Thinking Holistically About Hydrogen’s Place in the Energy Transition
As energy operators across the world come to terms with the continuously changing nature of the energy transition, the need for a wide-lens view of the situation is clear. This includes knowing the capabilities and pitfalls of renewable energy sources at our fingertips, hydrogen being one that is especially prevalent.
Kees van Wingerden, an expert with more than 45 years’ experience in industrial safety and infrastructure development, makes the case for holistic thinking and planning for the ‘new’ energy landscape.
Everyone has an opinion on the energy transition and believes theirs is the ‘right’ one. Each is valid, but without actually pausing and assessing the situation objectively, we as an international community cannot progress. Nor can we ascertain how that progress can be fulfilled safely.
In my experience of the hydrogen sector – which is widely accepted as being a valuable aspect of future energy usage – planning is everything. From the early stages of a facility’s development, through to generation, storage, and distribution, ‘feasibility’ is a term that is constantly on everyone’s mind. It’s not one that we can pass over.
‘Feasibility’ and ‘holistically’ is a perfect combination. As an example, understanding the relationship between a hydrogen fuelling station and what potential hazards may be posed to the immediate surrounding environment, ensures the necessary protocols can be perfected and followed before an incident occurs. That also extends to gas leaks and how these will need to be contained. Such lessons need a holistic view and thought process.
Within that same process, particularly as we are looking at ways to accelerate the transition to renewables, the consequences of increased and decreased demand will need careful consideration. How much of the former can be achieved without putting too much pressure on the existing infrastructure’s capabilities? And where are the likely ‘weak spots’ as electric grids adapt to accommodate the alternative energy forms?
Questions like these last two are, too often, being missed in the planning and the implementation stages of renewable energy networks. The speed at which renewable energy centres can be rolled out should not come at the cost of safety, a case in point with hydrogen being the 2019 explosion at a station in Sandvika, near Oslo. Of course, lessons from that incident have been learnt and action has been taken to ensure a repeat is less likely, but the fact is prevention is a much more effective defence than the cure.
Hydrogen is gaining popularity is because of it being a real clean fuel, generating only water upon combustion. It is versatile and suitable for various uses. Storage is, however, a characteristic that hydrogen has in its disfavour because of its low density. Hence hydrogen is stored at very high pressures or as a liquid, both potentially introducing risks. Again, the risks and rewards all need to be weighed carefully with the consequences of a change in demand, whether further feasibility studies are required, and how efficiently these can be completed. Efficient processes must also form part of that holistic mindset referred to previously.
Knowing that we need more renewable energy resources is one thing – actually producing the necessary facilities such as hydrogen fuelling stations for transport and at marine ports for instance, is still lagging despite all the noise being made in all corners of the industry. This is the result of technology being developed faster than the doors can open; even before the Ukraine-Russia situation, such a complex matrix of various inputs from all manner of sources has placed untold strain on power grids already being stretched to capacity.
In conjunction, the speed at which facilities are developed and ‘opened’ is holding back the transition further. Even for a ‘small scale’ facility, it can take a number of years for it to become fully operational. Granted, we all want (and arguably, need) renewables to be accelerated, but not at the cost of safety, as alluded to earlier. Looking at the entire lifespan of a renewable facility – be it a hydrogen fuelling station or a wind farm – ensures that planning for all eventualities and unexpected delays are kept to a minimum, but also increases the likelihood of potential faults being identified before they become wider problems and therefore set the transition back further.
COP26 and 27 have presented opportunities to identify the so-called ‘elephants in the room’. These, however, now need to be followed up with procedural, legislative, and holistic adaptations for them to be effective. The time for talking about the issue has long passed – we, as suppliers to and stakeholders of the global energy sector, each have several responsibilities to address. This collaborative approach is not a new concept, but it is one that still isn’t being embraced for one reason or another.
Yet there is evidence that we can work in this holistic manner. Feasibility studies is one such example. Understanding the effect an increased demand of, say 10%, on the local supply network is a standard conversation at the very beginning of a facility’s lifespan – why can we not do the same for other points?
Only by asking these same (or at least similar) questions throughout all eventualities can we make the future energy landscape one that is sustainable in terms of the environment and the infrastructure in which it is situated.
Kees van Wingerden, VP Industrial Risk at Vysus Group, holds a PhD from the University of Bergen, Norway and an MSc from Delft University of Technology, Netherlands. He has more than 45 years of experience related to gas and dust explosions, comprising of R&D, consultancy work, project and company management and sales, in addition to being involved in numerous accident investigations. The last few years his attention has been devoted to hydrogen safety.