A wind-to-hydrogen demonstration project in Scotland. (Photo by James Morrison via Creative Commons)
A wind-to-hydrogen demonstration project in Scotland. (Photo by James Morrison via Creative Commons)
A wind-to-hydrogen demonstration project in Scotland. (Photo by James Morrison via Creative Commons)

For all the theoretical promise of pairing wind energy with hydrogen production, no U.S. project has ever made it to full commercial scale.

In Minnesota, that may be about to change.

Hydrogen has long been studied as a potential solution to wind’s timing problem, which is that wind generation tends to be highest at night when demand for electricity is low.

Through electrolysis, in which electricity is used to split water into oxygen and hydrogen, surplus wind power at night could be converted to hydrogen, which could then be used in a fuel cell to generate electricity the next day during peak demand.

A handful of pilot projects have demonstrated the technology works, but no one in this country has succeeded in making it economically viable.

A Minnesota project developer believes it may have the answer: Supplementing hydrogen energy storage with sales of “carbon-free” hydrogen for industrial uses.

Emerald H2 and Norfolk Wind Energy announced plans last month to develop a 10-megawatt wind facility that would annually produce more than 500,000 kilograms of hydrogen.

A small fraction of that hydrogen, less than 5 percent, would feed a fuel cell capable of generating 1 megawatt of electricity during hours of peak electricity demand.

The rest would be sold for use in a wide variety of industrial applications, from oil refining and chemical production to metals fabrication and electronics manufacturing.

A company official said the roughly $40 million project would be the largest of its kind in the United States, producing 20 times more hydrogen than a wind-to-hydrogen demonstration project in Boulder, Colorado.

Much like how ethanol producers have diversified into other products such as corn oil to boost their bottom lines, Emerald H2 thinks these other sales could make the energy component viable.

“We think there may be a market for some of those [industrial] users to use carbon-free hydrogen in all or a portion of their operation,” said Patrick Pelstring, one of Emerald H2’s co-founders.

The company is a joint venture between Minnesota wind developer National Renewable Solutions and an Ohio company, Millennium Reign Energy, which makes hydrogen electrolysis equipment.

The project would be within the footprint of a larger wind farm currently under development by Norfolk Wind Energy in Renville County, about 100 miles west of the Twin Cities.

‘People are still stuck on the Hindenburg’

Even if the technology proves viable, wind-to-hydrogen will continue to face both societal and financial barriers, said Mike Michaud, vice president of engineering for Juhl Wind, which is not involved in the project.

In 2005, as a public policy graduate student at the University of Minnesota, Michaud wrote his thesis paper on the economics of combined wind-hydrogen peaking plants. “They didn’t look too good back then,” he said.

Over the last decade, though, the cost and efficiency of hydrogen fuel cells has improved tremendously, to the point that Michaud now believes the day is near when such a plant is viable.

“All the components are really sophisticated. What we need is somebody to put it together and make it work,” said Michaud.

“Try to go get a bank to finance a wind-hydrogen fuel plant today and they’ll show you the door,” Michaud said. “There’s a basic hurdle that has to be overcome with the perception of hydrogen as a viable source.

“People are still stuck on the Hindenburg idea, that hydrogen is too dangerous to use. In fact, it’s no more difficult to handle than natural gas. Once we can get a societal consensus that this is a viable technology that we should be developing, we can actually bring money to move the technology to demonstrating a business case.”

Hydrogen-powered cars could boost technology

Pelstring admits that financing for its Renville project is far from certain, but he thinks the project has features that will make it appealing to a utility customer, as well as users of industrial hydrogen.

Emerald H2 plans to sell wind power directly to a utility about a third of the time, from late morning to evening when utilities always need electricity. The utility won’t be forced to buy or accept power at other times.

Around the time people start turning off the lights for bed, the Renville facility would begin using wind power for electrolysis, storing oxygen and hydrogen in tanks for sale or use in fuel cells during peak demand, when generators can fetch a higher rate for electricity.

Hydrogen is used in chemical reactions by wide variety of industries. It’s used for making fuels, glass, metals, chemicals, and electronics, among other products. Currently, many industrial users make their own hydrogen, but “carbon-free” could be a selling point.

Another development that could boost the project’s fortunes is the development of cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells. Their current business case doesn’t count on it, but if a fuel-cell vehicle market takes off it could accelerate, Pelstring said.

Several automakers plan to begin commercializing fuel-cell vehicles over the next few years. Michaud said one vision is for a network of distributed wind-to-hydrogen vehicle fuel stations across the country, with a single turbine supplying each one.

Pelstring said the company is in talks with a utility, with prospective industrial customers, and with “a number of institutional investors who are aware of what we’re doing and have a strong interest in it.”

“Until we can connect the dots and show where we can generate the revenue from the electric power and buyers for our hydrogen, we won’t have it financed,” Pelstring said. “We’re well into that process. We’re encouraged by the response we’ve gotten and we really expect over the next three to four months that those pieces will come together.”

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