The role of hydrogen-powered gas turbines in net-zero transition

Are we heading towards a hydrogen economy?

It certainly seems so. Some of the biggest economies are leading the way on the hydrogen-energy roadmap: China, the USA, India, South Korea, Japan, and the EU.

According to a report, Geopolitics of the Energy Transformation: The Hydrogen Factor, from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), the political and economic push for hydrogen-based energy planning is on the rise and could account for 12 percent of global energy use by 2050.

So, why this newfound love for hydrogen as an energy source? Hasn’t it been around always? Yes, it has, but we were far too comfortable using fossil fuels to pay more attention. But the clock is ticking on global climate, and the world is racing toward finding energy alternatives. Result? The H factor has come to the forefront.

Hydrogen has a lot going for it: The first element in the periodic table, hydrogen, is the lightest, fastest, and cleanest because when it burns, it produces water as the only byproduct. It is abundant in the atmosphere, composing an estimated 75 percent of the universe’s mass, and shares a long history with energy – it powered the first internal combustion engines over 200 years ago. It is easy to store, energy-rich, emissions-free, and can be produced from a range of resources such as natural gas, biomass, nuclear power, etc.

With all this goodness, is there a challenge? Yes. For hydrogen to significantly contribute to clean energy transitions, it must be adopted in sectors where it is almost absent, such as transport, buildings, cement and steel manufacturing, and power generation. The use of bridge technologies, such as hydrogen-powered gas turbines, can accelerate this energy transition.

Investments in hydrogen production from renewable sources by large economies such as China, the US, and the EU is a growing reality. With government backing and private sector support, we could see hydrogen investment reach the EUR 1 trillion landmark by 2050.

Gray vs Green Hydrogen: A drift in hydrogen-production source

One of the fundamental challenges in deploying hydrogen as an energy source is its production. There are four forms of hydrogen production: natural gas, oil, coal, and electrolysis. The first three are fossil-fuel driven and create grey hydrogen. The last method creates green hydrogen, which is the need of the hour.

Almost 95-96 percent of the hydrogen produced and used in the US is grey hydrogen derived from natural gas and fossil fuels to refine petroleum, make fertilizer, process foods, treat metals, and fuel rockets.

On the other hand, green hydrogen is produced from renewable sources by electrolyzing water using solar or wind-generated electricity. It can be stored underground in gaseous or liquid form for years without difficulty and reconverted into electricity on demand, with no carbon emission.

It’s not difficult to see why the future is green hydrogen.

Large-scale consumption of green hydrogen will be a growing reality to decarbonize chemical and high-temperature processes such as steel manufacturing. In addition, green hydrogen makes inroads as an alternative transportation fuel mainly because it can power fuel cells in zero-emission vehicles.

Plug Power Inc., an American company that develops hydrogen fuel cell systems to replace conventional batteries, sees green hydrogen as a substitute for inland transportation that would be tough to decarbonize, such as long-haul trucking or delivery vans. In partnership with Renault Group, has developed a green-hydrogen-powered delivery van named H-2 Tech under their new brand Hyvia.

Promoting hydrogen-powered gas turbines to speed up the energy transition

The energy transition is a critical urgency. But how can we achieve that without rethinking our approach to enablers of energy generation for net-zero effect? For example, gas turbines are at the heart of energy production. Traditionally, gas turbines are powered by burning fossil fuels, which is counter-productive to our future. Therefore, the interest in using hydrogen from renewable sources as a power plant fuel is rising.

All the major energy players will eventually switch to green hydrogen as the only fuel in gas turbines to generate electricity to enjoy real sustainability. Hydrogen-powered gas turbines produce clean energy and are one of the most effective ways to implement decarbonization and net-zero transition.

In 2018, Mitsubishi Power, in collaboration with Japan’s Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO), for the first time, successfully fired a gas turbine with a mixture of 30 percent hydrogen and 70 percent natural gas, resulting in an output equivalent to 700MW. A great success, the new technology increased power-generation efficiency by 64 percent and carbon emission reduction by 10 percent.

The role of OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers) is significantly brightening the prospects for hydrogen-powered gas turbines. For example, Mitsubishi Power, Siemens Energy, and GE are developing gas turbines that can be run on almost 100 percent hydrogen in the fuel mix. Hydrogen-powered gas turbines offer low-carbon or carbon-free power solutions by co-firing hydrogen with natural gas or solely by hydrogen. Also, the limited or no use of fossil fuels brings highly flexible and dispatchable power generation for grids intermittently supported by renewable sources.

Green hydrogen, finally, is on the fast track to large-scale commercialization. The future is assured of thousands of natural gas turbines worldwide being converted into eco-friendly, decarbonized, and environmentally sustainable units. Therefore, the stakeholders of existing gas turbines need to be ready for the switchover.

Development of pipelines network for transporting hydrogen

A lesser understood urgency in the push for a hydrogen economy is its transportation.

Currently, high-pressure transmission pipelines cannot exceed 25 percent by volume of hydrogen, the reasons being concern over leakage through seals and welds and embrittlement of steel pipes by hydrogen.

In cities worldwide, many old gas pipes and networks can accept only 50 percent of hydrogen. At the same time, low-pressure transmission pipelines like cross-linked polyethylene pipes (abbreviated form: XLPE) can work with up to 100 percent hydrogen.

But new methodologies to transport pure hydrogen in liquid form via water transportation are in the works, opening opportunities worldwide to invest in substitutes for underwater pipelines. This calls for an urgent policy on the permissible specifications related to pipeline quality.

In the future, gas turbines must be able to operate on any fuel, blended, 100 percent natural gas, or 100 percent hydrogen.

On July 20, 2020, Snam, a gas turbine infrastructure operator, and Baker Hughes at Florence, Italy, successfully tested a hybrid hydrogen turbine – a first of its kind, specially designed for use in a gas network.

The test laid the foundation for adopting a blend of hydrogen with natural gas in Snam’s existing transmission network. Snam is ahead of all stakeholders in the European continent, with the largest storage facility for natural gas and equals ca. 20 billion cubic meters globally. Today, 70 percent of pipelines owned and operated by Snam are already built with hydrogen-supportive pipes to help reduction of CO2 emissions in the country.

Contribution of hydrogen-powered gas turbines by the significant OEMs

The latest McCoy Power Report states that America’s GE has been the most experienced manufacturer of hydrogen-powered gas turbines among all OEMs. It has a wide range of gas turbines (100+) that supports power generation using hydrogen as a combustion fuel. These turbines can burn up to 100 percent of hydrogen in the fuel mix.

Implementing GE’s experience, Australia intends to build a binary-fuel, hydrogen power plant—the first of its kind in the country. To power the Tallawarra B Power Station, EnergyAustralia is integrating one of GE’s most advanced 9F.05 gas turbines that operates with a blend of natural gas and hydrogen for peak use applications. It will ensure the flow of dispatchable power consistently. Tallawarra B Power Station hydrogen project will be operating in time for the summer of 2023-2024.

Siemens Energy is also committed to the hydrogen economy. Currently, they are testing gas turbines that are ready to burn up to 75 percent of hydrogen in the fuel mix and aim to reach 100 percent by 2030. Hydrogen Gas turbines manufactured by Siemens Energy will complement renewable energy with a dispatchable, carbon-free backup power supply to provide electrical energy during periods of ‘dark doldrums’ due to a lack of sun or wind power.

The wide range of turbines can burn a fuel mixture of 30 percent to 75 percent hydrogen.

Additionally, Siemens has built applications supporting high hydrogen gas turbines for a range of industries that extend the power range of their gas turbine portfolio.

Mitsubishi Power is also integral to several international projects accelerating the hydrogen economy. In the Netherlands, three Mitsubishi M701F natural-gas-fired turbine units have been installed, and each unit can generate up to 440 megawatts to power over 60,000 houses. The Hydrogen-to-Magnum Project was implemented to customize one gas turbine unit capable of running on 100 percent hydrogen by 2027.

Hydrogen from natural gas is stored underground in salt caverns nearby and emitted CO2 is injected under the North Sea. The goal is to create hydrogen in any location using wind-generation electricity, which will reduce CO2 emissions by almost two megatons per year and prevent natural-gas power stations from becoming obsolete.

Conclusion

It is expected that by 2045, many geographical locations worldwide will achieve a 100 percent hydrogen economy. For example, Los Angeles will receive 100 percent carbon-free electricity from Mitsubishi Power’s gas turbines from the Intermountain Power Plant.

The world has woken up to the possibilities of green hydrogen as a savior that will help us achieve a clean, sustainable, and affordable energy future. What must follow are more aggressive policy formulations, implementation, and results.

We may be short on time, but not on hydrogen.

Dr. Dipankar Kundu

Dr. Dipankar Kundu

Dr. Dipankar Kundu is a Ph.D. in Literature, MBA in Marketing and Finance, and Post Graduate in Enterprise Risk Management. He has worked in Financial Institutions and Banks in the first half of his career. Since, the last 10 years he has been running three agencies of his own providing strategic content development, translation, and other multilingual marketing and branding services for SMBs and Big Enterprises in the USA and the UAE. His 7500+ corporate clients portfolio includes Siemens, Deloitte, Procter and Gamble, Talis, Addinol, Komatsu, Altrad, UNESCO, and many others. He is a thought leader and a passionate writer.

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