Hydrogen’s potential for balancing the grid

Vincent Thornley discusses the potential of hydrogen for balancing the electricity grid in a ‘whole energy system’ strategy for the future.

As more intermittent renewables are connected to the grid, it is increasingly recognised that we need to balance supply and demand with more resources for storage and the flexible transportation of energy. But, while large scale batteries are the most obvious go-to technology for achieving this, there is growing interest in the role of hydrogen.

Rather than focusing exclusively on storing electrons in batteries, we need to think about our entire energy infrastructure. The unique flexibility of hydrogen as an energy vector gives it the potential to be an increasingly important part of electricity’s future – in particular as a low or zero resource for balancing the grid. And conversely, the hydrogen industry’s future depends on electricity. We are symbiotic partners.

Hydrogen can be produced from electricity, and used to generate electricity. It can be produced from fossil fuels (with carbon capture), and used to replace fossil fuels. It can be burned directly to produce heat and motive power. It can be mixed with natural and biogas. And above all, it can be stored and transported, in anything from liquid to gaseous form.

Australia’s hydrogen balancing act

A model for how hydrogen can be integrated into a ‘whole energy system’ can be found in Australia, which is committed to the creation of Renewable Energy Zones – large scale virtual power stations, designed to replaced coal power stations directly, with a combination of zero carbon generation, embedded storage and upgraded transmission grids.

More than 40 potential REZs have been identified, with hydrogen-powered generation, storage and transportation as essential parts of the mix|. Initial projects total 32GW: 23GW of green generation, plus 9GW of storage available for ‘firming’ i.e. import/export and load balancing.

For example, New South Wales is planning to attract US$21 billion of private investment to create five REZs. One of the first will cover 7,727 square miles – almost as big as the 8,024 square miles of the Welsh nation itself. It is projected to generate 3GW: 25% of the state’s demand, together with mass storage. Another fours state REZs are in the pipeline.

Hydrogen production, storage and transport are very much part of Australia’s strategy. REZs will produce the gas by electrolysis from surplus electricity, when wind, solar and hydro supplies exceed demand. But Australia has also embraced the idea that, as renewable electricity becomes cheaper and more abundant, it makes economic as well as environmental sense to produce hydrogen as a primary source of energy, rather than simply to soak up surplus generating capacity.

Part of Australia’s plan is to use cheap hydrogen from REZs to directly replace hydrocarbon fuels used by industry, at lower cost than coal. It also hopes to replace coal exports with hydrogen, to strategically important markets including South East Asia.

The UK hydrogen economy

The UK certainly has a strategy to create a much larger hydrogen economy than exists at present, where much of the gas is currently produced as a byproduct of industrial processes. Aided by £4 billion of government funding, the aim is to ramp up production dramatically, together with the creation of a national hydrogen transmission and distribution network.

The Energy Network Association’s ‘A hydrogen vision for the UK’ report of April 2023 makes an ambitious case for hydrogen’s role in decarbonisation of energy, stating:  “Analysis published in the UK Hydrogen Strategy indicated that low carbon hydrogen may increase from minimal use currently to comprising 20–35 per cent of the UK’s final energy consumption in 2050 – equivalent to 250–460 TWh and similar in scale to present electricity use”.

Putting such projections into practice would demand a wholesale transformation of how energy in the UK is produced, stored, distributed and used over the next 26 years. It would involve using hydrogen directly as a full or partial replacement for hydrocarbon fuels in areas including transport, heating and industrial processes.

Much of that hydrogen would be produced from electricity – and some of the electricity would be delivered by a grid kept in balance by electricity generated from stored hydrogen.

Complementary technologies

The ENA’s report includes a 2030 map, identifying sites producing 10 GW of hydrogen (50% electrolytically), four hydrogen industrial clusters, plus at least one hydrogen village and a town. Hundreds of miles of repurposed and new pipelines are hydrogen-capable. By 2050, it claims hydrogen production could reach 400 TWh per year, with storage up to 50 TWh.

The bottom line is that hydrogen and electricity should be regarded as complementary technologies. Electricity is essential to produce hydrogen. Generating electricity from stored hydrogen has the potential to balance supply and demand across the grid. Both electricity and hydrogen have the ability to replace carbon-based energy directly. But used together as part of a whole energy system strategy, they will be unstoppable in the race to reach net zero carbon.