investigating hydrogen viability
Hydrogen, Commercial Now. Part 3 – The less clear cut.

Part 3: For some applications a case-by-case evaluation is needed

Over Part 1 and Part 2 of this series we looked at: 1) the key factors driving the competitiveness of hydrogen as a solution. Namely: Asset Utilisation; Volume of Energy needed; and Mobility/ ‘Off-grid’ consumption of energy, and in 2) where and why hydrogen beats today’s options and other low-carbon solutions.

In this third instalment of this four-part series looking at the commercial competitiveness of hydrogen we consider the applications where the commercial competitiveness of hydrogen will require a case-by-case evaluation to determine if a hydrogen fuel cell (HFC) system is the right answer. These are applications where hydrogen can be the right answer, but it will be situationally dependant as to whether it is a better answer than another low carbon technology or an incumbent.

These applications still require high scoring across the three driving factors of hydrogen competitiveness laid out in Part 1 (higher utilisation, higher energy requirements, and are mobile or off-grid, Figure 1), and usually need to score very high on at least two of the factors. Again, these applications currently are primarily served by petrochemical fuels. And the difference between an instance in which hydrogen is competitive vs. an instance in which it isn’t comes a lot more down to specific operational requirements or behavioural patterns for each use-case and specific operator. These situations will be swung to a much greater degree by the other operational and performance advantages of using a HFC system.

As per the previous articles, we will be using the helpful and clear chart below. It is Exhibit 5, presented in the Hydrogen Council’s report “Path to Hydrogen Competitiveness”. Examples of these applications sit on the top and right quadrant lines of the chart, sitting between winning against conventional and low-carbon solutions. The examples presented by the Hydrogen Council are: 1) “Short-distance urban bus”; 2) “Van for urban delivery”; 3) “Mid-size short range vehicle”. Additionally, we have added small, sub-5kW, electrical generators (given their large global prevalence) as another example of an application where it will be dependent on the use-case.

Operational and performance advantages of using hydrogen fuel cells

Until now we have only looked at hydrogen from the perspective of the three main factors driving commercial viability. However, HFC solutions have a number of significant operational and performance advantages over petrochemical powered systems. These can often make HFC systems worth taking even before considering their low-carbon advantage, and in many instances these advantages can offset a lower placing against one of the three main driving factors, or offset against a potentially higher like-for-like cost. HFCs are:

  • Silent and vibration free:Chemical electricity generation means that the generators run virtually silent with no vibrations. Perfect for operating in urban environments or late into the night.
  • Zero emissions and zero fuel spills: HFCs produce only water. No emissions or fuel spill risks make it ideal for Ultra Low Emissions Zones or environmentally sensitive locations. It also makes for a superior and healthier working environment for employees and operators.
  • Lower maintenance with high reliability: Few moving parts (all in the cooling and air filtration systems) reduces maintenance cost and increases reliability compared with diesel gensets. Thus, reducing project delivery risk.
  • Instant start, better load following and no need to idle: Sub-second response time for excellent start-up and load following. And HFCs only consume H2 when power is being drawn. No idling means no wasted H2.
  • Operationally equivalent: Mobile, plug and play deployment, and with similar operational procedures it should lead to minimal operational or training changes.

Considering some examples

While we can’t consider every situation to see whether hydrogen is viable or not, we can look at a number of examples to show the types of considerations that would be made in evaluating whether hydrogen is the right answer.

The Short-distance urban bus”, and “Van for urban delivery” respectively, are two use-cases put forward by the Hydrogen Council (see Figure 2, HC’s Exhibit 5). For both examples, hydrogen is better than existing (usually diesel) solutions. However, whether hydrogen is the most competitive low-carbon solution requires looking at the specifics of each implementation, considering factors such as operational patterns, environmental requirements, or the size of grid connection vs the availability of hydrogen locally or space to store hydrogen.

If the operating patterns mean that the vehicles have time to charge overnight or between trips, then batteries become viable as the shorter distances mean that energy requirements do not dictate excessively large or heavy batteries and the overnight down time allows for recharging. However, if there is not sufficient down time for charging, or maybe there is not the grid connection capacity at the site to meet the recharging power requirements for the fleet, then things can swing in favour of hydrogen. While if air quality is less of a concern then biodiesel could be an option as it is carbon neutral, although it produces emissions restricting its use in urban centres with low emission zone policies.

This same type of logic applies when looking at the mid-sized short-range vehicle, although here it will be more driven by user/owner behaviour and routine, as opposed to the operational schedules.

Additionally, let’s consider temporary use, mobile generators. In the mid and large generator sizes, 10kW+, and 100kW+ respectively. Generally, at these sizes the three drivers of viability (see Figure 1) alone will make hydrogen the most viable answer. However, hydrogen’s viability is further increased through the additional operational and performance advantages of HFC as described above. For example, in the Film and TV production industry HFC generators their silent operating avoids the need for costly, and time consuming, audio dialogue replacement (the re-recording of dialogue due to background noise, requiring actors to re-perform and costly editing) that is often required as a result of diesel generator noise. For construction or powering events and festivals, the zero emissions from HFC generators enhances their value for operation in Low Emission Zones. While their silent running can increase the operating time of powered activities, for example allowing construction to progress into the watershed hours, increasing site productivity, and allow for more flexible generator locating.

Again, we can see that considering whether hydrogen has a place in our energy future is not a black and white decision. There are general rules of thumb that help with initial appraisal of hydrogen viability as a solution, but there are still many factors that can tip the favours for even the on-the-fence cases.

A final thought for now: Green solutions need to support each other

The future will not just contain one energy solution, it will be a mix and those that seek to divide low carbon solutions by saying it will only be solution “A”, solution “B” cannot work, or vice-versa, do more to harm the transition to low and zero carbon solutions that help it. Let’s all think realistically and pragmatically, and work together, not against each other, to drive green solution adoption. The real opposition are hydrocarbons and 20th century incumbents.

References:

  1. Hydrologiq “Hydrogen, Commercial Now – Part 1. An Overview” (also published in H2 View magazine); https://hydrologiq.news/hydrogen-a-commercially-competitive-option-now
  2. Hydrologiq “Hydrogen, Commercial Now – Part 2. The shoe that fits” (also published in H2 View magazine); https://hydrologiq.news/When-hydrogen-wins
  3. Hydrogen Council “Path to Hydrogen Competitiveness”; https://hydrogencouncil.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Path-to-Hydrogen-Competitiveness_Full-Study-1.pdf
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