Denmark now has one of Europe’s largest hydrogen plants

On 3 September, one of Europe’s largest and most advanced hydrogen plants was inaugurated in Hobro, Denmark. This is no random location, because in Hobro you are close to both wind power, the high voltage electricity net, gas network and gas storage facilities. In this way, the plant can help to balance the energy system and bring green electricity into the transportation sector.

By Torben Skøtt, FIB (Danish magazine covering research within Bioenergy, Hydrogen and Fuel cells)

(September 2018) French company Air Liquide – together with a range of partners – are behind the new HyBalance electrolysis plant. Not only is it one of Europe’s largest electrolysis plants, it is also one of the most advanced. It has an effect of 1.2 MW, which means that the plant is able to produce around 500 kg of hydrogen per day.

– Hydrogen has tremendous potential in relation to the transition of the energy system, and at Air Liquide we are proud to be part of the HyBalance project. We have committed to developing technologies that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and HyBalance is part of the solution, said Francois Darchis, senior vice president at Air Liquide, at the inauguration.

Chief operating officer at Air Liquide, Erwin Penfornis, supplemented with some figures on the development of hydrogen for transport:

– Not so many years ago there were only a few demonstration projects, but today there are 10,000 hydrogen cars and 300 hydrogen filling stations around the world.

– The beauty of hydrogen is that it can make the transportation sector climate friendly. Transport accounts for about twenty-five per cent of the world’s emissions of climate gases, and reversing this development is a huge challenge. It is here that hydrogen really has something to offer, said Erwin Penfornis.

PEM electrolysis

The vast majority of all hydrogen plants use alkaline electrolysis. It is a well-known technology which many people may remember from physics classes, where water splits into hydrogen and oxygen when electricity is introduced via two electrodes. However, in Hobro, Air Liquide has chosen to use a newer and more advanced technology called PEM electrolysis. It is in principle the same as a PEM fuel cell, but the process is reversed, so that the end product is hydrogen instead of electricity.

According to Air Liquide, PEM electrolysis delivers higher efficiency and a more flexible plant that can be quickly adapted to the varying amount of electricity on the market. This is important, because a very important purpose of electrolysis is to be able to convert “excess” wind turbine electricity into a form of energy that can be stored and used in e.g. the transportation sector.

Support from EU and EUPD

Electrolysis can thus stabilise the electricity grid and this is a very important reason why the plant in Hobro which cost 15 million € has received 8 million € in support from the EU’s Fuel Cells and Hydrogen 2 Joint Undertaking (FCH JU) and 2,6 million € from the Danish EUPD program.

– HyBalance is a historic project for FCH JU, because it is the front-runner for our big demonstration projects in the field of electrolysis, and it is the first plant with an effect of more than one MW, said Bart Biebuyck, CEO of FCH JU, at the inauguration.

– In Denmark, wind turbines already cover forty per cent of our electricity consumption, and we know that the proportion of electricity from wind turbines in the grid will increase in the years to come. It is therefore crucial that we develop technologies that can bind energy systems together, said the chair of EUDP’s board, Thea Larsen, as one of several reasons for why EUPD has chosen to support HyBalance.

Denmark an obvious choice

In Denmark, we have thus far been able to solve the challenge of ensuring a balanced grid by amplifying and expanding our network abroad, but what will we do when our neighbouring countries produce as much green electricity as we do?

– Hydrogen is part of the solution, and perhaps the most crucial part of the solution, said Rune H. Gjermundbo from Gas Storage Denmark, which owns and operates Denmark’s two underground gas storage facilities.

He underlined that the effect from an electrolysis plant can be altered within seconds, that underground gas storage facilities have an efficiency of 99.9 per cent and that they also have sufficient capacity to store this energy from summer until winter.

– We can convert hydrogen and CO2 into methane gas so we can use the existing infrastructure, or we can convert hydrogen and CO2 into green methanol, which can replace black oil in the transportation sector, said Rune H. Gjermundbo.

– We still lack the really big electrolysis plants, but they are coming. Denmark is the obvious place to locate this kind of plant because we have everything that is needed; wind turbines, a well-developed natural gas network, gas storage facilities and a well-functioning electrical grid, said Rune H. Gjermundbo.

We need a hydrogen network

Among the many speakers at the inauguration was also Filip Smeets from Hydrogenics, which supplied the electrolysis system for the plant in Hobro.

– Solar and wind power cannot do it alone. We need a technology that can convert green electricity into green fuels, and it is why an electrolysis plant plays a very important role, said Filip Smeets.

He assessed that decentralised plants in particular will come to prominence in the “energy landscape” in the coming years, but that the centralised plant would eventually come to dominate the market.

– We need the courage to establish an entirely new grid for the distribution of hydrogen. Using the existing gas network as a transitional solution could be fine, but in the long run a separate hydrogen net will have many benefits, emphasised Filip Smeets.

Liquid fuel storage

When we talk about using hydrogen for storage of green electricity, most people probably imagine pure hydrogen storage, or that hydrogen will be converted into methane gas so the natural gas grid and existing gas storage facilities can be utilised.

But, according to Anders Korsgaard, there is also a third possibility which is methanol that can be stored and distributed in the same way as petrol and diesel. Anders Korsgaard was director of SerEnergy for many years, a company that specialises in using green methanol as fuel for fuel cells:

– When we founded SerEnergy in 2008, we chose to focus on what we saw as the really big challenge in a future energy system: storing excess electricity from solar and wind.

– In Europe, we have a well-developed network for handling liquid fuel, and we have storage facilities that can cover the whole of Europe’s consumption of petrol and diesel for three or four months, so for us the obvious choice was green methanol. It gives us the opportunity to use the existing infrastructure, and methanol can be very efficiently converted back into electricity in periods where there is a shortage of green electricity.

– Far too few people know about the benefits of using methanol powered fuel cells, but I believe it is coming and we can see that in China, methanol is gaining more and more ground in the transportation sector, said Anders Korsgaard.