The US Department of Energy is determined to stimulate more activity in the area of distributed wind power, and if all goes according to plan that could mean good news for fans of green hydrogen. The hydrogen angle could help smaller-scale wind owners squeeze more kilowatts from their turbines, even at night when everyone is sleeping. Just one catch: who needs distributed wind?
Renewable Energy & Green Hydrogen
Unpacking this a bit, let’s start with green hydrogen. For those of you new to the topic, hydrogen could be a mighty tool for global decarbonization. It burns without greenhouse gas emissions, and it can also be used in fuel cells to generate electricity without greenhouse gas emissions. Water is the only byproduct.
In addition, hydrogen can act as a long duration, transportable medium for storing renewable energy (ditto for nuclear energy, though that’s a whole different kettle of fish).
There being no such thing as a free lunch, that’s not the end of the hydrogen story. The hydrogen of today is produced mainly from fossil gas, which throws a monkey wrench into the vision of a sustainable hydrogen economy, let alone a whole hydrogen society.
That’s still not the end of the story, though. New technology breakthroughs in the green hydrogen field are cascading fastly and furiously. Much of the focus is on “splitting” hydrogen from water through electrolysis, preferably by deploying electricity generated by wind turbines or solar panels. Direct photoelectrochemical water-splitting is also in the mix.
Some analysts foresee that electrolysis will not be economically competitive for a while yet, but costs are dropping rapidly and there is already movement afoot in niche or specialized applications. The steel industry is one example of a niche for green hydrogen. Maine is also exploring green hydrogen to help ease a transmission botttleneck without crushing the budget for energy infrastructure.
Distributed Wind Power & Green Hydrogen
That thing about niche or specialized applications for green hydrogen brings us right up into the topic of distributed wind power.
Distributed wind installations tend to be on the smaller side in terms of generating capacity. That would dovetail with the emergence of small scale water-splitting systems. The basic idea would be to convert excess wind power into a form that is both storable and transportable, without relying on transmission lines.
The combo of distributed wind and small-scale hydrogen production also fits in with the Energy Department’s vision of a modern, secure, resilient grid powered by distributed energy resources, alongside a healthy dose of energy storage.
Don’t be fooled by the size thing, though. The distributed wind sector does cover small wind turbines, but it is not defined by the type or size of the turbines. It’s the application that counts.
Distributed wind refers to wind turbines that provide electricity to the site where they are located, such as farms, far-flung industrial campuses, and rural health facilities.
Distributed wind can also provide electricity directly to nearby sites, or it can support a local distribution grid or microgrid.
The common denominator is that major new transmission lines would not be needed to tap into the nation’s distributed wind potential. That’s important because it is awfully difficult to get approvals for major new transmission lines nowadays.
As for how big is the nation’s distributed wind potential, it’s pretty big.
“An analysis of behind-the-meter distributed wind potential in the United States found that distributed wind systems are technically feasible for approximately 49.5 million residential, commercial, or industrial sites, or about 44% of all U.S. buildings,” says the Energy Department.
Tapping Untapped Distributed Wind Potential
The problem is that costs in the distributed wind sector have not been following the rapid freefall in the cost of larger, grid-connected wind farms. So, the US Energy Department has developed a cluster of distributed wind initiatives to help kick the activity into high gear.
Of particular interest is the agency’s involvement in a global distributed wind consortium, through the International Energy Agency’s IEA Wind Initiative.
Globalism! Under IEA Wind, the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory is paired with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory to tackle IEA Wind Task Number 41, which is headed “Enabling Wind to Contribute to a Distributed Energy Future.”
The basic idea is to model the distributed wind sector on the smashing success of small scale, distributed solar around the globe.
“In the not-too-distant past, spotting a solar panel on a rooftop or powering a small health center in a rural community far away from the grid was a rare occurrence,” NREL explained in an article posted last week. “Fast forward a decade and the once-rare sighting is now ubiquitous. The on-site, distributed solar energy boom is powering everything from single-family homes to entire industries.”
Interesting! The Energy Department’s community solar initiatives could also provide a model for pushing the distributed wind envelope, but we’ll let them hash that out.
A lot of firepower is stirring the IEA Wind pot. NREL listed Austria, Belgium, Canada, China, Denmark, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Korea, and Spain as consortium members, and additional nations may also join the fold.
Green Hydrogen & Rural Electric Cooperatives
As a relatively new IEA initiative, so far the consortium has been mainly focused on setting the stage for agreed-upon methodologies and standards. The next steps include creating a data catalog for sharing information, and developing a detailed international research plan that updates current standards.
Things get super interesting when you consider that the consortium’s mandate includes energy storage, because just last month the Energy Department launched two new lab consortia to support new hydrogen and fuel cell research.
Don’t get too excited yet, because this particular initiative is not quite a snug fit with the distributed wind area. One lab consortium will focus on large-scale electrolyzers that can handle fossil inputs as well as renewable energy to produce hydrogen. The other will focus on fuel cells for heavy duty transportation, with the aim of developing a market-ready long haul fuel cell truck.
On the other hand, both consortia are aimed at cutting costs and making the technology affordable as part of the Energy Department’s broader H2@Scale initiative in support of hydrogen and fuel cells. The ripple effect of the two new consortia could contribute to a rosier financial picture for smaller-scale green hydrogen generation, which in turn could help support the bottom line case for distributed wind.
To be clear, H2@Scale is not strictly a green initiative, because its portfolio still includes fossil gas for hydrogen production. However, the Energy Department has begun to downplay natural gas in favor of diversification in general and renewable energy in particular based on resilience, reliability, security from price volatility, and sustainability.
With pressure for a green COVID-19 recovery growing by the minute, that policy drift toward green hydrogen is likely to gather steam in the coming months and years. If you have any thoughts about that, drop us a note in the comment thread.
Another factor to consider is the nation’s sprawling network of rural electric cooperatives. Due to their unique regulatory status and public service mission, REC’s have more flexibility to innovate and deploy emerging technology, including renewable energy and energy storage.
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Image: “Hydrogen gas is a massively important industrial chemical for making fuel and fertilizer, and a clean, high-energy-content molecule that can be used in fuel cells or to store energy generated by variable power sources like solar and wind” by Greg Stewart/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory via Eurekalert.
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