If world leaders are to stand a chance of reaching net-zero targets and the ambitious goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C, then sustainable energy sources must be made more accessible and affordable. This is a sentiment that we have heard repeatedly over the past few years, but COP26 has once again raised the urgency of the need to look to alternative energy solutions. Indeed, one of the key achievements of the summit in Glasgow was the ‘breakthrough agenda,’ which pledges to make renewable energy sources more widely available across the globe. As nations look to increase the deployment of clean technologies, cracking green hydrogen will be crucial. It’s already being touted as a way to reduce carbon emissions in a range of areas and will be particularly pertinent for those hard-to-decarbonize sub-sectors, including telecoms, remote utilities, long-haul transportation and industrial processes.
However, to bring innovative hydrogen technologies to market quicker, there needs to be a focus on smaller and sector-specific initiatives as well as enhancing utility-grade production for large-scale networks. These projects are not only more economical and quicker to deploy, but they provide a great opportunity to trial and ultimately scale solutions. Enter microgrids, which represent the perfect environment in which to test new clean power generation technology upfront.
Microgrids can operate autonomously from the traditional grid, and this disconnection means they can solve a variety of challenges. These include relieving pressure on overworked grids, especially during peak times of use or during extreme weather when electricity consumption is highest, building capacity to meet future energy demands, reducing overall energy costs and meeting compliance with environmental legislation. Energy resiliency, in particular, is one of the central reasons that this business model is becoming increasingly popular.
Given that power outages are still a pressing issue in many parts of the world (a problem that is being exacerbated by rapid climate change), having a local energy grid, or ‘microgrid,’ that can operate independently of the traditional grid is appealing. In areas such as North and South America, where frequent severe weather incidents can bring down grid power for extended lengths of time, microgrids are not only being trialed for emergency backup power but also as a mainstream primary power source for some remote communities.
Microgrids are growing in popularity and are largely focused on leveraging renewable energy resources such as sun, wind and hydro-energy. However, to ensure reliable, uninterrupted power, microgrids require constant power, which cannot depend upon intermittent resources. Therefore, they need to incorporate energy storage that can kick in when intermittent resources are not available. Traditionally, backup power has been supplied by fossil fuel generators, but today the world is seeking cleaner and more reliable alternatives. Batteries are one solution, but they too have limitations around how long they can operate for, their deterioration over time and the need for them to be properly disposed of at their end of life. This is where hydrogen-powered fuel cells and generation come in.
As a modular and scalable technology, hydrogen fuel cells can be added to the microgrid as energy demands grow. Unlike solar and wind farms that require large areas of land, fuel cells are significantly easier to install in urban environments. Producing zero emissions, almost no noise and no vibrations, fuel cells can sit outside or inside a building. So, in the event of severe weather, fuel cells can be
placed within protected environments to ensure that there is no disruption to emergency power. The modern fuel cell, powered by hydrogen, can thus serve as a lynchpin to improve both the reliability of microgrids in areas where the grid is unstable and boost the grids’ sustainability credentials. As the hydrogen economy is being rapidly built out around the world, hydrogen fuel is becoming more available, regulations and safety measures governing the deployment of hydrogen are expanding, and the price of hydrogen is coming down, all of which make hydrogen fuel cells a more attractive energy source.
Responding to crisis
Extreme weather threatens our energy stability, so we need to be well-equipped to ensure that power is maintained at all times. Hydrogen fuel cells can complement distributed energy resources (DERs) by offering a reliable source for long-duration backup power when grids are unavailable or unstable, both during unplanned outages and during peak power demand. More frequent extreme weather patterns, such as storms and wildfires, which interfere with the ability to propagate and maintain the traditional centralized energy model, are only serving to encourage the transition to DERs and microgrids.
The DER model incorporates several sources of power generation, including renewable sources such as hydrogen. Hydrogen fuel cells can kick in immediately and provide long-duration power availability. Beyond generating clean power, they also play a role in energy storage and regulating power flow, making them an effective component for microgrids. Incorporating hydrogen fuel cells into local microgrids for long-duration backup power is fast becoming an incredibly viable and sustainable solution to mitigating the devastating impact of outages. This growing use case presents a great opportunity to trial and scale these solutions.
California is no stranger to severe weather events and increasingly suffers from devastating wildfires each year. These wildfires result in both unplanned outages due to fire damage, as well as deliberate shutdowns for preventative maintenance aimed at avoiding unplanned outages. This year, the Californian legislature has passed the SB341 Bill, mandating telecommunications operators to provide backup power for 72 hours. This new bill is not only great for ensuring effective disaster response, but it’s also an opportunity for this sector to play a part in mitigating against the impacts of climate change — here, too, hydrogen fuel cells can play a significant role in enabling the mandatory long-duration backup power.
Given the escalation of climate crises that we have seen over the past several years, utilities are now recognizing the value that hydrogen technologies in microgrids can offer. They empower the industry to respond to grid instability and peak demands, as well as encourage the transition away from fossil fuels to clean energy sources. As world leaders and climate activists stress the need to implement and scale renewable energy solutions such as hydrogen quicker, distributed local power models involving microgrids are the perfect way to trial these solutions and test their capabilities at a macro-scale.
About the Author: Rami Reshef is CEO of GenCell Energy.