The drive to create carbon-free and utility-scale power generation with hydrogen may have taken a quiet, but important leap forward, according to partners involved in an experimental testing pilot.
An unmodified Wärtsilä gas-fired 18-MW 50SG engine was able to operate successfully with a 25-percent blend of hydrogen over multiple days, according to a report from the Finnish technology firm. Joining Wärtsilä in the testing were Wisconsin-based utility holding company WEC Energy Group and the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI).
The results are just being released, but the tests were conducted last October at WEC Energy’s 55-MW A.J. Mihm power plant in Michigan. WEC holds utilities providing electricity in Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois and Minnesota service territories.
Wärtsilä called it a “world-first achievement” in successful blending an operating a methane gas-powered engine gen-set at utility scale with that high of a H2 mix, although other companies are working toward the same goals. Hydrogen does not contain carbon in its molecular chain and thus does not emit carbon dioxide when combusted.
“These tests provide clear evidence that Wärtsilä’s engine technology can deliver future-proof power solutions that make a huge contribution towards decarbonized operations,” Anja Frada, chief operating officer with Wärtsilä Energy, said in a statement. “The results of the testing with a hydrogen/natural gas blended fuel mix have been outstanding. We continue developing and futureproofing our engines to run on sustainable fuels and expect to have an engine and power plant concept for operating with pure hydrogen available by 2026.”
Many believe a mix of hydrogen and perhaps someday 100 percent H2-fired power generation will be necessary to maintain energy system resiliency and reach Net Zero goals. Hydrogen is highly energy dense, as well as the lightest gas and extremely combustible, so significant adaptations are necessary to burn, transport and store it.
In Michigan last October, three days of continuous testing focused on co-firing hydrogen blends in the 50SG engine, according to reports. EPRI led the assessment of engine performance during the testing.
The work showed that a 95-percent engine load was achieved with the 25-percent H2 blend in the gas. At 17 percent H2 by volume, the engine was able to reach 100-percent engine load.
Many of those industry leaders aiming for Net Zero energy by 2040 and 2050 are optimistic about renewable energy scale-up for wind and solar, coupled with battery storage. However, they are concerned about the intermittencies and night-time or weather-related drops to low or no-capacity factors by those resources.
Hydrogen is among the fuels, including nuclear, which could possibly overcome these balancing challenges. However, hydrogen is not readily available and must be produced at scale via steam reforming of methane gas (which contains H2 and carbon in its chain) or by electrolyzers splitting the molecules of H2 from water.
To be considered truly “green hydrogen,” the electrolyzers must be powered by electricity generated from zero CO2-emissions resources such as solar, wind, hydro or nuclear.
EPRI has been working on a variety of resources, including hydrogen mixs, in its testing efforts with various partners.
“EPRI is accelerating deployment of a full portfolio of clean energy technologies to support a net-zero future,” Neva Espinoza, EPRI vice president of energy supply and low-carbon resources, said. “This demonstration project with Wärtsilä and WEC Energy Group is significant in showing the potential of hydrogen blending in natural gas-fired engines. The learnings from this project will be shared with the energy industry to further progress toward deep decarbonization targets.”
If successful in the scaling up, hydrogen-fired power generation could contribute to 20-percent of full CO2 abatement by 2050’s Net Zero goal, according to Wärtsilä.
And Wärtsilä is not the only company working on this issue, although the first to claim a successful, higher-level mix of engine achievement. Mitsubishi Power has previously touted its gas turbine work utilizing a 30-percent H2 mix at its Takasago Works in Japan.
GE and Siemens also are tackling H2-fired testing work.
The hydrogen electrolyzer manufacturing capacity currently is close to eight GW per year, but industry projections raise that potential to as high as 60 GW annually by 2030.
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(Rod Walton, senior editor for EnergyTech, is a 15-year veteran of covering the energy industry both as a newspaper and trade journalist. He can be reached at [email protected]).
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