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Published on May 10th, 2018 | by Tina Casey


How US Shale Gas Could Torpedo UK’s Hydrogen “Gas Battery”

May 10th, 2018 by  

You’ve heard of water batteries, and now here comes the UK’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers with the idea of a gas battery — that is, using the country’s existing natural gas infrastructure to store and deploy hydrogen gas. They’ve come up with a powerful argument in favor, too. The hydrogen setup would expand the UK’s use of renewable energy by enabling wind and/or solar farms to generate electricity productively even when demand is low.

So, how is that good from a clean tech perspective? Electricity from wind or solar farms can be used to “split” hydrogen from water, that’s how. The problem is that US shale gas producers are also eyeballing the UK and other export markets.

First, The Good News About Renewable Hydrogen

The renewable hydrogen field (aka power-to-gas) has been gathering steam in recent years, and the new IMechE power-to-gas report puts some hardcore professional muscle behind it.

Basically the idea is that storing excess renewable energy in the existing National Grid is a more cost-effective approach than investing in lithium-ion batteries or other new energy storage infrastructure:

The UK gas grid has the potential to store excess electricity in the form of hydrogen, for a greater amount of time than some other forms of energy storage, such as batteries.

This hydrogen can then be used in all areas of the energy system producing low emissions fuel for transport, reducing the CO2 emissions from the heating system, reused to generate electricity as well as a greener feedstock for industries such as ammonia and plastics production.

As IMechE sees it, the use of the National Grid for hydrogen storage would unchain the UK’s renewable energy sector from demand, enabling the sector to expand more rapidly.

As for why not lithium-ion and other proven technologies for energy storage, IMechE doesn’t see conventional batteries filling the bulk role:

There are still many questions surrounding the materials and recyclability of batteries that should be answered before large-scale roll-out onto the system, particularly as a storage solution.

Here in the US, ARPA-E is taking a long look at the bulk energy storage question and has come to a similar conclusion. The agency is currently on the hunt for long-duration storage systems that outperform conventional batteries.
For more details and IMechE’s recommendations for UK policymakers check out the report online under the title, Energy from Gas: Taking a Whole System Approach.

Who Needs Nukes?

Though IMechE foresees a continued role for nuclear-sourced electricity in the near future, nuclear fans shouldn’t get too comfortable. Opposition to nuclear energy in the UK is running strong, and that seems to have spooked UK policy makers. IMechE notes that the UK is not particularly planning for the long run:

Currently nuclear provides about 20% of electricity demand, however depending on weather conditions and renewables generating capacity along with demand, this can be as high as 30%. There is a concern that the UK Government is not providing a clear vision for the nuclear power sector; this has meant that investment has stalled, leaving us in a position where our current fleet is due to come offline by 2030 and we have not positioned ourselves to replace this.

The power-to-gas angle does provide a bottom line rationale for replacing the old nuclear units with new ones. However, it also provides a clear pathway — and potentially, a far less expensive one — for replacing the nuclear fleet with renewables instead.

And Now For The Bad News

For all the excitement over power-to-gas, there is an 800-pound gorilla in the room. That would be the US shale gas industry.

Until recently the US limited natural gas exports, but the rules began to loosen under the Obama administration and that trend has continued under the current one.

The US power generation sector has been converting from coal to gas, so the domestic market has been soaking up much of the production. However, renewables are beginning to edge out both coal and natural gas, which means that the domestic market could shrink. All else being equal, the trickle of US shale gas exports will turn into a flood.

That’s already happening.

Last summer the National Grid got its first taste of US shale gas, and The Guardian reported that the US will be among the world’s top gas exporters by 2020. The new Cove Point LNG terminal in Maryland also just revved up operations earlier this year.

So, can renewable hydrogen compete against US shale gas for a share of the UK energy market?

That remains to be seen. In the meantime, we’ve reached out to IMechE for some additional insights, so stay tuned for more on that score.

Follow me on Twitter.

Image (screenshot): via IMechE. 
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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+.

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