Decarbonizing the Power Industry with Low-Carbon-Intensity Hydrogen

Transformational changes in the energy space will need to occur to meet the current global community’s decarbonization and climate protection commitments. Low-carbon-intensity hydrogen could provide valuable options to solve looming challenges.

In order to reach the United Nations’ net zero by 2050 energy goal, real transformative change needs to happen in the power industry today. With ambitious targets such as these, accelerating the energy transition and decarbonizing heavy industry has never been more important. While acting to achieve these goals may seem like a daunting and difficult endeavor for many within the power generation space, it doesn’t have to be.

With new technology and renewable energy sources available, there are a variety of emission reduction options for companies seeking to transition their manufacturing processes to sources and feedstocks that are more sustainable for the environment. Often, when people envision renewable energy, they think of energy sources like solar and wind. While these renewable energy sources will play a key role in the future power grid, they will not be able to address the increasingly prevalent question of load balancing in a heavily electrified ecosystem. Hydrogen provides the final piece of the puzzle to help smooth out supply-demand imbalances between generation and usage.

Low-carbon-intensity (low-CI) hydrogen—via electrolysis with renewable power or by sequestering carbon dioxide (CO2)—can provide unique options in decarbonization as energy-intensive industries reduce their carbon emissions to meet sustainability goals. North America, in particular, has one of the most robust hydrogen ecosystems in the world to help facilitate the energy transition, making geographies like the U.S. and Canada ideal for early endeavors into decarbonizing power generation.

Hydrogen Has an Established Ecosystem

The industrial gas industry has supplied hydrogen to space flight and refining applications at various scales since the 1950s. As a result, an ecosystem has developed to support both large-scale and specialty hydrogen processes, so it is readily available now.

There is a common misconception among many industries that hydrogen is a scarce commodity today that is difficult to acquire, even to run tests and trials, which is far from the truth. Reliable hydrogen is available today in many different supply modes to fit various needs. Air Products expects to continue to see an increase in the use of hydrogen, including new sources of low-CI hydrogen, for decarbonization within the power and steam generation industry as it moves to reduce CO2 emissions.

In fact, early movers in exploring hydrogen will be comparatively prepared to adopt hydrogen as the industry moves toward a decarbonized future. Replacing natural gas with low-CI hydrogen can help power companies lower their Scope 1 and Scope 3 emissions, and be a part of the solution to meet sustainability goals. Customers looking to utilize existing infrastructure can even introduce hydrogen into current natural gas combustion processes through onsite blending skids that can help incrementally begin the path to decarbonization, test equipment, and validate new systems. Implementing processes that are conducive to supporting low-CI hydrogen is easier than one may think. Working with industrial gas suppliers, like Air Products, who can provide a reliable supply of hydrogen and related equipment, can make the operational transition seamless for companies looking to reduce their carbon footprint.

When discussing low-carbon-intensity hydrogen, many organizations do not realize that it’s readily available today and can be supplied in many ways to end-users. However, before adopting low-CI hydrogen, there are a few things to consider. Research is key. Do your homework and make sure you are choosing to work with an industrial gas company that checks all of your boxes. For instance, a company such as Air Products is the world’s largest supplier of hydrogen and also produces its own low-CI hydrogen through safe and reliable processes. Experience and the ability to provide a safe, reliable supply are among the key factors a company should consider when investigating a switch to low-CI hydrogen for manufacturing processes.

Applications Ripe for Low-CI Hydrogen

There are various applications for hydrogen and working with an expert to find the right one for a specific manufacturing process can help set a company up for long-term success. There are early applications for low-CI hydrogen that Air Products believes will enable customers to use hydrogen in their processes. Introducing hydrogen can provide incremental benefits in carbon emissions reduction on the way to full conversion and decarbonization. Industrial gas companies today are working on maximizing the amenability of hydrogen by expanding the industry’s production capacity, supply chain capabilities, and applications technology development, so that energy-generating equipment such as gas turbines, steam boilers, fuel cells, and combustion engines can all work in tandem to transition to the low-CI fuel.

Gas Turbines. Gas turbines are a staple of the power generation industry, and the ability to convert natural gas to a low-CI feed will be crucial to decarbonizing the grid (Figure 1). Gas turbines typically operate at high pressure and high flowrate. The industrial gas industry, and Air Products in particular, has been serving high-flowrate applications in refining, chemicals, and space flight for more than 60 years. Air Products proprietary cryogenic hydrogen compressor technology enables customers to achieve high pressures while simultaneously maximizing flowrate.

1. Many companies have established plans to blend hydrogen with natural gas to reduce carbon emissions from gas-fired combustion turbines. In some cases, the long-term goal is to ultimately burn 100% hydrogen. Courtesy: Air Products

Gas turbine owners and manufacturers may opt to take an incremental approach to introducing hydrogen, scaling first from hydrogen tube trailer volumes, then to liquid, and perhaps onsite or pipeline supply to achieve necessary scale. In order to make this leap with a gas turbine, hydrogen supply flexibility will be critical, as liquid (cryogenic) hydrogen supply options will allow high throughput trials and a packaged hydrogen generator or pipeline service option will allow permanent hydrogen adoption long-term. In the power industry’s future decarbonized state, hydrogen will fill the niche of a fuel for “peaker” units to help balance the load and supplement the baseload of renewable electricity generation that will simultaneously act as the input for electrolytic hydrogen production.

Steam Boilers. Steam boilers are another important application of the power and steam generation sector, these highly efficient pieces of equipment are perhaps one of the best early use cases for distributed hydrogen adoption.

Steam boilers operate at a low pressure with a lower flowrate on average, relative to gas turbines, meaning that many commercial and industrial–scale boilers can be served on a consistent basis with high-density liquid hydrogen supply without having to add supplemental capital to achieve high pressures. Similar to gas turbines, liquid hydrogen with temporary pumper trailers is ideal for tests and trials to explore how hydrogen will impact your process with minimal capital commitment.

Transition to permanent hydrogen supply can come in many forms, depending on the specific throughput requirements of the boiler. Regardless of the customer’s needs, established industry leaders will have options available in the form of pipeline, onsite, or distributed supply for both primary and backup use.

Combustion Engines. Internal combustion engines are most prominently used in mobility and transportation applications, but many industries use combustion engines for backup power generation at lower flowrates relative to their turbine and boiler counterparts. Most power generation combustion engines are fueled by diesel or natural gas today, but introducing hydrogen or hydrogen blends can help decarbonize these backup power solutions for applications that require near 100% uptime.

While individual engines may have lower flowrates, a customer site may have dozens of generators to ensure maximum reliability in the event of an outage, meaning that understanding the storage and deployment requirements to effectively serve the site is key. Based on the scale of the site, either cryogenic liquid hydrogen trailers or high-pressure gaseous tube trailers may both serve as appropriate supply modes for temporary and permanent use.

Fuel Cells. Lastly, fuel cells are intrinsically linked to hydrogen power generation—the very same process of producing hydrogen via electrolysis, only reversed, is how a fuel cell generates electricity. Like combustion engines, fuel cells are often thought of first as a mobility application; however, they do have a home in stationary power generation microgrids.

Fuel cells boast higher maximum energy efficiencies than turbines and combustion engines, which speaks to their potential as a future contributor to the distributed power generation industry. As the electrolyzer and fuel cell industries grow in tandem, product development and economies of scale will help drive down costs and improve reliability to potentially compete directly with certain combustion applications for stationary power in the long-term. Early fuel cell applications are on the smaller-scale end of flowrates, but they can be stacked together like combustion engines to create an interconnected primary or backup at scale power generation system.

Enabling Equipment. When determining companies to work with to meet decarbonization goals, make sure to not only focus on the delivery of hydrogen. There are pieces of enabling equipment that can make a power or steam generation company’s project simpler and more cost effective (Figure 2).

2. A variety of components are often needed to effectively transition power systems to hydrogen fuel. Working with an experienced partner to design and test equipment skids will pay dividends in the long run. Courtesy: Air Products

In an earlier section, the blending of hydrogen and natural gas was mentioned. Blend skids are not difficult in concept to produce; however, working with an established industrial gas firm ensures that vetted equipment and design are creating optimal blend capability.

Another area that will be of great importance is communication and control. A company such as Air Products offers such capability through its “Smart Technology” offerings. This unique communication and control product has shifted automation and control to the world of artificial intelligence (AI), allowing continuous monitoring and control to be world class by using approaches vetted through Air Products’ more than 60 years in the industry.

Lastly, companies will want to learn more about optimizations taking place in burner technology. New hydrogen-fueled burners are being developed and trialed to enhance the efficiency of hydrogen while minimizing issues that combustion can create, such as nitrogen oxides (NOx) or carbon monoxide (CO). The future is bright for these and other enabling equipment developments.

As the ideal renewable fuel to leverage and synergize with the world’s growing renewable electricity generation portfolio, hydrogen is here to stay. Regardless of the end-use industry, there is a supply mode and application to fit your organization’s unique needs and requirements. For those looking to learn more or to take that first step into adapting their manufacturing processes to support hydrogen, Air Products suggests connecting with an industrial gas supplier that will work with you to address your unique needs.

Timothy Lebrecht is industry manager for Energy Transition and the Chemicals Process Industries with Air Products and Chemicals Inc.

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