Hydrogen could help with power storage systems

Power storage dominated a panel discussion on the electric grid during a Houston energy conference Tuesday, with hydrogen getting special attention.

The ability to harness excess electricity produced from renewable sources has hampered widespread adoption of wind, solar and other green power resources because of their inconsistency.

That has resulted in a scramble to find ways to effectively and cheaply capture excess electrons when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining so that it can be used later.

While storage systems involving water, compressed air or lithium ion batteries have gotten the bulk of attention among the nascent energy storage industry, systems that use excess power to generate hydrogen gas could provide a flexible and highly effective solution, said Daryl Wilson, CEO of Hydrogenics, while speaking at the Total Energy USA Conference at George R. Brown Convention Center.

Wilson’s company is developing four systems in Germany that will use surplus energy to produce hydrogen gas that can be stored and later burned for electricity. The hydrogen can also be transported as gas for other power uses, or used in cars as a fuel, among other uses that add greater value to the project than a simple battery storage solution would, Wilson said.

The power-to-gas plants cost about the same amount of money as a natural gas power plant of equivalent capacity, about $1 million per megawatt of processing capacity, and would have the ability to produce and store almost boundless amounts of energy, Wilson said.

But that cost may seem too pricey to many companies and communities that might prefer simply building an additional natural gas plant to add electricity to the grid instead of investing in storage.

And cost is exactly what has slowed down development of storage options like the one Hydrogenics is implementing, said Haresh Kamath, a program manager working on energy storage for the Electric Power Research Institute.

“If you look at the biggest competitor today to energy storage, it’s probably low-priced natural gas,” Kamath said.

While battery solutions and other options have been discussed to help support renewable power generation, the preference in the electric power industry has been to fire up a natural gas turbine when the wind or sun isn’t as productive as it could be, he said.

“What we want to see is we want to see reduction in the cost and that’s starting to happen,” Kamath said.