Wind Power Makes Fuel For German Gas Grid

For the first time on an industrial scale, hydrogen produced using wind power is being injected into the natural gas grid in Germany. It’s a development that could enhance the value of wind power by making it useful no matter when it is produced.

E.On said the P2G unit in Falkenhagan in eastern Germany, operated in a partnership with Swissgas AG, has a capacity of 2 megawatts and can pump out 360 cubic meters of hydrogen every hour. In a sign of the potential of the technology, its inauguration drew a crowd that included the German economics minister, members of the European parliament and high officials of Brandenburg state.

power to gas

Falkenhagen, Germany, P2G plant (image via E.on)

“One of the biggest challenges of transforming Germany’s energy system is finding ways to integrate the increasing share of intermittent, renewable-source energy,” Economics Minister Philipp Rösler said in the E.on news release. “To ensure that Germany’s power system remains stable and that our economy continues to have the energy it needs, we not only have to rapidly expand energy networks. We also need innovative solutions like the P2G unit here in Falkenhagen.”

What we have in Falkenhagen, really, is a way to store wind power. Instead of turning off the turbines at a nearby wind farm when demand is low (as it can be at night, when the wind tends to blow strongest), or using the power to move water up a hill (effective but site-specific and expensive pumped hydro) or charge a battery (expensive), or try to find a buyer for the power far away (requiring costly transmission), the power is used to turn water into hydrogen by electrolysis. The hydrogen is then shot straight into the area’s natural gas system. displacing a fossil fuel.

What’s especially interesting here is that last step — the use of the hydrogen in the natural gas pipeline. We recently reported on a report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy, “Blending Hydrogen into Natural Gas Pipeline Networks: A Review of Key Issues,” in which the authors sound a fairly optimistic note about the possibility of putting the country’s extensive gas pipeline system to work for clean hydrogen’s benefit. They don’t give the idea a 100 percent endorsement of the idea — because of the nature of hydrogen, the natural gas system can only take small percentages without extensive reworking —  but their review of the issues says that the pluses appeared significant enough to warrant further study. So while the E.on project in Germany is fairly small, it should provide valuable insight that will help guide subsequent approaches with the technology.

Other similar approaches include putting hydrogen produced from excess renewables to work in fuel cells, and reacting it with CO2 from bioenergy plants to produce a carbon neutral methane, sometimes known as “renewable methane” or synthetic methane. This synthetic methane could go directly into the natural gas pipeline without the limitations of hydrogen. A 25-kilowatt demonstration plant using just such a system is operating in Germany.

For more on adding hydrogen to the natural gas pipeline, see our earlier story.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

  • Dave Long

    This is a fascinating development but I’m curious. Can this be a step towards a pipelined service for residential fuel cells? Will it significantly reduce CO2 emissions resulting from such an arrangement? Could it lead to home fueling of fuel cell EVs?
    I can see loads of potential if a larger percentage of hydrogen can be introduced into a pipeline.

    • Pete Danko

      I don’t think it changes anything regarding the possibility of having hydrogen piped to homes. That would still require its own (expensive) system. A more likely step — one that is being addressed but slowly and that needs tons and tons of work — toward fueling fuel cell EVs is developing stations. See:

      • It’s not all that hard.

        Japan just added a hydrogen pump to a regular gasoline station:

        • Pete Danko

          Oh, I wasn’t doubting it can be done — it’s a question of viability. Definitely worth the investment to see where costs might be able to go.

    • Yes, the idea is you add hydrogen into the natural gas pipeline at a 5 to 10% ratio and then extract the pure hydrogen at the other end.

      Blending Hydrogen into Natural Gas Pipeline Networks: A Review of Key Issues

      • Pete Danko

        Thanks for the link!

        • Right now, it is probably too costly per home, but the types of technologies that allow it to happen…electrochemistry, catalysts, membranes…are the same that would already be used in a fuel cell! Therefore I would expect that the cost and scale of hydrogen extraction from a natural gas pipeline would severely reduce in cost and complexity if this became the norm.

          Overtime however, I would want the pipelines to be converted to pure hydrogen anyway. Inputs — whether renewable like wind, solar, or dam – would add hydrogen from electrolysis or artificial photosynthesis. Fossil fuels — such as oil, methane, or even coal — would be processed at the source, the carbon sequestered, and the resulting hydrogen gas pumped into the “Hydronet”!