With news of the recent Paris Climate Agreement hot off the racks, the spotlight has returned to the topic of climate change. With a few exceptions, it seems coal and non-renewable energy has gradually fallen out of favor with the majority of the world, and that green is now the new black.
Off the southern coasts of Singapore, French energy company Engie SA has put their revolutionary power grid to the test on Semakau Island. Together with Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University and France’s Schneider Electric SE, the Engie micro-grid promises to provide sufficient electricity to convert energy from renewable sources like the sun, tides and wind, into the form of hydrogen as storage. A relatively new concept, hydrogen storage has not received as much attention as the conventional battery, and for good reasons.
Hydrogen gas naturally exists in miniscule amounts in the Earth’s atmosphere. Besides from underground gas pockets (methane) and hydrocarbons (fossil fuels), the greenest source of low-carbon hydrogen is the Earth’s waters. An electric current is used to split water molecules via electrolysis, and the hydrogen is isolated until further use. However, the astronomical energy demands for electrolysis render the whole production process too expensive to implement on an industrial scale. (Perhaps also why rocket fuel could hold its weight in gold) As such, the good ol’ battery continues to be the most common form of fuel cells.
While Didier Holleaux, executive vice president at Engie agrees that electrolysis costs remained an economic barrier, with another 10 -15 more years to go before manufacturers could bring water-splitting costs even lower, he remained optimistic of Engie’s position in the hydrogen market. “Batteries are fine for intraday, or a few hours,” Holleaux said in an interview in Singapore. “But if you produce energy in summer and need it in winter, or need it to last during a few cloudy days, then hydrogen would be the obvious solution.” Aptly dubbed the Semakau Island project, Holleaux expects the self-powered micro-grid to be operational by Oct 2017, and storage facilities will eventually be installed.
By harnessing the forces of nature, Engie’s new micro-grid could rely on the intermittent energy collected within solar panels and wind turbines to power the electrolysis process. Unless natural disasters strike near Singapore, the stable climate could essentially create a continuous stream of energy to fill up the hydrogen reservoirs.
“Many countries are ready to leapfrog directly from no power at all to a completely decentralized type of power, rather than going through the traditional centralized, interconnected network.” said Holleaux.
If proven successful, it could be upscaled to provide electricity to isolated areas with limited access to traditional power plants, such as the Indonesian archipelago. Therefore, Engie views Southeast Asia as a promising market which welcomes innovation.
While it remains a small dot on the map, Singapore has been making giant steps to make the world a greener place.