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Clean Power Hawaii renewable hydrogen fuel cells

Published on September 3rd, 2015 | by Tina Casey


Renewable Hydrogen Fuel Cells For Hawaii And There’s More Where That Came From

September 3rd, 2015 by  

Talk about burying the lede! Sandia National Laboratories just announced a fuel cell project to bring clean energy to the Port of Honolulu, Hawaii, but you have to read all the way down to the bottom of the press release to get to the juicy bits. Unlike your garden variety fuel cells, which run on hydrogen sourced from natural gas, this fuel cell project runs on renewable hydrogen courtesy of the US Air Force. Thanks, Air Force!

Hawaii renewable hydrogen fuel  cells

The Business Case For Fuel Cells — At Ports

Along with our sister sites Gas2.org and EVObsession.com, CleanTechnica has been hosting some lively discussions about fuel cell electric vehicles (herehere, and here for example), and while there are wide areas of disagreement, there is a general consensus that the present state of the technology is pricey.

However, the business case for fuel cell street vehicles is not the same as the case for fuel cells in other markets. We’ve already noticed that the logistics industry is becoming very interested in fuel cell electric vehicles for warehouse operations among other applications, and the market for stationary fuel cells is also on the move.

Shipping ports form another such market. Currently, diesel generators are the power source of choice for ships at ports, both on board for auxiliary use and while at berth. Emissions from those generators weren’t a particular priority until recent years, when the US Department of Environmental Protection began taking a closer look at air quality in US port cities.

Alternatively, ships can hook up to the on-shore electrical grid, but if the grid relies on fossil fuels that merely shifts the emissions from the port to the power plant.

According to a study last year by Sandia National Laboratories, hydrogen fuel cells are potentially more efficient and less costly than diesel generators because they are better able to cope with the load fluctuations that characterize energy use in ports:

…when generators are frequently producing less than maximum power, such as in the Hawaii application, the efficiency advantage of fuel cells compared to the combustion engine is widened. Even hydrogen at $5 per kilogram can potentially save tens of thousands of dollars per year for each generator.

Hydrogen fuel cells can also potentially — and we emphasize potentially — resolve the issue of shifting emissions. In addition to sourcing methane from biogas rather than fossil natural gas, more efficient technologies are emerging to split hydrogen from water using solar or wind energy.

Hydrogen Fuel Cells For Hawaii

That brings us to the hydrogen fuel cells project for Hawaii. As described by project leader Sandia National Laboratories, a new hydrogen fuel cell generator as been positioned in the Port of Hawaii, at the shipping facility of Young Brothers Ltd., which is a subsidiary of Foss Maritime (for the record, the US Department of Transportation is also a funding partner along with the Energy Department).

The fuel cell/generator unit, which was designed and built by Hydrogenics, consists of:

…four 30-kilowatt fuel cells, a hydrogen storage system and power-conversion equipment, all packaged in a 20-foot shipping container. With 75 kilograms of on-board hydrogen storage, the generator has enough energy to power 10 refrigerated containers for 20 continuous hours of operation.

As of this writing, the fuel cell unit is being used to refrigerate containers on shore. The end goal is to include Young Brothers’s barges in the mix.


Renewable Hydrogen Fuel Cells For Hawaii

Those of you following the news may have picked on an interesting point about using the grid instead of diesel generators. Earlier this summer, Hawaii governor David Ige signed a bill requiring 100% renewable energy for Hawaii. That would seem to make the new fuel cell demo unnecessary, since ships could just hook up to the electrical grid without getting into the issue of emissions shifting.

Two things about that. First, the new Hawaii law has a timeline that extends until 2045, which provides plenty of time for fuel cells to at least serve a transitional role. Second, the fuel cell project is designed to introduce clean energy to other ports throughout the US, some which may still be cranking along on a fossil-enabled grid mix long past 2045.

Sandia Lab foresees an even wider market, according to project lead Joe Pratt:

The long-range goal is to develop a commercial-ready technology that can be widely used at other port. The project team sees a strong market need and desire for a fuel cell solution, not only at maritime ports but also for users who aren’t connected to a grid. That could extend to developing countries and remote locations worldwide.

The one loose end in all of this is the hydrogen production process. Whether you’re sourcing hydrogen from fossil gas, biogas, or water, you need significant energy input to get the job done.

That brings us to Hickham Air Force Base in Honolulu, which is providing hydrogen for the new fuel cell project. Hickham is a hotbed of hydrogen fuel cell R&D, one recent example being a solar-powered hydrogen production facility in tandem with a hydrogen fueling station:

Hawaii solar renewable hydrogen

It looks like Sandia is covering all the bases and if you have any thoughts about that, leave us a note in the comment thread.

Not to be repetitive but we will anyways, as fuel cells emerge competitively in more markets, the technology will improve because companies are fighting for market share, and that will help keep driving the market for improvements in mobile fuel cells, aka fuel cell electric vehicles.

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Image Credits: top (screenshot) via Sandia National Laboratories; bottom by Senior Airman Carolyn Viss via dma.mil.

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

  • 3dmike

    Hi Marion,

    New secret technology throws your numbers in a tail spin. Enough said.

    • Bob_Wallace

      For only three payments of $19.95 each we can learn the secret of efficient hydrogen production.

      And you’ll throw in a set of Ginsu steak knives for the first 500 to sign up. Operators are standing by….

      • Joseph Dubeau

        I saw a project where device made vodka in your backyard from sunlight, water, and air.

        • Bob_Wallace

          You forgot potatoes….

          • timbuck93

            So… potato water? This is actually a real thing huh… So, do potatoes contain alcohol?

          • Bob_Wallace

            Traditionally, vodka is made by the distillation of fermented cereal grains or potatoes….

          • Marion Meads

            All plants can be processed into alcohol.

            Hint: All plants are made of sugar. After all, anything that can do photosynthesis will produce sugar.

            But sugars in plants come in different forms, some plants you can get sugars directly by simply extracting the juices from fruits or plant parts, other plants would require some creativity to extract their sugars.

          • Joseph Dubeau
  • mike_dyke

    As it removes the need to use diesel generators, then this looks a good method to use until Battery prices get low enough to compete.


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  • sjc_1

    You can use the heat for biomass gasification, you can use concentrated solar PV at 40% and electrolysis at 80% to get 30+% solar hydrogen, use the oxygen for the gasification.

  • Marion Meads

    The gross efficiency of sunlight energy to hydrogen energy by Sandia Laboratory is at the best of scenario is 10%. From hydrogen to electricity, fuel cells are about 40-60% efficient. So the roundtrip efficiency from the sun to electricity via the fuel cells at the best scenario is 5%.

    But this is a good start, at least this is about 5 times more efficient than the best plants used as feedstocks for biomass power plants using the same area of land.

    • Joseph Dubeau

      Stanford paper states electrolysis is 65% efficient.

      What does it matter, the sunlight is free.
      There are 3 hurricanes on the way to Hawaii.
      What are they going to do for backup power, burn more FF?

      I believe the future for renewable hydrogen is a fee stock for synthetic fuel.
      Synthetic Diesel is carbon neutral.
      Sunfire in Germany and Carbon Engineering in Canada have pilot programs.

      • Bob_Wallace

        “What are they going to do for backup power, burn more FF?”

        For now, yes. Longer term we don’t yet have a preferred solution. PuHS and flow batteries are more efficient than H2 storage.

      • Marion Meads

        In producing hydrogen fuel to be stored and used in times of need, the problem with using electrolysis from the get go is that you would need solar PV if you want to produce solar hydrogen! Solar PV would add cost, compared to direct solar hydrogen production from sunlight as reported here a few weeks ago.

        Now if your cheap solar PV, ie. the thin Film is 10%, efficient, then use electrolysis on top of it to generate hydrogen, that step is just 6.5% efficient, then the roundtrip electricity via fuel cells would make it 3.25%. If you used a more expensive solar PV, with 18% efficiency, then your roundtrip efficiency would be at best 5.85% but then you would have to spend a lot of money on the premium solar PV.

      • Ken

        Completely wrong – again – as usual.

        To power a fuel cell car vs a battery electric, you would need more than twice the number of solar cells, so the carbon footprint to make the cells would be twice as large, making the fuel cell car a complete fail compared to a battery EV.

        Will you ever catch up?

        • Joseph Dubeau

          Where in the article did Tina mention FCV?
          You are making stuff up and you are not making any sense.
          Just the usual anti-fc rant. Really, I don’t care what your opinion is.

          • Ken

            Wrong again. You are being dishonest – again.

            Facts are not opinions. That is taught in the 4th grade. Are you trying to tell us something about the level of your education?

            You need to show where my facts are incorrect or apologize for your extreme dishonesty.

            I am waiting.

    • Michael G

      All the arguments about % efficiency are theoretical. What matters is the overall cost to the end user. People here talk as if it is all about the fundamental efficiency of the energy source, but many other things come into play such as manufacturability, convenience, relative cost differential, safety, storage capability, etc., etc. All of these affect overall costs in ways that we can’t see until someone actually makes the product. People will pay more for convenience up to a point.

      Until we can see the actual cost of the end product, none of the talk about theoretical efficiency means much. So we have to actually make the thing in production quantities to see if it is viable.

      • Bob_Wallace

        It’s doesn’t make sense to make things in production quantities if the math does not work.

        There are engineering specialists who analyze the probable cost of a product based on materials, manufacturing costs, and performance in order to determine if it makes sense to go into production.

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