Niche applications in remote areas

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In a remote location well fed by renewable sources of energy, a hydrogen-based energy system can make economic and environmental good sense. Plans to fully exploit the large geothermal energy sources on Iceland by expanding a hydrogen distribution network could provide the world with its first hydrogen economy. The specific synergies of hydrogen and wind power in remote locations are also the subject of early research and demonstration (R&D) discussions.

In Spain's north eastern region of Aragón, there is talk of off-loading wind generation into hydrogen production rather than embarking on costly grid reinforcement. In Scotland, an R&D effort is planned to demonstrate how hydrogen can assist with integrating high levels of wind power fully into the electricity network. The experiments, should they go-ahead, will provide a better idea of preferred options and costs of wind-hydrogen systems, many of which are uncertain.

The Aragón plan is the brainchild of regional industry department boss Arturo Aliaga, who is working to set up a special foundation to promote hydrogen production from a wide range of sources, including wind. The idea has already attracted the interest of car manufacturer General Motors. The foundation will draw together regional government departments, private companies and research institutions from around the country "to establish the bases for collaboration," says Santiago Izuel of the Aragón industry department. Izuel expects the foundation to be running within a matter of weeks.

The likely course of development for wind-to-hydrogen production in Aragón would be a small R&D project later followed by larger scale production, says Izuel. Aragón, with over 750 MW of wind power online, called a moratorium on new wind applications in October last year when faced with 25,000 MW of project applications. Grid restrictions have capped immediately foreseeable development at 1500 MW. The theory is that hydrogen production could take up some of the slack as well as providing an offload for excess wind production during periods of low electricity demand. Whether the economics make it practicable remains to be seen.

"Clearly we are at a very early stage. But [the foundation] marks the beginning of our commitment to a technology with excellent opportunities worldwide," says Izuel. Last summer, Aliaga set the proposal before General Motors (GM) at its headquarters in Detroit. GM's vice president of Research & Development and Planning, Larry Burns, "values positively" the proposal, according to regional newspaper Heraldo de Aragón. GM is among the leaders in developing hydrogen fuel cells for road vehicles and the company has a large factory in Aragón. In lieu of a more concrete answer from GM, Aliaga claims "there have been offers from other companies and institutions."

In Scotland, Hunterston Hydrogen Limited proposes to develop the world's first commercially viable, large scale, wind-hydrogen system in North Ayrshire. The aim is to show how high levels of wind power can integrate fully into electricity networks with the help of hydrogen. Project plans are for 15 wind turbines providing 26.25 MW of generation, a 10 MW electrolysis plant and a 10 MW gas engine (not fuel cells); it is priced at EUR 41 million. Storage capacity is 120 MWh. The likely ratio between "direct" and "indirect" electricity production is not yet clear so estimates of generation costs will have to wait. The aim of the project is to demonstrate how the economic production of clean and green hydrogen fuel (totally carbon free) can be accomplished on a wide scale throughout the UK.

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