Among the reasons why zero emission fuel cell electric vehicles get the stinkeye from CleanTechnica, the natural gas issue is probably the one we can all agree on. As with other EVs, the “zero emission” thing refers to the tailpipe. As long as fuel cells are powered by hydrogen, and as long as almost all hydrogen comes from natural gas, then fuel cell EVs are far from a clean solution to personal mobility.
However, a brand new demonstration hydrogen project is about to stand the whole hydrogen source issue on its head.
How Natural Gas Can Benefit Fuel Cell EVs, Without The Baggage
For those of you new to the issue, natural gas has the edge over coal as a “clean” fuel because there are lower emissions at the burn point. However, there are a host of other problems up and down the supply chain.
The problem with natural gas is partly due to the drilling method known as fracking, short for hydrofracturing. Fracking has been linked to water contamination and earthquakes, as well as numerous problems with wastewater disposal.
Here in the US, fracking was once confined to thinly populated areas, but the relatively recent discovery of shale formations in more heavily populated areas has touched off new waves of local opposition.
Fracking or not, natural gas is also coming under increased scrutiny for the amount of fugitive methane emissions from drilling sites, transmission lines, and storage facilities.
That’s a whole lot of baggage for fuel cell EVs to carry around.
To be fair, if you charge up your EV battery from a grid mix that includes coal and natural gas, you’re also carrying a lot of greenhouse gas freight.
On the other hand, EV owners can escape the greenhouse trap by charging up with electricity generated by renewable energy — and in the sparkling green future, a similar option could be available to fuel cell EV owners.
The SoCalGas Power-To-Gas Renewable Hydrogen System
That brings us to this renewable hydrogen demonstration project, just announced today by Southern California Gas Company. A division of the energy company Sempra, SoCalGas has teamed up with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and the National Fuel Cell Research Center at the University of California–Irvine for the project.
The idea is to split hydrogen gas from water, using solar-generated or wind-generated electricity to power the process.
We’ve covered a number of small-scale interpretations of the renewable hydrogen concept, but the new demonstration project is the first we’ve seen to launch the technology into showtime, at least in the US (you can check out Germany for another large-scale renewable hydrogen project).
Standing The Natural Gas Baggage On Its Head
Renewable hydrogen levels the playing field between fuel cell EVs and battery EVs, at least in regard to low- or zero-emission sourcing.
In terms of energy storage, all else being equal according to Sempra, fuel cells have the advantage in scale, capacity, and duration. Those advantages most obviously apply to large-scale, stationary energy storage, but according to our trickle-down theory of energy storage technology, there could also be some application to fuel cell EVs.
Fuel cells could also have another advantage in the US and other developed countries: the existence of an existing gas transmission and storage structure. Here’s the money quote from Sempra, regarding the commercialization of renewable hydrogen:
Such a commercial system could enable natural gas utilities across North America to use their existing pipeline infrastructure as essentially a large, cost-effective “battery” to store and deliver clean, renewable energy on demand.
That’s exactly what the new demonstration will set out to explore: the “feasibility and potential benefits of using the natural gas pipeline system to store photovoltaic and wind-produced energy.”
That’s the real head-standing angle — ditching the greenhouse gas liability of natural gas, and while retaining the advantages of an extensive natural gas infrastructure.
Sempra’s SoCalGas is the biggest natural gas utility in the US (21.4 million consumers through 5.9 million meters, that’s how big), so its interest in the technology is obvious. As things stand now, in some regions, the renewable generating capacity is outrunning demand, and SoCalGas may be looking at a future in which more customers choose distributed wind and solar over gas. Rather than holding the bag in terms of stranded assets, renewable hydrogen could enable the utility to squeeze more use out of its existing infrastructure, while providing a form of long-term storage for renewable energy.
SoCalGas expects results from the demo project to be in hand before the end of this year, so stay tuned.
Renewable Hydrogen For Fuel Cell EVs
The Energy Department is actually looking at a whole host of renewable technologies for generating hydrogen, as illustrated by this handy chart:
For more information on electrolysis, pay a visit to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and tell them CleanTechnica sent you.
Image Credits: (top, screenshot) Toyota Mirai fuel cell EV courtesy of Toyota; (bottom) courtesy of NREL.