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'Hydrogen - let's make it renewable'

The first solar hydrogen-fuel cell system in the U.S. at the Telonicher Marine Lab in Trinidad, California.

Photo: Rudy Gillard, Chromogenics

PV panels at SunLine Transit Agency in Thousand Palms, California, provide electricity for a Stuart Energy electrolysis unit.

Photo: Richard Parish

renewable energy hydrogen

Hydrogen is touted as the energy carrier of the future; billions of dollars / Euros / yen have been allocated for R,D&D into hydrogen and fuel cells.

Most of the world's current supply of hydrogen is derived from fossil fuels and, therefore, most hydrogen does not eliminate the emission of GHG pollutants that are connected with climate change. The canadian association for renewable energies argues that, only when an eligible renewable energy technology is used for electrolysis or non-hydrocarbon derivation process, can the resulting hydrogen be considered as renewable or the fuel cell considered as clean.

Some recent examples of the growing understanding (or lack) of this issue:

(links are inserted according to date; please check the entire list periodically)

  1. Fuel cells release 50% of CO2 emissions but up to 99% less NOx / SOx than fossil fuel power plants, according to Canada's first high-voltage operational fuel cell to be purchased for the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (June 24; see backgrounder). The clean air and CO2 benefits will only be confirmed when fuel cells are commercially adopted, it says.
  2. Natural gas and cost-effective renewables are the main near-term sources for the hydrogen transition while, in the longer run, more mature renewables will play “an important and ultimately a dominant role,” says Amory Lovins in ‘Twenty Hydrogen Myths’ (June). Carbon emissions from hydrogen produced by fossil fuels will approach zero, but insisting that it be made now only from renewables “is making the perfect enemy of the good.” If implemented correctly, the hydrogen transition “will actually make renewable energy more competitive and speed its adoption,” says the RMI chairman.
  3. The short-term aim in Europe should be to increase supply from renewable energy sources on the continent but, “in longer term, renewable energy sources will become the most important source for the production of hydrogen,” says the EU's High Level Group for Hydrogen & Fuel Cells (June 16). Hydrogen and fuel cells allow integrated ‘open energy systems’ that address major energy and environmental challenges, and will have the flexibility to adapt to the intermittent renewable energy sources that will be available in Europe by 2030.
  4. A residential hydrogen refuelling unit that uses a small-scale electrolyser for domestic water will be developed by Shell Hydrogen and Vandenborre Technologies (June 16), a subsidiary of Stuart Energy. A prototype would use grid power to produce hydrogen overnight and the companies do not state if the unit could use residential green power technologies.
  5. Recent reports that leakage of hydrogen gas (June 13, last para) may be environmental harmful have noted that production of hydrogen "often entails generation of large amounts of carbon dioxide,” whether it uses electrolysis from fossil fuels or direct extraction from hydrocarbons. Fuel Cells Canada says hydrogen from fossil fuels will reduce total carbon emissions by 40%, and more if electrolysis is done with renewables.
  6. Altair Nanotechnologies and Hydrogen Solar Production have formed a company (June 12) to develop solar hydrogen in Nevada, using the Tandem Cell technology for "more economic solar energy utilization of hydrogen production than the approach using separate solar cells and electrolyzers.” Solar generation of hydrogen “would eliminate the environmental, sociological and economic problems associated with conventional hydrocarbon fuels," says Altair president Rudi Moerck. The new company will partner with the University of Nevada, Reno, which has requested US$2 million in funding to accelerate research in hydrogen energy using the Tandem Cell concept. 
  7. Solar Hydrogen Energy (June 10) has unveiled a solar concentrator that intensifies sunlight 5,000 times and can reduce costs by two-thirds. Applications include hydrogen production, and units will reach commercialization in 2004 with a new SHEC Labs facility.
  8. A fuel cell researcher from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (June 10) says 40 million tons of hydrogen are produced each year from natural gas, but that other processes are gathering momentum, according to CBC News. "As wind energy comes down, if you couple that with some low-cost electrolysers, that cost of hydrogen can be very commensurate with the cost of hydrogen from natural gas," says John Turner.
  9. The low cost of high altitude wind power could be the cheapest way to electrolyze hydrogen, says Sky WindPower of San Diego. The consistency of wind at high altitudes results in little storage and reduces the cost below that required with ground-based wind turbines.
  10. The director of market development for fuel cells at General Motors (June 10; sentence #10) says fuel cells may be promoted as green power, but they will not win the hearts of consumers unless they can be purchased and used economically. Timothy Vail says GM will sign agreements for testing stationary fuel cells, similar to its recent deal with Dow Chemical for a system that could generate up to 35 MW of electricity per year.
  11. The Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta (June 9) is researching oxide materials that could facilitate small-scale hydrogen production systems and potentially allow the process to be powered by solar energy.
  12. Natural Resources Canada (June 8) has provided $14 million to four hydrogen projects that “will be vital to our efforts to cut down the world's GHG emissions," says energy minister Herb Dhaliwal, although there is no reference to renewable energy sources in the awards.
  13. At its annual conference in Berlin, the German Hydrogen Association (June 6, sentence #1) said the installation of an infrastructure for hydrogen as a vehicle fuel is the central goal for a “traffic system based on renewable energies and producing less emissions.”
  14. A briefing to the U.S. Congress (June 3) by the House & Senate Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Caucuses, Sustainable Energy Coalition, and Environmental & Energy Study Institute explained that hydrogen is “only as clean as the feedstock from which it is produced” and the use of hydrogen extracted from fossil fuels “does little to eliminate the emission of carbon dioxide and other pollutants.” Deriving hydrogen from renewable energies is a “viable and appealing alternative” and a variety of feedstocks can produce hydrogen (including fossil fuels, nuclear and renewables) “yet each comes with its own related environmental costs and/or benefits.” Any method that relies on fossil fuels to produce hydrogen emits pollutants as a byproduct of the production process, while clean hydrogen can be produced from any renewable energy technology and “does not require the development of controversial and expensive sequestration technologies.”
  15. The U.S. National Hydrogen Association (June 3) told the U.S. Senate that hydrogen is non-polluting at point of use but there are environmental issues at point of production. A policy priority of NHA (approved March 5) is to advocate renewable hydrogen to “the greatest extent practical,” and it sees a growing portion of hydrogen production to come from renewables, with the end point being a diverse portfolio of feedstocks with “as much hydrogen production from renewables as practical.” The ‘big opportunities’ in hydrogen include turning renewables into transportation fuel and “converting intermittent wind and solar into firm power.”
  16. In a solicitation for green power on Oahu (May 22; pg #1), the Hawaiian utility will consider facilities that use “hydrogen fuels derived from renewable energy, fuel cells where the fuel is derived entirely from renewable sources,” as well as wind, solar, hydro, landfill gas, EFW, geothermal, OTEC, wave and biomass generating facilities.
  17. Researchers at Stanford University (May 21; para #22) conclude that wind turbines “may help power an emerging hydrogen economy" by facilitating electrolysis. "If you use wind to generate hydrogen, then wind... could theoretically replace all oil, coal and natural gas combustion," it says. "Because hydrogen stores the energy generated by wind, wind intermittency is no longer a barrier to its widespread implementation."
  18. Natural Resources Canada (May 20; sentence #2) says fuel cell cars can reduce GHG emissions to zero only “when hydrogen is produced from renewable sources.”
  19. The Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, in a US$30 million solicitation for green power (May 19, pg #4), limits applications to facilities that use conventional renewable energy technology and “fuel cells using an ‘eligible renewable fuel.’
  20. The U.S consumer group, Public Citizen (May 2), says proposed Senate funding for nuclear-generated hydrogen is a “clean energy travesty.” Founder Ralph Nader says the bill provides US$1.1 billion to develop a nuclear reactor that generates hydrogen and authorizes research of reactor production of hydrogen. “Hydrogen fuel offers the potential for abundant, affordable, clean and safe energy, but its promise is thwarted if tied to hazardous nuclear power,” while the bill introduced by senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) “promotes renewable generation of hydrogen and stipulates benchmarks for the implementation of this energy transition.” 
  21. U.S. energy secretary Spencer Abraham (April 28 proposal for an Int'l Partnerships for the Hydrogen Economy; bullet #2), says the EU has committed €2 billion to conduct research into "renewable and hydrogen energy technologies" while the U.S. has committed US$1.7 billion ... but with no reference to renewables.
  22. Shell Hydrogen (April 24) has opened a hydrogen station at Reykjavik, Iceland, that will refuel three DaimlerChrysler fuel cell buses. Norsk Hydro supplied machinery to produce hydrogen from water by electrolysis; all of Iceland’s electricity is generated from geothermal or hydro sources. The Icelandic Government is promoting increased use of renewables, including the production of hydrogen fuels.
  23. The European Wind Energy Association (April 24 submission to the EU ‘High Level Group on Hydrogen & Fuel Cells) warns that the environmental case for developing hydrogen and fuel cell technologies is flawed without large-scale renewable energy production. “The perception that hydrogen and fuel cells are inherently clean is not true. Hydrogen is only as clean as the technologies producing the hydrogen. Today 98% of hydrogen is generated from fossil fuel sources. Without constructing large amounts of additional renewable energy production that share is unlikely to change,” it says.
  24. Canada’s Natural Sciences & Engineering Research Council (April 22) will provide $1 million over five years to study hydrogen storage at the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières' Institut de recherche sur l'hydrogène. Partners include Hydrogenics and Stuart Energy, who will jointly contribute $450,000 over the period. “Fuel cells will support the transition to a sustainable and ecological energy system,” says chair Richard Chahine. “To achieve this transition, however, it will be important to develop innovative technologies for storing hydrogen, which is the best fuel to power these cells.”
  25. Natural Resources Canada  (April 21; para #4) says the “majority of hydrogen produced today is by steam reforming fossil fuels. The process being developed by SHEC labs uses concentrated sunlight as its energy source. Hydrogen produced from renewable energy sources has the potential to dramatically reduce emissions and could ultimately have the ability to produce zero emission hydrogen.” NRCan has provided $200,000 for SHEC Labs to produce hydrogen from solar energy by lowering the temperature at which hydrogen can be extracted from water.
  26. The City of Toronto (April 15; para #9) will install a 50 kW stationary power fuel cell on Exhibition Grounds that will use renewable energy to supply electricity to power the electrolyser unit to make hydrogen. “By using wind or solar power to power the electrolyser, this will demonstrate how hydrogen and fuel cells enable a totally clean and renewable solution for power,” says Hydrogenics president Pierre Rivard.
  27. The Canadian Fuel Cell Commercialization Roadmap (March; pg #16) says “the use of fossil fuels to produce hydrogen does not promise zero emissions” but that “no GHG emissions exist with electrolysis using renewable sources of electricity, such as hydro, wind power, photovoltaics, geothermal or nuclear power.”
  28. Natural Resources Canada  (Mar 20; para #6) provides support for fuel cell refuelling and funds a mobile fuelling station by Hydrogenics that may use a wind or solar power source in electrolysis. "Using wind or solar as an external energy source would make this solution fully sustainable," it says.
  29. A study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Mar 5) says “the much-touted hydrogen fuel cell was not a clear winner” because the conversion of hydrocarbon fuels into hydrogen uses substantial energy and also emits GHG. If vehicles with lower GHG emissions are required in future, hydrogen is the only major option identified to date but "hydrogen must, of course, be produced without making GHG emissions, hence from a non-carbon source such as solar energy.”
  30. Using renewables to generate electricity for electrolysis of hydrogen "is simply not feasible,” says a review by TSAugust (March). It would require 300,000 turbines of 2 MW capacity, occupying an area of 40,000 square miles, to produce enough hydrogen to power one-third of the automobiles currently in the United States.
  31. The U.S. National Vision of America’s Transition to a Hydrogen Economy (Feb 2002; pg #3) says “renewable and nuclear systems can produce hydrogen from water using thermal or electrolytic processes. The thermal production process, which uses steam to produce hydrogen from natural gas or other light hydrocarbons, is most common.” It says hydrogen extracted from water by renewables is "currently not as efficient or cost effective as using fossil fuels.”
  32. Onshore and offshore windfarms could be one of the major sources of renewable energy hydrogen in Europe, according to a September 2002 analysis by L-B-Systemtechnik. The technical potentials of renewables are used to calculate hydrogen amounts.
  33. American Honda uses solar panels to extract hydrogen from water (July 2001) in its plant near Los Angeles, producing hydrogen to drive a single fuel cell vehicle for one year. "Fuel cell vehicles and hydrogen fuel have tremendous potential to contribute to the goals of sustainable transportation systems and the use of renewable energy," says vice president Ben Knight. It is the first hydrogen station established by an auto maker to use solar energy to extract hydrogen from water.
  34. Renewable energy electrolysis of hydrogen “has the potential to result in the lowest emissions of GHG” but the immediate supply of green power is limited and assumed to replace fossil fuel power before being used to produce hydrogen, according to the Pembina Institute and David Suzuki Foundation (March 2000). “Energy is used and greenhouse gases are produced upstream from the vehicle fuel cell itself,” and actual GHG reductions from hydrogen depend heavily on the emissions released in manufacture and delivery of the fuel, it explains in ‘Climate-Friendly Hydrogen Fuel: A Comparison of the Life-cycle GHG Emissions...’ 
  35. “Further environmental benefits can be realized (sentence #4) when the hydrogen is generated using renewable resources, such as solar and wind,” says William Clapper of the SunLine Transit Agency in California, in a paper on ‘Hydrogen Commercialization for the 21st Century.’ “The result is a clean, renewably produced fuel that can be used to supply public and private transportation vehicles that emit only water.” 
  36. The U.S. Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy says 48% of global hydrogen is derived from natural gas, 30% from oil, 18% from coal and 4% via electrolysis of water. Until the 1950s, electrolysis was used widely to produce hydrogen or oxygen, and “research continues in the integration of intermittent renewable resources (PV and wind) with electrolyzers.” Multijunction cells from the PV industry are used for photoelectrochemical systems, where the theoretical efficiency for tandem junction systems is 42% while low-cost multi-junction a-Si could achieve a solar-to-hydrogen efficiency of 7%-12%.
  37. The HOGEN hydrogen generator of Proton Energy Systems can be powered from wind, solar or hydro to store electrical energy as hydrogen. “For uses such as vehicle refueling, renewable energy storage, or a grid energy storage device, Proton's HOGEN generator provides the key advantage of storing electrical energy as hydrogen.”
  38. The U.S. National Hydrogen Association (1999) says "currently, the reforming of natural gas is the most economical process for producing hydrogen. Within decades, hydrogen produced from biomass, wind and solar sources will be the ultimate, abundant, renewable based energy currency.”

This domain,, will be devoted to an examination of issues surrounding renewable energy hydrogen, both in Canada and abroad. The goal is to ensure that the increased use of renewables in a hydrogen future is a strategic, appropriate, timely and rapid evolution, and not an 'after-thought' to hydrocarbon supplies.

This domain is a 'work in progress' at this time. It specifically avoids use of the term 'green hydrogen' to avoid the growing confusion that non-renewable low-GHG technologies should be considered as a source of hydrogen.

If you have references or citations on the use of renewable energy in the production of hydrogren or the role of renewable energy in fuel cells, please forward for possible inclusion on this site.

For information on renewable energy hydrogen, contact
Bill Eggertson at c.a.r.e.

canadian association for renewable energies
         we c.a.r.e.

last updated July 1