Jussi Heikkinen

What role can hydrogen play on the path to a 100% renewable energy future?

3 min read

20 Oct 2020

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Lara McCoy

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Angie Valle

3 min read

20 Oct 2020

Text:

Lara McCoy

Photo:

Angie Valle

Wärtsilä announced in May that it was exploring technology to allow its gas engines to run on 100% hydrogen. Jussi Heikkinen, Director, Growth & Development, Americas Area, Wärtsilä Energy, tells Twentyfour7. what this development means for the company, the industry, and the environment. 

Why is Wärtsilä focusing on using hydrogen as fuel?

Hydrogen has a high potential of becoming the fuel of the future, helping societies move towards decarbonisation. Wärtsilä wants to take a leading role in using hydrogen as a fuel for flexible power generation. 

So far, the market for hydrogen engines has been limited, but the need for them will emerge in the years to come as the use of fossil fuels is gradually reduced and finally banned. Wärtsilä wants to make sure our products are future-proof, ready to help nations balance their cleaner power systems first with natural gas, and later with renewable fuels, such as hydrogen.

When does Wärtsilä expect to be able to sell an engine that runs on hydrogen?

Because hydrogen was not used as a power generation fuel in the past, the technologies to combust and use it in different applications need to be developed. Wärtsilä is testing concepts for both blending hydrogen into natural gas as well as pure hydrogen operation. We will continue the R&D process, testing the fuel first on a small scale to define optimal dimensions and parameters for the hydrogen engines. 

We already have an engine that can use hydrogen as a blend, and we will be ready to bring hydrogen engines to the market in the next few years, when the demand emerges.

What are the benefits of hydrogen as a fuel compared to other fuels? 

Hydrogen burns with air to produce water, without any carbon emissions. It is perfect for use in 100% clean energy portfolios. When produced using excess solar or wind electricity and water, it can be produced inexpensively almost anywhere. NOx emissions from burning hydrogen may be a little higher than on natural gas, depending on combustion parameters, but particulate emissions should be minimal.

What challenges still need to be overcome for the use of hydrogen to be widespread?

There are some safety risks. Hydrogen is extremely flammable and burns very fast. Special caution needs to be taken when engineering a product using more than 25% hydrogen.

Special safety regulations for its use need to be in place before it becomes widely available. In some locations, these regulations are still under development.

A bigger issue is that there is no infrastructure globally to produce, store, and distribute hydrogen at scale. It all needs to be built. This infrastructure will be expensive and will also take some time. Additionally, there is the risk that hydrogen will not be the fuel of choice, so there is some hesitation to invest in the necessary infrastructure. This in turn limits the attractiveness of hydrogen, so it’s a difficult challenge to solve.

The EU has recently announced a green hydrogen strategy setting a goal to expand clean hydrogen production by six times by 2030. This decision should cause the cost of the technology to drop, making it more accessible. 

What are the most likely possibilities for the use of hydrogen in the near future?

Hydrogen offers interesting possibilities for decarbonised power generation. In a power system that incorporates renewables and battery storage, for example, some of the excess renewable energy could be used to produce hydrogen that could be used in a power plant to balance the power system at times when cloudy and calm weather may reduce the output of solar and wind power plants. Hydrogen could be produced when electricity need is low, stored relatively cheaply, and used when needed. This would lower the overall cost of the clean electricity. Incorporating hydrogen in this way would add a long-term energy storage solution to the short-term storage solution provided by batteries.