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New Energy Solutions Shaped by Local Challenges

Alex Eller — January 3, 2017

HydrogenThe transition to a renewables-based energy system is taking different forms in regions around the world. This stands in contrast to the traditional approach to energy infrastructure and development, which has been very much one-size-fits all, utilizing large centralized generation and standardized transmission and distribution systems. Moving forward, the optimal grid architecture and mix of energy generation and storage technologies will vary based on the particular needs and resources of a given area. A prime example of this dynamic are Scotland’s remote Orkney Islands, which are ahead of most of the world in the transition to renewables-based energy. While much of the world is looking to batteries to solve challenges associated with the intermittency of renewable energy, local conditions in Orkney are driving the islands to take a different approach.

Innovation on the Islands

The islands are home to the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC), where innovative wave and tidal energy systems are being tested. The EMEC recently launched its Surf ‘n’ Turf project to capitalize on the excess energy produced at the facility using a 500 kW electrolyzer from ITM Power for hydrogen storage. Elsewhere on the islands, another hydrogen storage project is helping maximize the use of renewable generation while improving grid stability and reducing the need to import fuels for transportation. The BIG HIT project launched early in 2016 aims to limit the amount of curtailed wind energy, which has reached nearly 30% annually over the past 3 years. This project will use excess wind energy to power a 1 MW electrolyzer to generate hydrogen that can be used for power generation in fuel cells, as fuel for a new fleet of 10 fuel cell powered vehicles, or to supply two recently installed hydrogen powered boilers for district heating.

A hydrogen-based energy storage system is an ideal solution for the Orkney Islands for a number of reasons. With only two 33 kilovolt cable connections to the Scottish mainland, the islands do not have the luxury of exporting excess renewable generation to neighboring systems and are forced to curtail energy during peak production. While batteries are able to store a few hours’ worth of excess generation, the islands often require an entire night’s worth of generation to be stored for relatively long periods of time. Storing excess electricity in the form of hydrogen is much more well-suited to this need and provides numerous other benefits, as well.

Like most islands, residents in Orkney pay high prices for transportation fuel given the lack of local resources and the need to transport everything via ships. The Orkney Islands Council is hoping to improve this situation through the use of battery and fuel cell electric vehicles powered by energy generated locally on the islands. The Council also believes hydrogen will play an important role in the islands’ future as fuel cell technology becomes increasingly common for powering ships. By establishing and refining hydrogen storage and fuel cell technology for the maritime industry, the islands hope to emerge as a hub of innovation and develop technologies to export worldwide.

Local Resources, Local Solutions

Given the specific local conditions and challenges, a hydrogen-based energy system is well-suited for the islands. However, this will not be the case in all locations. As the industry continues to evolve in the coming decades, energy systems will be based more on local conditions and resources than ever before. This will result in a much more diverse and complex industry as the resources available in each region are tapped into. Orkney is providing an early example of how local conditions will shape the development of the next generation of energy systems.

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