Kathriona Devereux: Bye carbon, hello hydrogen: Is this the future of Irish energy?

This is an exciting inflection point in Ireland’s energy story, so says Kathriona Devereux, as she finds out more about the power of hydrogen
Kathriona Devereux: Bye carbon, hello hydrogen: Is this the future of Irish energy?

POWER SWITCH: Existing infrastructure such as Aghada power station (above) could be adapted to work with hydrogen in the future

I’VE been back on the road filming the next series of RTÉ’s 10 Things to Know About. A lot has changed since we filmed last summer — the motorways are noticeably quieter and it looks like every house in Ireland as had a paint job.

Last week, we covered a story that gave me a shiver of excitement at the audacity of the opportunity. It was a combination of the breath-taking scenery in Connemara and the mind-bending possibility of Ireland becoming energy independent that got me enthused.

Galway Wind Park, about an hour out of Galway in the wilds of Connemara, seemed like an unlikely location to be hearing about the coming hydrogen revolution. The meandering sheep showed no interest, but remote locations like that are ideal places to start this energy transformation.

I was meeting NUI Galway’s Rory Monaghan to find out how Ireland’s fantastic wind resource could unlock the potential of hydrogen as a flexible energy source.

We could put hydrogen in our trucks and ships, burn it in our power stations, pipe it into our gas grid to heat our homes, put it in a container ship, and sell it to other countries.

It sounds fantastical but it could be the answer to a carbon-free future.

You’ve heard the criticisms before. Renewables are great but they can’t fulfill all of our energy needs — what do we do when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine?

At the moment, we crank up the gas-fired power station to generate our electricity when renewables aren’t meeting our demand. However, it’s important to remember that 80% of the energy we use is not electricity — it is oil and gas for heating, transport and industry.

We have an ambitious plan to electrify a large chunk of the transport sector with electric vehicles and a plan to electrify a large chunk of home heating with heat air pumps. By 2030, we’ll get about 30% of our energy from renewables. We’ll still rely on fossil fuels for 70% of our energy.

There are plans to use renewable gas (from agricultural and industrial waste) to replace natural gas and blended biofuel to lower petrol and diesel consumption, but according to Rory Monaghan there will be stubborn parts of the transport and home heating sectors that will be difficult to decarbonise.

It may be inefficient for long distance trucks to run on electricity — the size of the batteries needed, and the time it would take to charge them, could be uneconomical.

In housing, we have a plan to retrofit 500,000 homes in the next ten years, but hundreds of thousands of houses will still be reliant on carbon- emitting oil or gas until they can be upgraded.

Enter hydrogen! The most abundant element in the universe, the fuel of our Sun, and conveniently packaged as H20 in water.

If only science could find a way of detaching H2 from the oxygen atom in water, storing it in tanks and using it as fuel, just like oil or gas, when we need it...

Good news! This is proven, established science. Thanks to the technology of the electrolyser and the fuel cell, we have the capability of using electricity generated by our excellent wind resource to split water and create hydrogen gas.

It’s simple. Install an electrolyser at the site of turbine. On the days the turbine is turning like the clappers and generating more electricity than is needed on the grid, divert that excess electricity into the electrolyser and make hydrogen.

If you need that hydrogen to fuel trucks then it could be shipped in (hydrogen-fuelled!) tankers to the local forecourt.

Or if the electricity was generated by an offshore wind farm, maybe bring the electricity ashore and specifically produce hydrogen for the nearby power station or gas network site. There are lots of permutations and possibilities.

In Cork we have existing infrastructure like Aghada’s gas-fired power station and Whitegate oil refineries that could be adapted. Other locations like the Shannon estuary and Moneypoint are being investigated for their suitability as part of a future hydrogen network.

Wind turbine owners aren’t going to start making hydrogen without a customer to sell it to, and that’s what Rory Monaghan and his research team are working on. How to create a hydrogen network that benefits the producer, consumer, and environment with no carbon emissions and improved air quality?

There are trials happening in Belfast where locally produced hydrogen from a wind turbine is fuelling hydrogen fuel cell buses that have been built in Northern Ireland. The circular economy in action!

Hydrogen has its detractors. Elon Musk thinks it’s a distraction from the development of better batteries and scientists have recently launched what they call the ‘million miles battery’ — that will last the lifetime of an EV car.

But will freight ships and planes run on batteries? Time will tell.

Rory Monaghan thinks of hydrogen as a flexible glue that will help all the other renewables work at their best in a carbon-free energy system of the future.

This is an exciting inflection point in Ireland’s energy story.

For decades, we have been reliant on oil and gas from other countries and have the carbon footprint to prove it.

Could we convert the barrels and barrels of Irish offshore wind into electricity to create barrels and barrels of hydrogen?

Could we imagine a future of Irish energy independence?

I like to think so.

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