The U.K. is funding what could become the world’s largest electrolyzer—and one that would be linked to an offshore wind farm.
An Orsted offshore wind farm could power the U.K.’s first green hydrogen project. (Credit: Orsted)
The U.K. government is looking to get a leg up on its European rivals with a flurry of new funding for hydrogen projects, including one linked to an Ørsted offshore wind farm.
As part of a £90 million ($116 million) funding round announced this week for early-stage low-carbon projects, £28 million was allocated to five hydrogen supply demos. Another £20 million will go toward hydrogen-based industrial fuel swapping projects, covering the glass, cement and lime sectors as well as a Unilever-backed project focused on consumer goods.
The winners cover a diverse mix of hydrogen applications — from floating wind turbines with attached electrolyzers on-deck to low-carbon hydrogen with carbon capture and storage and the country’s first proposed facility for green hydrogen production.
One of the biggest winners is a proposal led by ITM Power to use power from Ørsted’s Hornsea One offshore wind farm to generate the U.K.’s first green hydrogen using 100 megawatts of electrolyzers. The project received £7.5 million in funding.
Green hydrogen uses renewable power to create H2 via electrolysis. Most hydrogen produced today is made by splitting it from methane gas, generating carbon dioxide as a byproduct.
The ITM/Ørsted project would be the largest electrolyzer in the world, according to Wood Mackenzie senior analyst Ben Gallagher.
“The largest-ever project deployed is 10 megawatts, so it’s a huge uptick in terms of scale. This would be record-breaking by several leaps and bounds,” said Gallagher, who characterized the project as the manifestation of the green hydrogen value proposition.
The current problem with electrolyzers is their tiny capacity, both installed and for manufacturing. Only 252 megawatts of electrolyzers were in operation worldwide between 2010-2019, according to WoodMac. But manufacturing capacity is starting to ramp up, buoyed by a pipeline of announced green hydrogen projects that passed 3.2 gigawatts last year.
ITM Power, a manufacturer, gets the keys to a new factory in the U.K. later this year that will be capable of ramping up to 1 gigawatt per year.
Ørsted, the world’s leading offshore wind developer, said hydrogen could soon achieve dramatic cost reductions. “We’ve seen this happen in offshore wind. With industry and government working together, there has been a rapid deployment and a huge cost reduction. This project aims to do the same with hydrogen,” Anders Christian Nordstrøm, Ørsted’s VP for hydrogen, said in a statement.
Germany, France and Belgium are all investing in hydrogen as efforts to decarbonize industry and heat garner greater attention. Both sectors lag far behind power when it comes to lowering their emissions.
Another winner in the U.K.’s funding round is the Dolphyn project, led by consultancy Environmental Resources Management, which will pair a floating wind turbine structure with an integrated electrolyzer.
Its £3.1 million grant will contribute to the final design work on a 2-megawatt prototype that it hopes to have in the water in 2023, followed by a 10-megawatt commercial prototype in 2026.
Dolphyn’s plans benefited from input from offshore turbine manufacturer MHI Vestas, the aforementioned ITM Power, and Principle Power, the developer of the floating structure used in Engie and EDF’s WindFloat Atlantic trial.
The Dolphyn floating wind turbine with built-in electroyzer and desalination hardware. (Credit: Environmental Resources Management)
The system desalinates seawater prior to electrolysis, powered by the turbine, on-board solar panels and standby power supply when required. Hydrogen can be stored onboard or pumped where it’s needed through a pipeline.
In the long run, the success of hydrogen projects depends on finding a stable and sizable source of demand.
One potential use for green hydrogen is as an additive to existing natural-gas systems, effectively allowing gas companies to continue operating as they currently do while partially decarbonizing. Italy’s Snam is doubling its hydrogen injection trials from a 5 percent to a 10 percent mix.
ITM Power began a trial in January to inject a 20 percent mix of hydrogen into the private natural-gas network of Keele University.
Lorna Archer from the energy futures team at Scottish Gas Networks told a recent industry conference that domestic gas boilers in the U.K. could handle a 20 percent mix without the need for a full refit.
But WoodMac’s Gallagher warns that challenges around leaks and safety mean such a fuel swap isn’t as straightforward as it sounds.
“What’s less theoretical is the sort of industrial end users that require hydrogen in their products [that are] looking at displacing carbon-intensive hydrogen with green hydrogen,” he said
I [Mike Barnard} have a personal hand in this. Earlier this year, Joi Scientific was brought to my attention by CleanTechnica. A quick review found numerous red flags that suggested that the company wasn’t what it claimed. My guidance at the time was to not publish more on it, or at least nothing which provided flattering perspectives on its technology.
And now, the inevitable has happened. As CBC reported this week, Joi Scientific has admitted that its technology doesn’t work in any way, shape, or form as promised, but in fact has perhaps a 10th of the efficiency that it claimed. Its CEO Traver H. Kennedy told shareholders on a call:
“We’ve come to learn that the power measurements coming into our circuitry and going all the way back to the wall fundamentally show our current Hydrogen 2.0 technology has poor system efficiencies.”
Given that the company claimed getting twice the power out as it put in, this isn’t surprising. Also unsurprising is that he told investors that the company had no money left.
As part of my standard process that I provide as a service for clients and for publication, I assessed the public claims, claimed patents, scientific papers, and the backgrounds of the principals. This helps provide a well-rounded view of a technology and its proponents, enabling good investment decisions. Outside of the memorable case of the second (or possibly third) generation con man I discovered this year, the approach also helped me identify that a wind generation technology innovator’s previous claim to fame was making artificial noses, not a conspicuously relevant or adjacent market. It certainly didn’t pass my sniff test.
In the case of Joi Scientific, I reviewed the 11 patents that it had filed under the names of its two senior executives, Traver H. Kennedy and Robert L. Koeneman. Kennedy is Joi Scientific’s CEO while Koeneman is co-founder, President and Senior VP Technology.
The patents were illuminating, and reflected the public claims in its promotional videos.
In the exemplary systems, for one watt of input energy, two watts of energy in the form of hydrogen gas is achieved (a level of 200 percent).”
This was the first interesting point I stumbled across, and represented one of two or three Nobel Prize-worthy achievements, if they had been true, violating as they do both the first and second laws of thermodynamics.
I reached out to one of my long-term collaborators, Tim Weis, with whom I’d shared earlier iterations of this story, for comment. He’s currently Industrial Professor, Mechanical Engineering / Executive Director, Electricity, Centre for Applied Business Research in Energy and the Environment (CABREE), and has been a Director of the Pembina Institute and an advisor on energy to the Alberta Notley government.
“There may still be a significant role for hydrogen in a low-carbon economy, but the public needs to remember that in absence of a hydrogen mine, it is an energy-storage medium, not a source. If I were to say I was going to use Duracell batteries as a power supply, it would raise a red flag pretty quickly. If there’s a silver lining to this story, it’s that it has made a useful example for my engineering students as to why we study the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics.”
The 200% claim wasn’t the only remarkable one. In another patent of the 11, in case the 200% claim had been merely an extended typo, they claimed the following:
“the production rate of the generated hydrogen 112′ increases significantly from a 0.7/0.8 Coefficient of Performance (COP) to greater than four times the COP (>400%).”
What’s acoefficient of performance? It’s actually something that is used in heating and cooling systems. You know what beats a CoP of 1? Systems like geothermal heat pumps which gain energy from an external source, using electricity to route a heat transfer fluid through a warmer or colder medium. That’s not what Joi Scientific is claiming, however. The company is claiming that it is putting electricity into a device which splits sea water into hydrogen and oxygen and gaining so much excess energy as to achieve 400% efficiency results.
That’s pretty remarkable. But that’s still not all.
Next Joi Scientific claimed hyper-efficient use of hydrogen as an energy source. It claimed that the company was able to use the resulting hydrogen in either a combustion or fuel cell model to generate enough energy to keep the process going indefinitely. Hydrogen in combustion or fuel cells is ~60% efficient at best. To gain net hydrogen for use elsewhere, this implies that they would have to achieve around 170% energy efficiency to be able to create hydrogen continuously. If Joi Scientific has managed to get well above 60% with hydrogen fueling its process, it would have won another Nobel Prize for that. Of course, it didn’t.
Another red flag was the lack of any actual output numbers beyond what was claimed in the patents. Nothing. No technical input/output results. No reports. No white papers. No scientific papers. No peer-reviewed results. No third-party results. Nothing.
Joi Scientific was also claiming technical breakthroughs using pulsed electricity in its electrolysis. This sounds impressive and all, but prior art on using pulsed electricity in hydrogen electrolysis goes back to 1994. Anyone familiar with the field looking at its patents and claims would immediately start questioning the company’s results on this claim alone. PEM electrolysis is currently around 80% efficient with a projected hypothetical peak of 86%, yet it was claiming 200%. Frankly, anything about 86% would have made anyone familiar with the field question the company’s results, and even 86% is questionable as industrial processes are rarely as perfect as optimal lab hypothetical processes.
Another piece of context is that free energy from water claims have been extant since the 1970s. A former Joi Scientific employee, anonymized with the pseudonym “Alex” by the CBC, pointed out that the Joi Scientific patents were remarkably similar to Stanley Meyer patents from 1990. Meyer’s water-powered cars still show up on YouTube and the like, shared by the credulous, despite him having been convicted of fraud in 1996. As the former employee said to CBC:
“Not only was it “not possible,” but Alex said the company’s technology “really wasn’t even able to be demonstrated. It never matched up with what they were trying to claim.”
His assertion was that Joi Scientific was achieving 20% efficiency, not 200%, that whatever it showed to NB Power and its PhD assessor — yes, an actually credentialed third-party chemical engineer looked at this mess and gave it the green light — was not actually working and that the company knew it. Of course, the third-party assessor was in addition to NB Power’s CEO and President’s credentials which should have indicated a background sufficient to catch these not very subtle clues. After all, the string of letters after his name include BScEngEE, D.Sc., ICD.D, P.Eng. Yes, electrical engineer, doctor of science, a professional engineer and a designation from the institute of corporate directors.
Of course, there’s more. It is insufficient that Joi Scientific claimed to be able to get around the first and second laws of thermodynamics and to have an incredibly efficient fuel cell, as the claims it made about what was happening were also remarkable.
“Molecular rotation, during the rise and collapse of the magnetic field order within the chamber, generates additional forces in the form of vector and velocity values. These rotations cause respective nano-scale distances to increase and decrease between atoms. Rotational effects during the on and off portions of the impulse cycle reduce the strength of the atomic bonds to aid in the separation of the atoms making up each molecule’s composition.”
For context, centripetal forces are absurd orders of magnitude less powerful than atomic forces. As I said to the CBC, it’s the equivalent of claiming an eight-year old can throw a baseball to the Moon.
As for the principals, Kennedy and Koeneman, suffice it to say that neither has any electronics, hydrogen fuel cell, electrolysis, chemistry, physics or electrical generation background. One has a music degree, the other is a software developer way back. There is nothing in either of the principals’ backgrounds that suggested that they might be able to create a breakthrough technology in this space. Their names are on the patents, but it’s unlikely that they wrote them or even understood what they were putting their names on.
“Run your boat just on seawater? Yeah that ain’t happening. If you do that, you just won the Nobel Prize for physics and world peace.”
Of course, New Brunswick Power was already a year or so into its sojourn with Joi Scientific at that point, so the opinions of Hahn and me were already too late.
Joi Scientific wasn’t the only ‘dubious’ energy technology I spotted and assessed this year. A west coast US company was brought to my attention by a client, and as part of my services I assessed them and found them to be an out-and-out con, with a principal who was literally the son and nephew of two of the United States’ most notorious con artists. Their claims were even harder to imagine people accepting, yet that firm had found multiple people, including many with very good credentials, to accept and promote them. Needless to say, my client didn’t give them any money.
So there we are. New Brunswick Power and through them the rate payers of the province of New Brunswick are out at minimum $13 million spent on an obviously non-viable technology. Their due diligence failed. New Brunswick’s time and energy has been wasted on nonsense instead of on viable wind and solar projects. NP Power’s CEO and President is facing stiff questions from his Board and from the elected officials of the province. And it all could have been avoided if they’d actually engaged even moderately skeptical and informed energy analysts such as Tim Weis, David Hahn, or me.
Cutting emissions relies on energy-storage technology coming of age
It sounds simple: lift heavy blocks with a crane, then capture the power generated from dropping them. This is not an experiment designed by a ten-year-old, but the premise of Energy Vault, which has raised $110m from SoftBank, a big Japanese tech investor. The idea has competition. A cluster of billionaires including Bill Gates, Jack Ma, Ray Dalio and SoftBank’s Masayoshi Son are backing other schemes to capture power. A firm incubated at Alphabet, Google’s parent company, wants to store electricity in molten salt. Such plans hint at one of the power business’s hardest tasks. Generating clean power is now relatively straightforward. Storing it is far trickier.
Solar and wind last year produced 7% of the world’s electricity. By 2040, that share could grow by over five times, according to the International Energy Agency, an intergovernmental forecaster. The trouble is, a lull in the wind leaves a turbine listless. Clouds have a habit of blocking the sun. That means that solar and wind cannot, on their own, replace coal and gas plants, which produce continual power reliably.
One answer is to store power in batteries, which promise to gather clean electricity when the sun and wind produce more than is required and dispatch it later, as it is needed. In 2018 some 3.5 gigawatts of storage was installed, about twice the amount in 2017, according to Bloombergnef, an energy data firm. Total investment in storage this year may reach $5.3bn, it estimates. As this grows it could drive an extraordinary expansion (see chart). However at present only about 1% of renewable energy is complemented by storage, reckons Morgan Stanley, a bank. There are still plenty of hurdles to clear.
The most common method of storage so far has been to pump water into an elevated reservoir at times of plenty and release it when electricity is needed. This type of hydropower is not the answer to providing lots more storage. Building a new reservoir requires unusual topography and it can wreak environmental havoc.
Batteries offer an alternative and availability should improve as electric cars become ever more popular. “The whole production supply chain for lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles is gearing up,” says Andrés Gluski of aes, an electricity company, “so we’re going to piggyback on that.” As greater demand led to greater manufacturing scale, the cost of batteries dropped by 85% from 2010 to 2018, according to Bloombergnef. That makes batteries cheap enough not only to propel mass-market electric cars but for use in the power system, too.
And as electric cars become more widespread their batteries could serve as a source of mobile storage, feeding power back into the grid, if required, when the vehicles are parked and plugged in. With the right infrastructure in place, fleets of electric cars could substitute for new dedicated storage capacity.
Batteries do a variety of things. A firm called Sunrun sells residential solar panels paired with batteries, a particularly appealing proposition for Californian homeowners desperate for an alternative to fire-induced blackouts. Within the broader grid, batteries can act as a shock absorber to deal with variations in supply from one minute to the next. Other uses include shifting electricity supply from the day, when solar panels often produce a surfeit of power, to the evening, when demand rises.
The growth of storage is becoming a headache for old-fashioned power generators that rely on gas or coal. NextEra Energy Resources, which builds clean-power installations, is increasingly pairing large solar farms with batteries. aes, which has battery-storage facilities in 21 countries and territories, runs a scheme in Hawaii that combines solar with storage to meet peaks in demand. The Rocky Mountain Institute, a clean-energy research group, warns that solar and battery projects, combined with measures such as smarter appliances to control demand, may turn gas-powered plants into stranded assets.
Nevertheless, the battery industry faces several barriers to broader deployment. To start with, if a battery overheats it can catch fire, producing gases that might explode. In the past year installations in South Korea have caught fire. A fire and explosion in April damaged a storage site in Arizona run by Fluence, a joint venture between aes and Siemens, a German engineering giant. The causes are still under investigation. As the industry matures, safety measures are likely to become more rigorous.
In the meantime, the industry will have to cope with a patchwork of other rules and regulations. South Korea has offered incentives for storage, in part to create a market for its domestic battery-makers, which are among the world’s leaders. Some states in America, such as New York and New Jersey, have mandated storage to help reduce emissions. In others, America’s federal electricity regulator is trying to open markets to storage, but the details of how that will work in practice are unclear. In Britain, batteries are deemed “generation assets”, which exposes storage developers to extra fees and costs, says Michael Folsom of Watson Farley & Williams, a law firm.
Even if electricity regulations were smoothed, lithium-ion batteries would eventually reach their limits. Breakthrough Energy Ventures (bev) is a fund backed by Messrs Gates, Ma, Dalio and other billionaires to invest in transformational technologies. The cost of lithium-ion batteries is falling quickly, but to store power for days let alone weeks “lithium-ion is never going to get cheap enough”, says Eric Toone, bev’s head of science.
Alternatives include flow batteries, that use electrolytes in tanks of chemical solution, as well as mechanical means such as Energy Vault’s falling blocks. Hydrogen can also be made using clean power and turned back into electricity in gas-fired power plants or fuel cells. In the future liquefied gases might provide a solution (see article). Unlike solar panels, which have become standardised, different batteries are likely to serve different purposes on a grid. “All batteries are like humans, equally flawed in some specific way,” says Mateo Jaramillo, who led storage development at Tesla, an electric carmaker.
Mr Jaramillo now leads Form Energy, a firm that is developing an electrochemical alternative to lithium-ion batteries. Investors include bev and Eni, an large Italian oil and gas firm. Mr Jaramillo declines to predict when his work will be commercialised. But the goal is clear. “If you can develop a long-term storage solution,” he says, “that’s how you retire coal and that’s how you retire natural gas.” SOURCE