It’s Time To Build The Intermittent Renewable Plus Hydrogen Storage Demonstration Project!

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Francis Menton

My last post discussed a new Report out from the UK’s Royal Society in early September, with the title “Large-scale electricity storage.” The Report describes and models how the UK might build out a “net zero” electricity system for Great Britain. The proposed system would consist of generation entirely from wind and solar sources, with the intermittency backed up only from energy storage and without any use of fossil fuels.

To its credit, the Report dabbles in reality on the subject of how to store sufficient amounts of energy and for a long enough period of time. It considers the various sorts of battery storage that might be used, and concludes that none of them could remotely handle the task at affordable cost. After also considering ammonia as a potential energy storage medium (too costly and dangerous), the Report concludes that the only viable alternative for the storage piece is hydrogen.

Here, from the Executive Summary, is the headline conclusion from the Report:

In 2050 Great Britain’s demand for electricity could be met by wind and solar energy supported by large-scale storage. . . . Meeting the need for long-duration storage will require very low cost per unit energy stored. In GB, the leading candidate is storage of hydrogen in solution-mined salt caverns. . . .

The Report then proceeds to a treatment of the prospective costs of this system. Unfortunately, that treatment of costs is perfunctory and thoroughly inadequate. Ultimate electricity prices to the consumer are not even mentioned. There is brief discussion of how much this system, based on projected costs, would charge as a wholesale price to the grid. However, there are obvious gaps in that analysis (discussed in my prior post), and one commenter suggests that the Report’s guesstimated costs could be off by as much as a factor of ten.

Unlike the authors of this Report, I would not claim to know what the costs of this proposed system might be. But I can see that the proposed system would be very large, very complex, that it has never been tried before, that it has many elements that are novel and will need to be designed from scratch. In the real world, things with these characteristics have a way of costing a multiple of what their proponents claim they will cost.

In promoting that Great Britain should move toward a fully wind/solar/storage electricity system by 2050, the Royal Society is essentially advocating that every one of GB’s 65 million or so inhabitants shall be made guinea pigs for a system that may or may not work and whose unanticipated costs could be enormous. No responsible government would ever go down such a road.

There is an obvious alternative approach: Build a demonstration project to establish feasibility and cost.

Once hydrogen made by electrolysis from water has been selected as the storage medium, it is not difficult to envision what the demonstration project will consist of. Pick a town or region of about 65,000 people, or about 0.1% of the population of GB. For the backup, build a modest-sized thermal power plant for burning the hydrogen (when needed) of about 60 MW nameplate capacity. Then dedicate to the project wind turbines sufficient to generate the entire electricity usage of the 65,000 people over the course of a year, plus all the losses in hydrogen production and storage. This will probably require something like 300 MW of wind turbines (nameplate capacity). The output of the wind turbines will either go to direct supply, or when in excess will feed electrolyzers to make the hydrogen. You will need to procure the electrolyzers, and also create a big enough salt cavern to store hydrogen to cover these people for at least a couple of months in the event of wind drought. Don’t forget the water purification system to make the sea water pure enough to be electrolyzed. And of course add in pipelines to take the hydrogen to the salt cavern and from there to the thermal power plant when needed.

Now you have all the elements to be the equivalent of a dispatchable fossil fuel-burning thermal plant. If it turns out that you have underestimated the amount of hydrogen you need to keep this going all the time, and you need to build facilities to make more hydrogen, well now you know.

I suspect that this system for the size specified could be built for a few tens of billions of pounds. That will be very expensive. But it will be the best tens of billions of pounds you have ever spent, because when it shows that this system costs five or ten times what the existing system costs to produce the same electricity, it will be abandoned. And the people will have been spared decades of impoverishment. And, if it turns out that the system can be built at some modest premium to the current system (unlikely), then at least a rational debate can be had as to whether this premium is worth spending for the slight “climate” benefits.

Meanwhile, there continues to be no demonstration project anywhere in the world of a wind/solar/storage electricity system that can keep the lights on through the year without fossil fuel backup. The Gorona del Viento project (wind turbines and a pumped storage reservoir) on El Hierro Island off Spain fails worse and worse every year. From its website, here is its stated objective:

Gorona del Viento, El Hierro, S.A.´s Wind-Pumped Hydro Power Station is designed to supply the Meridian Island with electrical energy derived from clean, renewable energy sources such as water and wind. The Wind Farm has capacity to fully meet El Hierro´s demand for electricity.

But at the data section of the website, we find this chart:

There are 8760 hours in a year (8784 in a leap year like 2020). So in 2019 they got all of their electricity from the wind/hydro system about 26% of the time. Then that dropped to under 22% of the time in 2020, and less than 15% of the time in 2021. Some time in 2022 they stopped reporting the data. Now they blare out baloney about “tons of carbon emissions saved” while running the backup diesel generator fully 85% of the time.

If anybody thought that the demonstration project I proposed could be built at reasonable cost to make a profit, then multiple entrepreneurs would already be building these things. Meanwhile the costs are buried so no one can figure them out. We have a desperate need for a real demonstration project. UK, you are the one to do it!