Can hydrogen fuel Ireland’s green future?

22 Apr 2022

Clean Hydrogen Partnership director Bart Biebuyck. Image: Frédéric Remouchamps/Keops

Clean Hydrogen Partnership director Bart Biebuyck discusses the opportunity for Ireland to become a ‘hydrogen valley’ in the EU and the fuel’s potential when it comes to energy storage to ‘balance the grid’.

Using hydrogen as a form of clean fuel has been discussed for years, with supporters describing it as the future of energy. But has hydrogen technology reached the point where it’s a feasible option as a green fuel source?

In 2020, the European Commission launched a new strategy to aid the efforts of European industry to rapidly decarbonise. This included the formation of the European Clean Hydrogen Alliance, which aims to support the large-scale deployment of clean hydrogen tech, promoting investments and stimulating the roll-out of clean hydrogen production.

There are many ways to produce hydrogen fuel. One is through a process called electrolysis, which uses electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. When renewable electricity is used for this method, it is known as green hydrogen.

But there are issues associated with commercialising this process, including the costs and the vast amount of renewables required to make it a clean energy source.

Bart Biebuyck is the director of the Clean Hydrogen Partnership, set up last December to support research, technological development and demonstration activities in hydrogen energy in Europe. The public-private partnership is a successor to the Fuel Cells and Hydrogen joint undertaking.

Biebuyck told that hydrogen fuel cells have seen rapid technology improvements over the last decade.

“We went from 100kW to 100MW in just 10 years,” Biebuyck said. “This is the achievement and now we can go to mass production and really try to decarbonise our gas system now by using hydrogen. So there’s huge potential now.

“We needed to go through this research, 10 years of research and demonstration projects, but now it’s starting to become commercial,” he added.

Biebuyck said industry leaders in Europe are taking notice of hydrogen as a potential clean fuel source, particularly in transport. In 2020, Airbus said it’s developing three zero-emission aircraft models that could take to the skies by 2035 using hydrogen fuel.

Despite the advances in technology, hydrogen still has a long way to go until it can be classified as a clean fuel. The EU currently uses around 10m tonnes of hydrogen annually. However, Biebuyck said around 96pc of this is produced through fossil fuels such as coal or gas, as this remains the cheaper option.

Hydrogen in Ireland

In order to increase the development of clean hydrogen in Europe, Biebuyck said the industry needs access to more cheap, renewable energy to make green hydrogen cheaper. He added that Ireland is in a unique position to become an exporter of renewable energy to the EU through the development of offshore wind farms.

“You have the luck or the benefit of having access to a lot of wind, so you can build a lot of offshore wind parks. Recently the price of offshore wind parks is really going down fast. So you can start to produce very cheap renewable electricity,” Biebuyck said.

While Ireland may be a latecomer to the hydrogen table in Europe, Biebuyck has noticed a growing momentum in the country, with hydrogen being looked at more seriously by academics and some industry members.

He visited Ireland in February to attend a partner meeting of the GenComm renewable hydrogen project. GenComm, led by Belfast Met, is focused on showing the feasibility of hydrogen technology and helping communities develop roadmaps to renewable hydrogen-based energy models.

GenComm programme manager Paul McCormack said Ireland is at the “epicentre of the hydrogen revolution” with a number of national and international projects working in this area. “Ireland is playing a central role in transforming Europe’s energy structures and in building a hydrogen economy that will deliver sustainable environmental, economic, academic and social benefits,” McCormack said.

Biebuyck added that Ireland had the potential to become a “hydrogen valley” within the EU. These are regions that merge industry and research initiatives to carry out pilot projects across the complete hydrogen value chain, from production to end use.

Last year, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said it was part of a coalition of countries pledging to create 100 hydrogen valleys around the world. She pointed to the Groningen area of the Netherlands, which is working on a green hydrogen value chain, and said there are many areas that want to follow.

“This is how we can accelerate the hydrogen economy on a local scale, on our way towards a European hydrogen economy as a whole,” she said.

For Ireland, Biebuyck said the first priority should be to create a hydrogen strategy, after which time the country can focus on the potential of creating a hydrogen valley or exporting energy to the EU.

Earlier this year, the representative group for the Irish wind energy industry also called on the Government to create a hydrogen strategy with a focus on green hydrogen development. Wind Energy Ireland CEO Noel Cunniffe said this strategy would help the country plan for a long-term replacement of the existing gas generator fleet and “long-duration storage over the next decade”.

“Ireland is one of a handful of EU member states without a hydrogen strategy,” Cunniffe added. “The Government must accelerate the development of a robust hydrogen strategy so that by the middle of this year we are setting out targets for green hydrogen use across industry, heavy road transport, shipping, aviation and power generation.

“Ireland is ready for green hydrogen, but we need a clear signal from Government that they are committed.”

In January, junior minister at the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications Ossian Smyth, TD, said a public consultation on a green hydrogen strategy will be launched later this year.

A solution to energy storage?

With the rise in renewables, energy storage is something that needs to be considered. Unlike fossil fuels, many forms of renewable energy such as wind and solar are weather dependent, which means excess energy can be lost in high-production periods. A lack of cheap storage means this energy can’t always be used during low-production times.

Among the other potential benefits hydrogen can play for the environment, Biebuyck said it can also help the energy storage issue.

“We have this imbalance between winter and summer. In summer you have a lot of sun, so you can produce a lot of renewable electricity. But we don’t use a lot of electricity in summer, the majority we need in the winter.

“So that’s where you need to store and basically balance the grid. We call it storage, but balancing the grid is something where hydrogen will play a very important role in the future,” Biebuyck added.

Once hydrogen is created through electrolysis, it can be stored in fuel cells. These cells can be used in applications such as power generation, vehicle fuel or injected into natural gas pipelines to reduce their carbon intensity.

Hydrogen can also be stored as a compressed gas or cryogenic liquid for later use, which could be useful to help maintain electrical grid stability during periods of low wind or solar energy.

While hydrogen is currently produced largely from fossil fuels, it has the potential to become a clean fuel source as other forms of renewable energy develop. With many organisations and research groups focused on development, the technology is also likely to improve further in the years ahead.

“Europe is leading in electrolyser technology worldwide. The US, China, Japan, they’re all looking to Europe to buy electrolysers because we have very high technology for that, which is very efficient as well,” Biebuyck said.

“This is recognised, so we should support that further and make sure that our European companies can also scale up and get the orders that they need.”

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic