The Promise and Potential of Sustainable Fuels

In order to meet decarbonization goals and limit the impacts of climate change, national power systems need to reach 100% renewable power generation without delay. Renewables like solar and wind will be needed in vast amounts, alongside flexible technology solutions, such as engine power plants and energy storage, to balance the intermittency of these power sources. However, this change cannot happen overnight.

Unlocking the final 20% to remove all fossil fuels and achieve a 100% renewable energy future before 2050 requires developments in new technologies, such as sustainable fuels and power-to-X fuels, over the next two decades. The influx of renewables entering power systems is creating the right conditions for excess clean electricity to be used as a raw material for new types of hydrogen-based, carbon-neutral sustainable fuels. Together with flexible power plants, sustainable fuels can meet the critical demand for long-term storage solutions that balance grids in an affordable and achievable way.

Sustainable fuels have the potential to be the cornerstone of future global energy systems, and must be leveraged as part of any decarbonization strategy to achieve a 100% renewable energy future. While there are a wide range of sustainable fuels currently in development, hydrogen, in particular green hydrogen, has been getting the most attention lately. Green hydrogen is produced via electrolysis using renewable electricity. It can be further processed into its derivatives, including ammonia and synthetic methane, and then stored and converted back to electricity for use in balancing power plants when the grid cannot be supported entirely by renewable energy sources.

Hydrogen is a promising sustainable fuel for several reasons. It’s carbon-free, has a high production energy efficiency, and with time, is predicted to become the most cost competitive fuel due to low renewable energy prices and anticipated advancements in production technologies. Infrastructure development remains a chief hurdle for widespread deployment of hydrogen, which is why the advancement of supporting technologies is critical to realizing hydrogen’s full potential.

Biofuels are also promising sustainable fuels. Biofuels such as bio-methane, bio-methanol, bio-ethanol, and liquid biofuels are carbon-neutral fuels that are produced from waste products, and agricultural and forestry products. They are not only readily available, but compatible with existing gas grid infrastructure when blended with natural gas, making them a potentially important “bridge fuel” as we continue to explore hydrogen production, transportation, and infrastructure.

Engine Technologies Support the Transition to Sustainable Fuels

Phasing out fossil fuels and converting power plants to run on sustainable fuels is the final step of the decarbonization journey. While we have a long way to go to reach that point, we can install technology today that can support the energy transition, without putting barriers in place for the adoption of sustainable fuels. Reciprocating internal combustion engine (RICE) power plants are one of those technologies.

RICE power plants possess a unique advantage in that they can run on carbon-free or carbon-neutral fuel blends today. This is important because we see the energy transition being supported by natural gas in the near term, via grid balancing engines that can adapt to the intermittency of renewables, before graduating to blends and eventually 100% sustainable fuels. The challenge to realizing sustainable fuels’ full potential is a lack of infrastructure to support production and transportation in the amounts needed to create these blends.

Despite these challenges, exciting things are happening in the field of hydrogen production, as well as in methanol, a carbon-neutral fuel that holds promise for wide adoption in the shipping industry, and ammonia, which, when produced using green hydrogen, is a carbon-free fuel. However the future plays out, what is clear is that internal combustion engines are an accessible, future-proof technology that is ready to use and consume sustainable fuels as they become more available.

Advancing the Adoption of Sustainable Fuels Through Research and Development Leadership

In October 2022, a significant step was taken to advance the use of hydrogen as a fuel in power generation. Technology group Wärtsilä pioneered the world’s first and largest internal combustion engine to operate on a 25% hydrogen blend, in partnership with the Electric Research Power Institute (EPRI), WEC Energy Group, WEC subsidiary utility Upper Michigan Energy Resource Corporation, and Burns & McDonnell.

The testing at the Mihm facility, completed in October 2022, was important as a measure of how the use of hydrogen could reduce the carbon footprint of an existing natural gas–fueled power plant. Courtesy: WEC Energy Group

The test results far exceeded expectations, achieving a 95% engine load using a 25% by volume hydrogen blend with natural gas, without making mechanical modifications to the engine, and demonstrating a significant reduction in carbon emissions. Most importantly, the test provided tangible proof that sustainable fuels, like hydrogen, when used in combination with reciprocating engine technology, can deliver future-proof solutions to support decarbonization in the energy sector.

The cutting-edge A.J. Mihm hydrogen blending test, which was conducted at the A.J. Mihm Generating Station in Pelkie, Michigan, is one example of how Wärtsilä is taking a leadership role in advancing sustainable fuels in the energy industry. Wärtsilä has been especially active in research and development of sustainable fuel-capable engines. Our gas engines are capable of operating with up to 25% by volume hydrogen blends. These engines can be incorporated into an existing system, providing a ready-to-go solution for customers to use in their decarbonization journeys.

Currently, we are developing an engine that can run on pure hydrogen, which we hope to launch by 2026. While it’s likely the infrastructure won’t be in place yet to support such an asset, the engines will be available for pilot testing wherever and whenever opportunities arise to present our vision for the future.

As a large supplier to the marine industry, Wärtsilä is also involved in methanol and ammonia research and development. We have developed a methanol-capable engine that is available and sought after by customers, and we expect more developments on the ammonia front in the coming years.

Sustainable Fuels Bring Certainty to an Uncertain Future

While the energy transition continues to unfold, the future is very bright for sustainable fuels. Investing in engines that offer fuel flexibility brings certainty to an uncertain situation, guaranteeing performance regardless of which sustainable fuels become dominant. Wärtsilä stands poised to support generators and utilities with the technologies they need to use these fuels to their full potential.

Jon Rodriguez, PE serves as Energy Business Director of Engine Power Plants at Wärtsilä North America Inc. He has more than 20 years of professional experience with a diverse background covering power generation in multiple industries including data centers, utilities, mining, oil and gas, and commercial/industrial customers.