CERAWEEK: Hydrogen could play role in decarbonizing power despite logistical challenges

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Hydrogen presents a complicated challenge when used as a power source, but these challenges could be addressed with incremental gas blending and artificial intelligence tools, industry participants said March 20.

The use of hydrogen in power is generally controversial, speakers at a CERAWeek by S&P Global panel said, saying it's "not the first application that comes to mind."

S&P Global Consulting Director Natallia Pinchuk referenced an analogy that says using hydrogen in power "is like using champagne to flush a toilet."

"If you can do it, it will do the job, but why would you?" she said.

Highlighting potential downsides, Steve Smith, director of strategy and innovation at National Grid, shared concerns on how a hydrogen-powered system would respond to peaks in demand "when the wind stops blowing and the sun is not shining."

"In the US Northeast or the UK where we operate, where we might go days without renewable resources," Smith said. "So people need dispatchable generation both to cover peaks."

A storage mechanism that works alongside regular generation would be necessary to address system spikes, Smith said. During peak stress or periods with high power prices, electrolyzers could be ramped down to allow the power to instead flow directly into the system, Neeraj Bhat, hydrogen lead at AES Clean Energy, suggested.

A mixed fuel source could also help keep the lights on, Smith said. Hydrogen could have a role in regions with a concentration of natural gas infrastructure by blending hydrogen into networks and reducing the carbon intensity of delivered energy, he said.

"Particularly in the northeast, our gas systems just face a huge volume of energy," Smith said. "Our ability to electrify our systems at a pace and scale required is the challenge, given the challenges of building new infrastructure."

Low-carbon alternative for backup power
Hydrogen tends to increase pipeline leakage, limiting its usage in pipelines where it could be blended with natural gas, research by the Argonne National Library shows. Few demonstrations of the process have occurred in recent years and further research is needed across the hydrogen and natural gas supply chain, a 2023 collaborative National Renewable Energy Laboratory report shows.

Hydrogen also has a lower energy per unit volume than natural gas, reducing a pipeline's transported energy, the NREL report shows.

Hydrogen fuel cells could provide a low-carbon alternative to backup power generation, Hany Soliman from Microsoft's energy and resources team said, referencing a study on data center power usage.

"We can actually build [hydrogen] containers that can ramp up power to 60 MW," Soliman said. "That gave us 48 hours of backup power ... and that should be all we need from a backup power generation standpoint."

Microsoft aims to use 100% green power for data centers globally by next year, Soliman said. Breakthrough technologies like smaller quick-start electrolyzers could allow hydrogen to play a larger role in meeting this goal, he said.

A proliferation of new data centers amid the rise of AI technologies and their respective power needs will increase demand for breakthrough low-carbon power sources, including hydrogen, Soliman said. AI could help speed up the innovation process, track outages and help distribute power across data centers needing support, he said.

More hydrogen electrolysis projects must be tested and deployed to bring down costs and incentivize testing its implementation in the power sector, Bhat said. Areas willing to pay the "green premium" like areas mandated by low-carbon fuel standards could be early movers in this field, he said.

When asked if hydrogen will be "a significant part" of decarbonizing the US power sector by 2035, Soliman and Smith both said it would.

Bhat said his outlook was "more nuanced," saying hydrogen use cases are currently "very selective" and that areas with "real" net-zero commitments are more likely to see innovation in the space.

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