Germany is investigating the potential of converting wind power to hydrogen as an energy source in the wake of the country’s decision to move away from nuclear power after the Fukashima disaster a year ago.
The European Union has put in place a number of strategies aimed at cutting carbon dioxide emissions and shifting to sustainable fuels such as hydrogen. Berlin has offered €200 million between 2011 and 2014 for research into energy storage, generating strong competition for funds. Last year Enertrag AG began operating one of Germany’s first hybrid plants to generate wind power and convert it into hydrogen with the help of its partners Vattenfall, Total and Deutsche Bahn. Their investment has been spurred by EU targets for member states to source 35% of their electricity mixes to renewables by 2020 and 80% by 2050.
Enertrag plans to build 10MW of hydrogen conversion capacity from 2015 onwards. The three turbines at the Enertrag plant generate up to 6MW of power. That energy is then passed through water and split into oxygen and hydrogen via an electrolyser, which is housed in a supersized garage and stored in five tanks. The technology effectively turns wind into a 24 hour power supply. The hydrogen can be mixed with biogas made from local corn waste and fed into cogeneration plants, which produce electricity and heat. It can also be fed back into grid at times when little or no wind is available and the heat can be siphoned into district heating networks. During periods of low wind, the biogas plant can run on biomass alone.
Although hydrogen could help save money in the long term, doubts remain over profitability and incentives will be necessary to help the technology reach market maturity. Enertrag is pushing for feed in tariffs, or state subsidies for hydrogen. Germany has already used this strategy to turn itself into a world leader in wind and solar power. Other alternatives could be tax waivers or the passing on of additional costs down to consumers via network transmission fees.
Even without subsidies, long term oil market risks have led oil companies such as Total to look to hydrogen as a hedge, and the company is already operating a few hydrogen pumps at filling stations around Berlin. Daimler and Toyota are among the car firms planning high volume production of hydrogen run cars by the middle of this decade while the railway operator Deutsche Bahn is also investigating the technology. This summer Enertrag will begin to feed hydrogen gas into the natural gas grid and Greenpeace Energy, a subsidiary of the environmental group, is already buying some of this “wind gas” to sell to households.