electric utility roles in transitioning to the hydrogen-electric economy

by Dr. Robert B. Schainker, EPRI

In recent years considerable hype has been given to the “hydrogen economy,” whereby hydrogen is viewed as a panacea for correcting global problems related to carbon-based fuels. Less attention has been paid to the concept of a “hydrogen-electric economy,” which refers to the engineering vision of hydrogen being generated from low-cost, off-peak electricity, and stored and delivered as feedstock to fuel processes for transportation, electric generation, and commercial and industrial enterprises.

Such a concept would obviously lead to profound changes in the existing energy infrastructure and would offer a host of potential business opportunities for electric utilities.

To date, however, the electric side of the hydrogen-electric economy has not been adequately analyzed. A variety of research and development (R&D) initiatives are needed, including proof-of-concept studies of specialized fossil and nuclear processes, materials research, studies to improve compression and electrolysis processes, and research to determine the best hydrogen carrier.

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A new EPRI program is exploring technology developments and planning in support of the long-term vision of a hydrogen-electric economy. The program focuses on the roles and business opportunities for electric utilities, and includes a stakeholder interest group, two R&D projects, and a proposal for a government/utility collaborative partnership.

hydrogen-electric economy

In the hydrogen-electric economy, hydrogen would be produced by customized thermo-chemical or electrolysis processes; delivered by piping systems integrated with storage systems; and used in a variety of applications, including fuel cell vehicles and power generators.

Companies and governments worldwide are already investing in select niche applications. For example, Chevron-Texaco, British Petroleum, and Shell are investing in hydrogen infrastructure and technology development, and the U.S. DOE has a $500 million FreedomCAR (Cooperative Automotive Research) program to build fuel cell vehicles.

A worldwide hydrogen production infrastructure exists today, but it is very small. And, virtually all the materials used for today’s hydrogen production come from fossil fuels. The world’s current total hydrogen production is approximately 45 million tons per year.

opportunities for electric utilities

A hydrogen-electric infrastructure is likely to develop on a regional level, since hydrogen can be made from a variety of feedstocks. Development and operation of this infrastructure will offer a number of strategic business opportunities for electric utilities in production, transport/delivery, storage, and applications. Because the infrastructure will resemble the electricity grid, utilities already have significant relevant experience and capabilities (see figure).

Large, centralized hydrogen generation plants will be placed at network nodes/hubs to serve broad regions and store/deliver hydrogen. As a result, the primary opportunity for electric utilities would be central-station generation of hydrogen via fossil, nuclear or renewable plants. In addition, smaller, distributed hydrogen plants would be placed at distribution feeders/hubs to serve peak and intermediate duty electric demands from load centers and individual customers.

In the distribution sector, utility opportunities might include delivery of hydrogen via existing gas distribution infrastructure, or development and operation of a hydrogen “super grid” transmission pipeline. Opportunities for utilities in the area of hydrogen applications would involve engineering services for hydrogen and fuel cell technologies.

R&D needed

While the hydrogen-electric economy holds great promise, significant challenges must be overcome if this promise is to be realized, even at modest levels. A strong public-private partnership will be necessary to support a broad range of technology development efforts.

Development of the infrastructure will begin with pilot projects and expand to local, regional, and ultimately national and international applications. A key first R&D step would be to develop a comprehensive value proposition, with cost and benefit analysis of hydrogen-electric options. This effort would require cost estimation and verification of future systems and development of software codes with predictive capabilities.

Improvements in technologies for a hydrogen-electric economy are needed in production, delivery, storage and application. In the area of hydrogen production, fossil steam reformers and partial oxidation processes need to be built and tested at a pilot scale to see if they meet commercial cost, reliability, maintenance and life criteria. High-pressure electrolyzers need to be designed, built and tested up to the 10,000-psia-level. Nuclear processes that produce hydrogen in-situ need to be designed, costed-out and pilot-scale-tested to see if cost projections can be met.

In the area of hydrogen delivery, issues need to be resolved involving pipelines and alternate forms of delivery. Compatibility issues must be evaluated for converting existing gas pipeline to hydrogen pipeline. Concerns must be addressed regarding the weakening of carbon steel pipes in a process called “hydrogen embrittlement.” Alternate delivery forms-such as transport of hydrogen in safe compounds-are being developed.

In the area of storage, research must focus on the cost, reliability and life of carbon-based nano-storage, steel tanks, cryogenic vessels, composite structures and reversible storage technologies.

For the application of hydrogen, R&D will focus on advancement of hydrogen-fueled combustion turbines, internal-combustion vehicle engines and electrochemical processes in fuel cells.

EPRI program

EPRI is working in a variety of areas to develop the information and tools needed to support development of the hydrogen-electric infrastructure.

An EPRI-sponsored Hydrogen-Electric Economy Program Committee, formed in 2004, provides a forum for industry updates on hydrogen-electric economy technology and infrastructure activities throughout the world. An EPRI workshop in July 2003 brought together representatives from nearly 40 utilities, research institutes, and manufacturers to share knowledge, experience, and lessons learned. A second workshop will occur this month (November 2004).

EPRI’s two R&D projects are aimed at solving key issues. One project focuses on developing a preliminary design and testing plan for a prototype high-pressure (5000 to 10,000 psi) electrolyzer. This electrolyzer would replace current, less cost-effective methods that electrolyze hydrogen at low pressure and then mechanically compress it to high pressure.

A second project initiated the evaluation of the best choices for each of the components in an integrated system for generating and storing hydrogen to be used to generate electricity. Trade-off studies are evaluating the alternative scenarios/technologies that may be available in the future for low-cost production of hydrogen.

EPRI is also exploring the potential for a collaborative partnership with DOE. This unique partnership would bring together electric utilities and selected towns in the U.S. in a decades-long pilot demonstration to transition to the infrastructure necessary for a hydrogen-electric economy. The utilities and towns would work jointly on selected projects to solve specific challenges, including engineering the transition away from CO2 emissions, engineering the T&D system for two-way power flow for hydrogen hybrid vehicles, and developing and deploying high-pressure electrolyzers.

While an enormous amount of research and analysis need to be done in order to fully understand the concept of a hydrogen-electric economy, it is already clear that the concept holds extraordinary potential benefits for energy policy in sustainability, cost reduction, fuel security and the environment. However, over the next few years, embarking on the first important steps toward conceptualization and development of the infrastructure for a hydrogen-electric economy will require a clear long-term vision and the will to finance and support near-term actions.

Dr. Schainker coordinates hydrogen-related work at EPRI and manages some of the hydrogen-related projects with EPRI’s family of companies. He is a technical executive in the EPRI power delivery and markets sector, and works with EPRI’s Technology Roadmap staff to lay out a long-term vision and realistic technical milestones and business opportunities in the evolving hydrogen-electric economy arena. He can be reached at 650-855-2549, rschaink@epri.com.


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