13 March 2012

Germany embraces new hydrogen technology

A hydrogen power plant

One of the first plants to generate wind power and convert it into hydrogen is now in operation in Germany.

The innovative technology, which could bring Germany into a new era of sustainable energy production, has been adopted by the company Enertrag AG, with the help of partners Wattenfall, Total and Deutsche Bahn.

“My personal wish is that we help create the energy turning point and that wind power-to-hydrogen will take on a leading role,” Enertrag board member, Werner Diwald said. “The politicians are very interested in what we are doing here.”

Situated in windy flatlands, 75 miles from Berlin, the $21.9 million plant has been in operation since October, following two years of construction. Its maximum production capability allows for 0.5 megawatts of power to be converted into hydrogen, resulting in 12 kilograms of hydrogen per hour.

The plant works by using three wind turbines to generate power; this power is passed through water and split into oxygen and hydrogen by an electrolyser, then stored in tanks. The hydrogen that is produced can be cogenerated with biogas to produce electricity and heat.

What makes this move so noteworthy, is that post-Fukushima, Germany closed eight nuclear reactor blocks and has needed an alternative energy source. Developing new technology could also pave the way for meeting green targets; Germany has pledged to achieve 35 percent of electricity supply from clean energy sources by 2020, and 80 percent by 2050. Currently just 20 percent of electricity comes from renewables.

Hydrogen power offers many incentives. It is a far more reliable option than wind or solar energy technology, and it does not pose the same supply-demand risks faced by the oil market faces, and is also set to spark huge changes in the climate-friendly car industry. Daimler and Toyota have said recently that they intend to start the high-volume production of hydrogen-run cars in the next few years.

Hydrogen’s one drawback is the cost implication; at present the costs of producing hydrogen are double (or more) than what Germany currently pays for imported gas. If feed-in-tariffs, tax breaks, and other financial incentives become available, the private sector may well match the politician’s interest in creating a more established hydrogen market. Encouragingly, Berlin is already creating funds to make hydrogen power a more financially appealing option.


Image: US Department of Energy

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