Saturday, February 18, 2012

Hydrogen-the key to sustainability

Renewable energy is one of the fastest growing energy sources of our times. But still there are many obstacles to overcome, before it can substitute current methods of electricity generation using fossil fuels, or substitute petrol in cars. The main obstacle is, the intermittent and unpredictable nature of renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar. Wind blows only certain seasons of the year and then wind velocity fluctuates widely in a day. Similarly sun shines only certain hours in a day and the intensity of radiation varies widely in a day. The wind velocity and sun’s radiation intensity are critical components in designing a reliable energy system. It is an anomalous situation, when we need power, there is no sun or wind; when sun shines or wind blows, we may not need any power. How to overcome this anomaly? That is the key, in successfully deploying renewable energy technologies. Currently we are using batteries to store the energy. When there is a wind with reasonable velocity or sunshine with reasonable radiation intensity, we can generate power and store them in batteries. The wind velocity should be above certain threshold limit, say for example, a minimum wind velocity of 3mts/sec for certain number of hours, while designing a wind based energy system. The same principle applies to solar energy and we need certain minimum solar intensity and number of hours. But in reality, we don’t get these minimum operating parameters, which make the design of a renewable system more complicated. Batteries can accumulate these small energy generations by intermittent sources of wind and sun, and store them. But these batteries have certain life between 3-5 years and requires regular maintenance, replacements.They also have certain charging and discharging cycles and limitations. At the end of its life, it has to be disposed carefully because these batteries are made of lead and acid, which are toxic materials. Many companies are trying to introduce better technologies such as ‘flow batteries’. But experience shows that such batteries are confined to only smaller capacities. Large scale storage is expensive and sometimes it is not economically feasible. Lithium-ion batteries are more efficient than Lead-acid batteries, but they are more expensive so the renewable energy projects become expensive and cannot compete with conventional fossil fuels, in spite of higher tariffs offered by Government as incentives. Moreover the demand for Lithium-ion batteries will increase substantially in the future, as more and more Electric cars are produced. But lithium sources are limited and it is not sustainable. The best option to develop renewable energy systems is to generate Hydrogen using renewable energy and store them, instead of storing them in batteries. We can use stored Hydrogen to generate power, or use as fuel for the car, as and when we need. There are no maintenance or disposal problems with Hydrogen storage, when comparing with batteries. Hydrogen generators (electrolyzers) can generate Hydrogen whenever the intermittent power flows from wind or sun. They can operate from a wide range of capacities from 5 to 100% of rated capacity and they are more suitable for renewable energy sources. But there will be a loss of energy, because the amount of power required to generate Hydrogen, is more than the power generated from the resulting Hydrogen by a Fuelcell.The initial cost will be higher, but it will give operational flexibility with least maintenance, and even adoptable to remote sites. Technology is improving to reduce the cost of fuel cells and electrolyzers so that Hydrogen based renewable energy will become a sustainable source of energy in the future. Hydrogen is the only solution that can solve both power generation and transportation problems the world is currently facing.