hydrogen after such significant investments in batteries. I am interested to see what sort of other solutions to the volume problem have been proposed. I think the pipeline solution is very interesting , but could see leakage and might be hard to manage. I wonder if liquid hydrogen makes any sense? I would assume you would have to keep the hydrogen at an incredibly low temperature to maintain its liquid state. I wonder if the problem of the energy required to keep the hydrogen liquid is worth the benefits of hydrogen storage and even makes sense yet. This could definitely be an interesting problem for governments and corporations can work to solve. Although I have a tough time seeing electric vehicles, especially consumer vehicles, being replaced by hydrogen in the coming years I am very interested in seeing how large hydrogen energy storage technology develops.

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