Critics of renewable energy have pointed to the “intermittency” of renewables as a chief weakness. This claim, though exaggerated – and inaccurate where complementary renewables are distributed – has green energy advocates searching for a way to reduce intermittency by cleanly storing energy. Germany and Canada believe electrolysis may be the solution.
Electrolysis is the zero-emission process of splitting water into its component hydrogen and oxygen molecules. A working electrolyzer could take in excess electricity generated from solar or wind sources and then use it to split water. The primary appeal of this solution is that hydrogen gas can be stored and distributed using the existing infrastructure for natural gas, and hydrogen can easily be converted back into energy again. It can also be used in industrial and transportation sectors in the form of fuel cells, further reducing carbon emissions.
To test the viability of electrolysis, Germany will launch 20 demonstration water splitter projects. Each electrolyzer will be the size of a shipping container, but they can be deployed almost anywhere renewable projects are located.Canada, too, is constructing a hydrogen energy storage facility in Ontario.
The new proton exchange membrane electrolyzer under construction in Mainz, Germany will allegedly have the capacity to produce 650,000 kilograms of hydrogen per year. That’s the energy equivalent of 650,000 gallons of gasoline, according to MIT Technology Review. Hydrogenics is also designing a 40-megawatt system that will produce the equivalent of 4.3 million gallons of gasoline a year, and with none of the emissions.
Until recently, electrolysis was considered an ideal but expensive way to store energy. On top of that, the process resulted in a net loss of electricity. But improvements in the technology as well as the large-scale use of renewables have made water-splitting more appealing. Manufacturing costs for renewables are down and energy production is up, which means more surplus energy is available for use.
With renewables now producing almost 22 percent of the planet’s energy, these projects may have an even greater surplus to draw from when they go online next year.