Decarbonizing the Power Sector

Figure 1.  Design for a decarbonized utility scale electrical power facility.  Image credits: solar array, electrolyzer, hydrogen storage, hydrogen fuel cell, power grid

David P. Turner / November 11, 2022

National governments the world over have made political commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions significantly in the next few decades.  Because the generation of electricity, i.e. the power sector, is currently one of the largest anthropogenic sources of CO2 emissions (due to its reliance on coal and natural gas burning power plants), a great deal of research and investment is directed towards power sector decarbonization.

There are many pieces to the technical puzzle of how to decarbonize the power sector, and the optimum answer will differ depending on location and available resources.  But generating electricity while avoiding fossil fuels altogether is entirely feasible.

In that regard, I was happy to see news of a funded power project that nicely weaves together many of the critical components needed to deliver carbon-free electricity at grid scale (Figure 1).

The facility in this case is being built in French Guiana by a consortium of private firms.  The exciting thing to see is the co-location and integration of five key power generation components:  (1) an array of solar panels, (2) an electrolyzer to produce hydrogen, (3) a hydrogen gas storage capability, (4) a hydrogen fuel cell that generates electricity, and (5) a short-term battery energy storage system.  Functioning together, these components will provide a 24/7 baseload supply of carbon free electricity (10,00 households worth).

The solar array collects sunlight.  Most of the energy is fed into the local electricity grid, but a portion is directed to the electrolyzer to split water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen.  The hydrogen gas is stored on site.  At night, the hydrogen is supplied to the fuel cell generator.  The short-term battery storage system helps maintain a steady flow of energy as needed.

This kind of facility largely solves the intermittency problem for renewable solar energy.  Its design could be adapted to other renewable energy sources with an intermittency problem, notably wind energy farms.  Excess hydrogen could potentially be transported to other locations by pipeline or in liquid form.

Successful operation of the facility (slated to open in 2024) will provide a model that potentially could be scaled up and widely adopted.  Since garnering the political will and financing for renewable energy development is still a significant challenge, the completion and operation of this power plant would send of strong signal about the feasibility of decarbonization to government, industry, and sources of investment.

News that this facility is actually under construction inspires the feeling that the global we (such as it is) can indeed accomplish a needed renewable energy revolution.

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