Hydrogen provides low-carbon energy solutions

Germany will extend its hydrogen fuel network to 400 stations by 2023. [pixelfreestyle/Flickr]

The use of hydrogen as an energy carrier, a more recent development than its industrial use, has its place in the low-carbon economy of the future, in both buildings and transport. But the technology is still poorly understood in France. EURACTIV’s partner La Tribune reports.

EasyJet, the Parisian taxi company Hype, Toyota Mirai, PRAGMA bikes, the forklifts used by Ikea, a school canteen on the island of Reunion, and the decarbonisation projects in Dunkirk and Fos-sur-Mer all have one thing in common. They all use hydrogen-based solutions, be it to move aircraft on the ground, to fuel their vehicles, to extend the life of their electric batteries or to heat their buildings.

Discovered in 1839, hydrogen has been used in industry for decades. It even served in the Apollo space programme, as a rocket fuel.

From chemical compound to energy vector

Hydrogen is mainly produced from natural gas and used as an ingredient in industrial processes, but it is also interesting for its qualities as an energy carrier.

Hydrogen fuel cells can provide energy in two ways. The first is “power to gas”, which consists of producing hydrogen from energy sources (renewables or fossil fuels) to be stored in natural gas networks, before converting it back into electricity when it is needed.

When produced from renewable resources, it can provide low-carbon electricity and heat; a particularly valuable asset in the wake of COP 21.

In Japan, boilers using this technology have already been installed in 100,000 homes. In Fos-sur-Mer, the Jupiter 1000 project, led by GRT Gas, consists of converting surplus electricity from a wind farm and using the CO2 from industrial emissions to produce hydrogen gas and synthetic methane, which is then injected into the natural gas network.

In a school canteen in Mafate, on the island of Reunion, EDF has installed a hydrogen-based system combining the production and storage of electricity, to provide a continuous electricity supply outside the sunny periods. And another project in Dunkirk focusses on using hydrogen to bring together the management of electricity and natural gas.

Conducted by French energy company Engie, this project aims to assess the technical and economic benefits of “power to gas” technology on a national scale for the housing market, but also for transport, using a fleet of fifty buses powered by a mixture of hydrogen and natural gas.

French car manufacturers are still cautious

The second solution is “power to fuel”. This is used in transport and works by transforming on-board hydrogen and oxygen into electricity and water (according to the principle of electrolysis and the fuel cell). The electricity is then used to fuel the electric motor and batteries of the vehicle.

As well as Toyota and Mirai, Honda, Hyundai, BMW, Mercedes and Audi all either offer or are currently planning hydrogen-powered models. In France, besides the fleet of Hype taxis, some forklift trucks and a few electric Kangoo vans owned by the postal service, which use hydrogen fuel cells to increase their autonomy by up to 300 kilometres, the technology has failed to seduce vehicle manufacturers.

But other French players are at the cutting-edge of these technologies, including large companies like Air Liquide and Engie, as well as start-ups like or McPhy and Symbio FCell, and even some research laboratories. French fuel company Total intends to extend its network to include 50 hydrogen fuel stations in Germany by 2018, as part of the national programme H2 Mobility Deutschland. This programme should take that number to 400 by the year 2023.

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