The production of hydrogen fuel from renewable sources and its role in grid operations

Understanding the scale and nature of hydrogen’s potential role in the development of low carbon energy systems requires an examination of the operation of the whole energy system, including heat, power, industrial and transport sectors, on an hour-by-hour basis. The Future Energy Scenario Assessment (FESA) software model used for this study is unique in providing a holistic, high resolution, functional analysis, which incorporates variations in supply resulting from weather-dependent renewable energy generators. The outputs of this model, arising from any given user-definable scenario, are year round supply and demand profiles that can be used to assess the market size and operational regime of energy technologies. FESA was used in this case to assess what – if anything – might be the role for hydrogen in a low carbon economy future for the UK. In this study, three UK energy supply pathways were considered, all of which reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050, and substantially reduce reliance on oil and gas while maintaining a stable electricity grid and meeting the energy needs of a modern economy. All use more nuclear power and renewable energy of all kinds than today’s system. The first of these scenarios relies on substantial amounts of ‘clean coal’ in combination with intermittent renewable energy sources by year the 2050. The second uses twice as much intermittent renewable energy as the first and virtually no coal. The third uses 2.5 times as much nuclear power as the first and virtually no coal. All scenarios clearly indicate that the use of hydrogen in the transport sector is important in reducing distributed carbon emissions that cannot easily be mitigated by Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). In the first scenario, this hydrogen derives mainly from steam reformation of fossil fuels (principally coal), whereas in the second and third scenarios, hydrogen is made mainly by electrolysis using variable surpluses of low-carbon electricity. Hydrogen thereby fulfils a double facetted role of Demand Side Management (DSM) for the electricity grid and the provision of a ‘clean’ fuel, predominantly for the transport sector. When each of the scenarios was examined without the use of hydrogen as a transport fuel, substantially larger amounts of primary energy were required in the form of imported coal. The FESA model also indicates that the challenge of grid balancing is not a valid reason for limiting the amount of intermittent renewable energy generated. Engineering limitations, economic viability, local environmental considerations and conflicting uses of land and sea may limit the amount of renewable energy available, but there is no practical limit to the conversion of this energy into whatever is required, be it electricity, heat, motive power or chemical feedstocks.