Can hydrogen fuel Ireland’s green future?Leigh Mc Gowranon April 22, 2022 at 10:45 Silicon RepublicSilicon Republic

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Using hydrogen as a form of clean fuel has been discussed for years, with supporters describing it as the fuel of the future. But has hydrogen technology reached the point where it’s a feasible option as a green fuel source?

In 2020 the European Commission launched a new strategy to aid the efforts of Europe’s industry to rapidly decarbonise. One of the noticeable inclusions was the formation of a ‘clean hydrogen alliance’, to improve the development of the industry.

There are many ways to produce hydrogen fuel. One way it can produced is through a process called electrolysis, which uses electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. When renewable electricity is used for this method, it does not produce any CO2 and is known as green hydrogen.

Bart Biebuyck is the director of the Clean Hydrogen Partnership, set up last December to support research, technological development and demonstration activities in hydrogen energy in Europe. The public private partnership is a successor to the Fuel Cells and Hydrogen joint undertaking.

Biebuyck told SiliconRepublic.com that hydrogen fuel cells have seen rapid technology improvements over the last decade.

“We went from 100kW to 100mW in just 10 years time,” Biebuyck said. “This is the achievement and now, we can go to mass production and really try to decarbonise our gas system now by using hydrogen. So there’s huge potential now.

“We needed to go through this research, 10 years of research and demonstration projects, but now it’s starting to become commercial,” he added.

Biebuyck said industry leaders in Europe are taking notice of hydrogen as a potential clean fuel source, particularly in transport. In 2020, Airbus said it’s developing three zero-emission aircraft models that could take to the skies by 2035 using hydrogen fuel.

Despite the advances in technology, hydrogen still has a long way to go until it can be classified as a clean fuel. The EU currently uses around 10m tonnes of hydrogen annually. However, Biebuyck said around 96pc of this is produced through fossil fuels such as coal or gas, as it remains the cheaper option.

Hydrogen in Ireland

In order to increase the development of clean hydrogen in Europe, Biebuyck said the industry needs access to more cheap, renewable energy to make green hydrogen cheaper.

He added that Ireland is in a unique position to become an exporter of renewable energy to the EU, through the development of offshore wind farming.

“You have the luck or the benefit of having access to a lot of wind, so you can build a lot of offshore wind parks. Recently the price of offshore wind parks is really going down fast. So you can start to produce very cheap, renewable electricity,” Biebuyck said.

While Ireland is a late-comer to the hydrogen table in Europe, Biebuyck said he noticed a growing momentum in the country, with hydrogen being looked at more seriously by academics and some industry members.

Biebuyck visited Ireland in February to attend a partner meeting of the GenComm European renewable hydrogen project. GenComm, led by Belfast Met, is focused on showing the feasibility of hydrogen technology and helping communities develop roadmaps to hydrogen-based energy models.

GenComm programme manager Paul McCormack said Ireland is at the “epicentre of the hydrogen revolution” with a number of national and international projects working in this area.

“Ireland is playing a central role in transforming Europe’s energy structures and in building a hydrogen economy that will deliver sustainable environmental, economic, academic and social benefits,” McCormack said.

Biebuyck said Ireland had the potential to become a “hydrogen valley” within the EU. These are projects that merge industry and research initiatives to carry out pilot projects across the complete hydrogen value chain, from production to end use.

Last year, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said it was part of a coalition of countries pledging to create 100 hydrogen valleys around the world.

Biebuyck said the first priority for Ireland should be to create a hydrogen strategy, after which time the country can focus on the potential of creating a hydrogen valley or exporting energy to the EU.

Earlier this year, The representative group for the Irish wind energy industry called on the Government to create a hydrogen strategy with a focus on green hydrogen development.

Wind Energy Ireland CEO Noel Cunniffe said this strategy will help the country plan for a long-term replacement of the existing gas generator fleet and “long-duration storage over the next decade”.

“Ireland is one of a handful of EU Member States without a hydrogen strategy,” Cunniffe said. “The Government must accelerate the development of a robust hydrogen strategy so that by the middle of this year we are setting out targets for green hydrogen use across industry, heavy road transport, shipping, aviation and power generation.

“Ireland is ready for green hydrogen, but we need a clear signal from Government that they are committed,” Cunniffe added.

Junior minister at the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications Ossian Smyth, TD, said a public consultation on a green hydrogen strategy will be launched later this year, the Irish Examiner reported in January.

A solution to energy storage?

One of the issues renewable energy has faced is cheap forms of energy storage. Multiple companies have tried to solve this issue in recent years. Storing most forms of energy appears to require large batteries, which can become expensive.

Unlike fossil fuels, many forms renewable energy such as wind and solar are weather dependant, which means excess energy can be lost in high-production periods. A lack of cheap storage means this energy can’t be used during low-production times.

Among the other potential benefits hydrogen can play for the environment, Biebuyck said it can also help the energy storage issue.

“We have this imbalance between Winter and Summer. In Summer you have a lot of sun, so you can produce a lot of renewable electricity. But we don’t use a lot of electricity in summer, the majority we need in the winter.

“So that’s where you need to store and basically balance the grid, we call it storage but balancing the grid is something where hydrogen will play a very important role in the future,” Biebuyck added.

Once hydrogen is created through electrolysis it can be stored in fuel cells. These cells can be used in applications such as power generation, vehicle fuel or injected into natural gas pipelines to reduce their carbon intensity.

Hydrogen can also be stored as a compressed gas or cryogenic liquid for later use, which could be useful to help maintain electrical grid stability during periods of low wind or solar energy.

While hydrogen is currently produced largely from fossil fuels, it has the potential to become a clean fuel source as other forms of renewable energy develop. With many organisations and research groups focused on its development, the technology is likely to improve further in the years ahead.

“Europe is leading in electrolyser technology worldwide. The US, China, Japan, they’re all looking to Europe to buy electrolyser because we have very high technology for that, which is very efficient as well,” Biebuyck said.

“This is recognised, so we should support that further and make sure that our European companies can also scale up and get the orders that they need.”

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