Among the technological visions that seem perpetually futuristic (think commercial nuclear fusion and maglev trains), the hydrogen economy has always been tantalizing. Hydrogen produced from renewable energy or nuclear power, with minimal greenhouse-gas emissions, could be piped or transported pretty much anywhere, using mostly existing infrastructure. It could power trucks, cars, planes, and ships and generate electricity, either in fuel cells or combustion turbines. In short, it could do anything fossil fuels do now, but with substantially reduced climate impact.

Now, after decades of false starts and overly optimistic projections, several factors are giving an unprecedented lift to clean hydrogen. In the United States, sweeping legislation capped a series of moves by the country’s Department of Energy (DOE) over the past year to drive down the cost of low-carbon hydrogen and stimulate demand for the fuel. And in Europe, a looming fossil-fuel crisis has sent officials scrambling to find alternatives to the 155 billion cubic meters of Russian natural gas that EU countries imported in 2021.

“You’re rapidly getting the cost of hydrogen down to where it is very competitive—and in many cases cheaper—than the fossil alternative. So that’s why the community is so excited.”
—Keith Wipke, NREL

“I’ve been working in hydrogen for 20 years, and this is absolutely the most exciting time, the busiest time,” says Keith Wipke, manager of the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Technologies Program at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colo. “There’s just so much activity.”

The U.S. legislation, known as the Inflation Reduction Act, was signed into law by President Joe Biden on 16 August, after being passed in Congress along party lines earlier in the month. It prescribes new spending of US $437 billion over 10 years, of which some $370 billion is directed toward a sprawling range of renewable-energy, electric-vehicle, and other greenhouse-gas reduction measures. But it was the low-carbon-hydrogen provisions that raised eyebrows, for a couple of reasons. One is that they are more generous than many analysts were expecting. The other is that the hydrogen provisions are technology-neutral, meaning that there is no distinction between hydrogen produced by electrolysis with electricity from, for example, a wind farm or a nuclear power plant.

The bill provides tax credits to producers of low-carbon hydrogen at a rate that depends on how much carbon is emitted during production, among other factors. At the lowest emission rate—0.45 kilograms of carbon dioxide emitted per kilogram of hydrogen produced—producers are eligible for a credit of up to $3 per kilogram of hydrogen, making the cost cheaper, in some instances, than that of ordinary “gray” hydrogen, which is derived from natural gas through a process called steam reforming. Production of gray hydrogen creates from 8 to 12 kilograms of CO2 per kilogram of hydrogen produced. Costs of gray hydrogen vary but are roughly $2/kg in the United States.

Nearly all of the hydrogen made in the United States, some 10 million tonnes last year, is produced this way. China, the world’s largest producer of hydrogen at upwards of 25 million tonnes a year, derives 62 percent of its total from coal, which creates 18 to 20 kg of CO2 per kilogram of hydrogen. In both the United States and China, production of “green” hydrogen, created by electrolysis using a renewable energy source, makes up less than 1 percent of total output.

A workman stands outside, dwarfed by electrical substation technology.A massive substation at the coal-fired Intermountain Power Plant in Utah links the facility to transmission lines that deliver power to Southern California. A $2.65 billion project, just getting underway, will install facilities there to generate electricity from cleanly produced hydrogen.Rick Bowmer/AP

The DOE has established goals of getting the cost of low-carbon hydrogen, without incentives, down to $2/kg by 2026, and to $1/kg by 2031. Says Wipke, referring to the top $3/kg credit in the Inflation Reduction Act, “if today’s hydrogen is about $5 a kilogram through electrolysis, clean electrolysis, and you’re able to take $3 off of that, and go from $5 down to $2, well, essentially, you have met, with the incentives, our 2026 goal of $2 a kilogram. Now, technically, you’ve done it through incentives, but the impact is the same. You’re rapidly getting the cost of hydrogen down to where it is very competitive—and in many cases cheaper—than the fossil alternative. So that’s why the community is so excited.”

As compelling as the production credit may prove to be, the provisions are just the most recent of a series of government moves aimed at bolstering clean hydrogen. A year ago, for example, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) pledged $8 billion to establish up to eight regional “hydrogen hubs” in the country. These would be facilities where low-carbon hydrogen would be produced, stored, used, and transported elsewhere.

“In the medium- and long-term we see more momentum for hydrogen use. It will come faster because conventional energy such as oil and gas will become scarcer and more expensive.”
—Bernd Heid, McKinsey & Co.

“I think the combination, the one-two punch of the IIJA hydrogen hubs and the IRA's production tax credit, can help build the full value chain,” says Alex Kizer, senior vice president of research and analysis at the Energy Futures Initiative. “And I wouldn't underestimate the other hydrogen-adjacent funding opportunities in the IRA, because hydrogen is going to need manufacturing, it's going to need fueling, it's going to need distribution…. There’s opportunity up and down the hydrogen value chain. That, in addition to the PTC [production tax credit], is what has me most excited.”

In mid-August there were already some 22 prospective hubs being touted around the country, though a formal announcement of a “funding opportunity” from the DOE wasn’t expected until September or October. Around that time, site preparation is expected to begin on a $2.65 billion project in Delta, Utah, where a consortium of companies led by Mitsubishi Power Americas and Magnum Development will install turbines capable of generating 840 megawatts by burning a mix of hydrogen and natural gas. Backed by a half billion dollars in loan guarantees from the DOE, the Intermountain Power Project, as it’s known, will also have solar-photovoltaic generators and a 220-megawatt electrolysis system to produce hydrogen on site, along with facilities to store up to 300 gigawatt-hours of the gas in underground salt domes.

In Europe, too, a hydrogen-hub plan was hurriedly approved by the European Commission in late July. It sets aside €5.4 billion to fund 41 projects to develop technologies ranging from basic R&D to industrial deployment. A small hub near Hamburg, Germany, is already under construction, and a larger hub is being built at the Port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands. “Rotterdam is basically showing the world how to become a hydrogen port,” says Robert Hebner, an IEEE Fellow and director of the Center for Electromechanics at the University of Texas at Austin, where he helps coordinate R&D on hydrogen. “They have signed agreements with companies to operate hydrogen terminals there,” he notes. “They’re working out agreements with Portugal, [under which] Portugal will make hydrogen from wind power and transport it into the Port of Rotterdam. They’ve announced that they’ll use hydrogen-powered trucks to distribute this through Central Europe. They’re thinking holistically about how to get hydrogen to the port and then how to get it redistributed to where it’s needed.”

But any notion that clean-hydrogen production could be ramped up quickly enough to help mitigate the looming loss of Russian natural gas on the continent is quickly dispelled by analysts. According to Bernd Heid, a senior partner in the Cologne office of McKinsey & Co., “hydrogen is not helping Europe in the current energy crisis.” Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in May, he added, “but in the medium- and long-term we see more momentum for hydrogen use. It will come faster because conventional energy such as oil and gas will become scarcer and more expensive.”

So are we finally witnessing the beginnings of an actual hydrogen economy? “I think, yes, it’s going to happen,” says Hebner. “The Hydrogen Council has over 100 multinational corporations investing billions of dollars a year into making the hydrogen economy real, and they’re making those investments where governments will help them, but this is not government-led. This is industry-led. It’s industries that see a way that they can make money. When I saw that, I said, this one may be real.”

The Conversation (4)
FB TS17 Aug, 2022

Using hydrogen as fuel for land/sea/air vehicles, or for storing energy, or for heating homes, is extremely bad idea, since it is highly explosive! Seriously thinking there will be never any leak/ruptures/mishandling to trigger massive explosions?

Not to mention there is no need to use hydrogen for anything!

All light vehicles are already becoming electric & all heavy/big land/sea/air (diesel) vehicles

(like trucks & trains & construction/mining/agriculture/military vehicles & ships & aircraft)

just need us to start producing biodiesel at large scales from all possible industrial/agricultural/forestry waste/biomass & even trash & sewage!

For storing energy, there are already grid-size battery solutions!

For heating homes, just produce electricity from solar & wind & nuclear!

(But also upgrade electric grids of all cities/towns, so that they can handle the full load,

even if everybody uses electricity (at the same time) for heating & cooking & charging electric vehicles!)

2 Replies
Anthony Izzo14 Sep, 2022

“if today’s hydrogen is about $5 a kilogram through electrolysis, clean electrolysis, and you’re able to take $3 off of that, and go from $5 down to $2, well, essentially, you have met, with the incentives, our 2026 goal of $2 a kilogram. Now, technically, you’ve done it through incentives, but the impact is the same. You’re rapidly getting the cost of hydrogen down to where it is very competitive—and in many cases cheaper—than the fossil alternative. So that’s why the community is so excited.”

This is a level of imprecision that is common (if not acceptable) among legislators and partisans in general, but it is in no way acceptable in a publication for engineers.

Incentives like the tax credit can impact the effective price of something, but not the cost. In this example, the impact of the $3 incentive is to change the effective price to $2. But the cost remains $5. The only difference is that the buyer is not paying the $5 cost, they are paying the $2 price, and the government is paying the difference (indeed they are using they buyer's tax money to do so!). But the full $5 cost is being paid.

This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

The number of charging stations in Utrecht has risen sharply over the past decade.

“People are buying more and more electric cars,” says Eerenberg, the alderman. City officials noticed a surge in such purchases in recent years, only to hear complaints from Utrechters that they then had to go through a long application process to have a charger installed where they could use it. Eerenberg, a computer scientist by training, is still working to unwind these knots. He realizes that the city has to go faster if it is to meet the Dutch government’s mandate for all new cars to be zero-emission in eight years.

The amount of energy being used to charge EVs in Utrecht has skyrocketed in recent years.

Although similar mandates to put more zero-emission vehicles on the road in New York and California failed in the past, the pressure for vehicle electrification is higher now. And Utrecht city officials want to get ahead of demand for greener transportation solutions. This is a city that just built a central underground parking garage for 12,500 bicycles and spent years digging up a freeway that ran through the center of town, replacing it with a canal in the name of clean air and healthy urban living.

A driving force in shaping these changes is Matthijs Kok, the city’s energy-transition manager. He took me on a tour—by bicycle, naturally—of Utrecht’s new green infrastructure, pointing to some recent additions, like a stationary battery designed to store solar energy from the many panels slated for installation at a local public housing development.

This map of Utrecht shows the city’s EV-charging infrastructure. Orange dots are the locations of existing charging stations; red dots denote charging stations under development. Green dots are possible sites for future charging stations.

“This is why we all do it,” Kok says, stepping away from his propped-up bike and pointing to a brick shed that houses a 400-kilowatt transformer. These transformers are the final link in the chain that runs from the power-generating plant to high-tension wires to medium-voltage substations to low-voltage transformers to people’s kitchens.

There are thousands of these transformers in a typical city. But if too many electric cars in one area need charging, transformers like this can easily become overloaded. Bidirectional charging promises to ease such problems.

Kok works with others in city government to compile data and create maps, dividing the city into neighborhoods. Each one is annotated with data on population, types of households, vehicles, and other data. Together with a contracted data-science group, and with input from ordinary citizens, they developed a policy-driven algorithm to help pick the best locations for new charging stations. The city also included incentives for deploying bidirectional chargers in its 10-year contracts with vehicle charge-station operators. So, in these chargers went.

Experts expect bidirectional charging to work particularly well for vehicles that are part of a fleet whose movements are predictable. In such cases, an operator can readily program when to charge and discharge a car’s battery.

We Drive Solar earns credit by sending battery power from its fleet to the local grid during times of peak demand and charges the cars’ batteries back up during off-peak hours. If it does that well, drivers don’t lose any range they might need when they pick up their cars. And these daily energy trades help to keep prices down for subscribers.

Encouraging car-sharing schemes like We Drive Solar appeals to Utrecht officials because of the struggle with parking—a chronic ailment common to most growing cities. A huge construction site near the Utrecht city center will soon add 10,000 new apartments. Additional housing is welcome, but 10,000 additional cars would not be. Planners want the ratio to be more like one car for every 10 households—and the amount of dedicated public parking in the new neighborhoods will reflect that goal.

This photograph shows four parked vehicles, each with the words \u201cWe Drive Solar\u201d prominently displayed, and each plugged into a charge point.Some of the cars available from We Drive Solar, including these Hyundai Ioniq 5s, are capable of bidirectional charging.We Drive Solar

Projections for the large-scale electrification of transportation in Europe are daunting. According to a Eurelectric/Deloitte report, there could be 50 million to 70 million electric vehicles in Europe by 2030, requiring several million new charging points, bidirectional or otherwise. Power-distribution grids will need hundreds of billions of euros in investment to support these new stations.

The morning before Eerenberg sat down with me at city hall to explain Utrecht’s charge-station planning algorithm, war broke out in Ukraine. Energy prices now strain many households to the breaking point. Gasoline has reached $6 a gallon (if not more) in some places in the United States. In Germany in mid-June, the driver of a modest VW Golf had to pay about €100 (more than $100) to fill the tank. In the U.K., utility bills shot up on average by more than 50 percent on the first of April.

The war upended energy policies across the European continent and around the world, focusing people’s attention on energy independence and security, and reinforcing policies already in motion, such as the creation of emission-free zones in city centers and the replacement of conventional cars with electric ones. How best to bring about the needed changes is often unclear, but modeling can help.

Nico Brinkel, who is working on his doctorate in Wilfried van Sark’s photovoltaics-integration lab at Utrecht University, focuses his models at the local level. In his calculations, he figures that, in and around Utrecht, low-voltage grid reinforcements cost about €17,000 per transformer and about €100,000 per kilometer of replacement cable. “If we are moving to a fully electrical system, if we’re adding a lot of wind energy, a lot of solar, a lot of heat pumps, a lot of electric vehicles…,” his voice trails off. “Our grid was not designed for this.”

But the electrical infrastructure will have to keep up. One of Brinkel’s studies suggests that if a good fraction of the EV chargers are bidirectional, such costs could be spread out in a more manageable way. “Ideally, I think it would be best if all of the new chargers were bidirectional,” he says. “The extra costs are not that high.”

Berg doesn’t need convincing. He has been thinking about what bidirectional charging offers the whole of the Netherlands. He figures that 1.5 million EVs with bidirectional capabilities—in a country of 8 million cars—would balance the national grid. “You could do anything with renewable energy then,” he says.

Seeing that his country is starting with just hundreds of cars capable of bidirectional charging, 1.5 million is a big number. But one day, the Dutch might actually get there.

This article appears in the August 2022 print issue as “A Road Test for Vehicle-to-Grid Tech.”

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