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Tina Casey headshot

3 Signs the Hydrogen Economy is For Real

By Tina Casey

The dream of a zero-emission hydrogen economy amounted to little more than pixie dust just a few years ago. But that was then and this is now.

In the first part of February alone, three big stories about hydrogen fuel cells in the U.S., Japan and Germany demonstrate that the hydrogen economy is already beginning to deliver on its promise of abundant, zero-emission fuel.

One important caveat still applies: Hydrogen sourced through renewable energy is a key element in a sustainable hydrogen economy, but that only applies to a relatively small number of projects as of now. Mainstream saturation is still years away, so for now natural gas and other fossils are the primary source of hydrogen.

What is the hydrogen economy?

The hydrogen economy refers to the use of cheap, abundant hydrogen to fuel sustainable growth.

The problem is that hydrogen does not occur naturally in a usable state. It has to be produced from other compounds, and that takes energy.

When the term was first coined in the 1970s, the supposition was that abundant nuclear energy would be the driver.

The nuclear energy idea fell out of favor as the true costs (and risks) of the technology became apparent, and it looked as if that was the end of the dream.

As recently as 10 years ago, the consensus among experts was that hydrogen production would require too much energy to make an effective alternative to fossil fuels.

In 2006, Phys.org cited one representative study:

"A hydrogen economy is a wasteful economy. The large amount of energy required to isolate hydrogen from natural compounds (water, natural gas, biomass), package the light gas by compression or liquefaction, transfer the energy carrier to the user, plus the energy lost when it is converted to useful electricity with fuel cells, leaves around 25 percent for practical use — an unacceptable value to run an economy in a sustainable future."

But the equation has changed with the advent of high-efficiency wind turbines and solar cells, which produce zero-emission electricity that can be used to split water and create hydrogen. Tidal energy is also coming into play.

That has not changed all hearts and minds, notably that of Tesla CEO and co-founder Elon Musk. However, the market has spoken: Demand for hydrogen fuel cells is growing, as the following three examples illustrate.

1. The hydrogen fuel cell hotel

On Feb. 8, the hospitality company Radisson Blu teamed with energy company E.ON to announce the launch of a new fuel cell system at the iconic Frankfurt Radisson Blu.

The two companies cited the advantage over conventional building energy systems:

"They generate electricity and heat in a non-combustion process which is virtually absent of pollutants such as nitrous oxide or fine dust particles," the companies said in a press release.

"The use of fuel cell technology allows the Radisson Blu hotel to generate a large share of the energy needed to run the hotel free of emissions."

The Frankfurt Radisson Blu is a stylish monument to modern architecture and design, located in the architectural heart of Germany, making the new project significant -- and highly visible.

The use of a fuel cell in this building sends a clear message that fuel cells are the wave of the future.

The project also signals that hydrogen fuel cell technology is mature and capable of providing a significant amount of power for major structures.

The Radisson Blu has 400 rooms and suites along with other facilities, and the expectations are high:

"Starting in late summer 2017, the fuel cells will supply about 3 gigawatt hours (GWh) of electricity and 2 GWh of heat to the hotel. The highly-efficient technology also allows the Radisson Blu to reduce CO2 emissions by about 600 tons a year. This amount is equal to the CO2 emissions from 50,000 cars driving 100 kilometers."

2. Japan doubles down on hydrogen

On Feb. 9, Bloomberg News published an update on the hydrogen and fuel cell initiatives of Toyota, Panasonic, Toshiba, and JX Nippon Oil and Energy. The Japanese firms are working on various elements of this ambitious initiative:
"The Japanese government is targeting 1.4 million installations of 'ene-farm' residential fuel-cells by 2020 and 5.3 million by 2030," Chisaki Watanabe of Bloomberg reported.

The near-term goal coincides with the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, during which Japan aims to showcase its technology:
"The capital has announced plans to spend 45.2 billion yen ($400 million) on fuel-cell vehicle subsidies and hydrogen stations by the time of the games. Toyota envisions more than 100 fuel-cell buses crisscrossing the nation’s capital by then."

As for the long term, Bloomberg notes that Japan is waiting on the results of a hydrogen supply chain study before it looks past 2020. This is the here and now:
"Hydrogen isn’t expected to play a dominant role as a source of energy in Japan any time soon," Watanabe concluded. "The nation’s 2030 power mix, an outlook published by the trade ministry in 2015, makes no mention of hydrogen."

That reluctance may be partly due to an assumption that the country would need to rely on imported natural gas as a primary source for hydrogen.

But that assumption may eventually fall by the wayside. Toshiba, for example, recently launched a solar-powered hydrogen fuel station, and Toyota unveiled a soup-to-nuts wind powered hydrogen economy demonstration project in 2015.

3. More hydrogen for the U.S.

Over here in the U.S., interest in hydrogen is burgeoning. One particularly interesting mashup pairs the legacy transportation company Ryder with startup truck manufacturer Nikola for fuel cell trucks and a network of solar-powered fueling stations.

The Energy Department also ramped up its funding for fuel cell projects last year, including funding for water-splitting powered by renewable energy. On Jan. 19, the agency awarded an innovation prize aimed at stimulating the development of a fueling station network, though funding for any and all of the agency's clean-energy initiatives is uncertain these days.

In the latest development, on Feb. 20 the U.K. company Intelligent Energy paired with the American cylinder compressed gas transportation company Luxfer-GTM Technologies on a line of fuel cell products to replace diesel generators.

Intelligent Energy's fuel cell technology will be integrated with the company's 'Zero-Set' line of transportable fuel cell generators, with an initial focus on Luxfer-GTM's light towers.

The U.S. military, for one, is transferring over to fuel cell technology because it is quiet and odorless, providing benefits for the health and well-being of personnel as well as an important tactical advantage.

Luxfer-GTM details the advantages of fuel cell technology over diesel engines from a power management perspective:

"Fuel cells provide 60 percent operating efficiencies over traditional gas/diesel generators, which are 20 to 25 percent efficient, all while providing unparalleled reliability since there are almost no moving parts.

"Depending upon duty cycle and cylinder configuration, the ZeroSet-Gen 3 can provide continuous, 24/7 power for 18 days or longer. Additionally, fuel cells provide stable power curves for specific applications where clean power wave energy is critical."

In announcing the new venture, Intelligent Energy Senior VP Julian Hughes took the opportunity to pitch his two cents into the hydrogen economy debate:
“I see this as showing our great commitment to the U.S. market, one of the world’s leading hydrogen economies."

Waiting to hear back from Mr. Musk in 5...4...3...2...

Image (screenshot): via Intelligent Energy.

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey