Project Development, Storage, Wind Power

Experimental Wind to Hydrogen System Up & Running

An experimental system that uses electricity from wind turbines to produce and store pure hydrogen successfully went online last week. Developed through a partnership between Xcel Energy and the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the project links two wind turbines to devices called electrolyzers — which pass the wind-generated electricity through water to split the liquid into hydrogen and oxygen.

The system is designed so that hydrogen can be stored and used later to generate electricity from either an internal combustion engine turning a generator or from a fuel cell. “The project allows our researchers to compare different types of electrolyzers and work on increasing the efficiency of a wind to hydrogen system,” said Dan Arvizu, NREL director. “And, it has the potential to point the way to a completely emissions-free system of making, storing and using energy.” Located at NREL’s National Wind Technology Center in Golden, Colorado, several dozen journalists, environmental leaders, government officials and Xcel Energy managers toured the facility on December 15. On site is a new building that houses the electrolyzers and a device to compress the hydrogen for storage; four large, high-tech tanks to store the hydrogen; a generator run by an engine that burns hydrogen; and a control room building, where computers monitor all the steps of the process. “Today we begin using our cleanest source of electricity — wind power — to create the perfect fuel: hydrogen,” said Richard C. Kelly, Xcel Energy chairman, president and CEO. “Converting wind energy to hydrogen means that it doesn’t matter when the wind blows since its energy can be stored on-site in the form of hydrogen.” Currently, there are limitations to both wind power and hydrogen. Wind farms only generate electricity when the wind is blowing, which is about one-third of the time in the U.S. This creates the need for backup generation, which is usually fossil-fueled. Hydrogen, while the most common element in the universe, isn’t found in its pure form on Earth and must be either electrolyzed from water, or stripped out of natural gas, which are energy-intensive processes that result in greenhouse gas emissions. “By marrying wind turbines to hydrogen production, we create a synergy that systematically reduces the drawbacks of each,” added Kelly. “Intermittent wind power is converted to a stored fuel that can be used anytime, while at the same time offering a totally climate-friendly way to retrieve hydrogen, to power our homes and possibly cars in the future.” The $2 million project will compare electrolyzer technologies and examine issues related to system efficiency, integration, compression, storage, cost and the use of a mixture of hydrogen and natural gas over a two-year time period. The companies expect to offer a public update on the operation of the project around the middle of 2007.