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Hydrogen vs Electrification: Could hydrogen and electrification have a symbiotic relationship?

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John Armstrong's picture
Chief Operating Officer BPA

John Armstrong is an engineer whose career has spanned the extremes of the energy industry – giving him a front-row seat on the energy roller-coaster. He began his career constructing oil...

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  • Jul 12, 2021
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Rather than being competitors could hydrogen infrastructure complement electric vehicle infrastructure? Whilst light vehicles may be more likely be battery powered in the future, heavy trucks are a little more difficult to decarbonise and therefore it is likely that an alternative will be needed to batteries for those heavier parts of the fleet. This may well be hydrogen.

PEM (polymer electrolyte membrane) electrolysis technology uses container based modular units, with relatively maintenance free technology. What they do need is a ready supply of electricity and lots of it. In a hydrogen world filling stations may be able to generate their hydrogen locally (rather than needing to be supplied by tanker) using PEM electrolysis - however this will very certainly need large connections to the electricity grid.

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Fast EV charging stations in the future will also need to have big grid connections, with more and more electric vehicles on the road these connections are going to get bigger and bigger – especially with some chargers packing an impressive 350kw (compared to a tiny 7kw home charger!) for just one charge point. The grid connection won’t be consistently used as cars come and go and the larger fast ones are very unlikely to be used over night. The potential exists to use that grid capacity to generate hydrogen. This hydrogen could then be stored ready for when a vehicle arrived which needed it. Filing stations of the future could therefore deliver both electric vehicle and hydrogen charging - the hydrogen being generated overnight when the grid capacity isn't being used.

Finally if there was more electricity demand than the grid could deliver, or electricity was extremely expensive, the hydrogen could be put back through a fuel cell to electric vehicles!

Thus for transport, hydrogen and electrification might not be competitors but symbiotic partners - relying on each other to deliver their form of energy. Charging electric vehicles and filling hydrogen trucks may well be done in the same place sharing the same gird connection, but with the technologies symbiotically linked to deliver the optimum outcome.

I wonder how many other relationships could exist in the future energy world?

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jul 12, 2021

I think you're right, John-- we've moved beyond silver bullets and more towards identifying and optimizing the best solution for each specific use case. There's room for lots of solutions

Charles Botsford, PE's picture
Charles Botsford, PE on Jul 17, 2021

Hi John,

Even heavy-duty electric trucks and buses look great for electrification applications, especially around ports. Many transit districts are moving to electric buses. Hydrogen for transportation applications has many problems, foremost of which is thermodynamics. The overall system efficiency is just a tad above diesel-powered vehicles when you take electrolysis, compression, transport, materials, and a variety of other issues into account. Electric trucks and buses, however, have a major advantage over their hydrogen and diesel step-cousins. Utilities, when they have enough planning time, haven't gotten too fussy about providing electrical service for the projects I've been involved with. 

I'm a chemical engineer. So I really like hydrogen for hydrocracking, hydrogenation, making fertilizer, and a few niche applications. So far, I haven't seen many compelling applications for hydrogen that make economic or technical sense, and the company I used to work for investigated pretty much every likely hydrogen fuel cell application (UAVs, cars, locomotives, cell towers, forklifts, mine loaders, buses) -- you name it, we built working prototypes. However, just because you can build something that works, doesn't mean you can sell it in the marketplace.

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