Modernizing the Grid: Hydrogen Fuel Cells Offer Innovative Enhancement to Substation Reliability
Faced with the crucial job of keeping the lights on, refrigerators cold and life-support machines running for millions of customers, utilities do not take their core job of resilient power generation lightly. They maintain tons of heavy equipment, sophisticated electronic devices, computerized monitoring systems, emergency preparedness and disaster response plans. Beyond the utility’s own corporate standards and best practices, their operations are strictly audited by governmental regulations and external assessors. So, it is no wonder that utilities as organizations have tended to be resistant to change. While the energy grid has aged and in parallel the demand for power has continued to increase, creating increasing pressure and challenges, the penetration of new technologies has been relatively slower than in other sectors.
The Corona pandemic has served to significantly accelerate the winds of change that are disrupting every aspect of life and especially the power sector. With the huge influx of renewable generation sources and the move towards distributed energy models and demand response, utilities have come under enormous pressure to adapt to new business models and processes. With the current crisis, utilities also have had to balance between adjustments due to the altered industrial, commercial and residential power consumption patterns that have changed due to the significant relocation of employees working from home over the past months while continuing the steady delivery of reliable power and stable grid services to their customers. Add to this the fact that utilities must accommodate late or incomplete payments by ill or unemployed customers affected by Corona. At the same time, the long-term impact of climate change causes ever more and more frequent severe weather incidents that only exacerbate the situation, making utilities increasingly vulnerable to power outages.
Utilities endeavor to operate substations optimally under these conditions and to maintain reliable grid services for customers despite the disruptions to the workforce caused by the pandemic that impact the abilities of utiliies’ technical teams to maintain and service equipment in the field. Under these circumstances, utilities have become more open to leveraging new and innovative technologies to help meet their complex and sometimes conflicting tasks.
With the Corona virus situation raising even more questions about the impact of climate crisis on our environment, the need to transition to renewable energy has received even more attention in the global media, in discussions by government and policy makers as well as from business leaders who are boldly taking initiative to turn these discussions into pragmatic action. One aspect of the public conversation on renewables and on decarbonization of the energy sector has steadily increased the interest in hydrogen and the role it can play in accelerating the transition to clean energy, especially in many sectors which are difficult to decarbonize. This trend is gaining momentum and is fortifying the hydrogen infrastructure, reducing the cost and increasing the availability of hydrogen to fuel clean energy processes. This growing focus on hydrogen for energy is raising awareness and familiarity with this fuel, increasing acceptance of hydrogen safety standards and growing the interest in leveraging hydrogen to decarbonize diverse applications. This spotlight on hydrogen is in parallel causing a renaissance for fuel cells.
One less well-known but effective way to leverage hydrogen for clean power is to provide long-duration auxiliary DC power for substations from fuel cells. To support substations against the risk of outages, traditionally utilities have relied on batteries, and in cases where there is a risk that outages may extend beyond the expected estimated remaining capacity of the batteries, they resort to bringing in diesel generators which present many logistical disadvantages as well as negatively impacting sustainability. During a sustained outage that eliminates the means to recharge the batteries, the utility enters a race against time to reinstate the primary power supply. If the race fails, the utility will face a very time-consuming, costly and asset damaging ‘black-start scenario’, which every utility seeks to prevent.
During outages, fuel cells can provide uninterrupted power to keep breakers and critical controls in an operational mode, limiting expensive damage to equipment and enabling the utility to restore grid power significantly faster. To do this successfully, fluent communication between the substations is essential, and therefore ensuring that all communication equipment is kept operational during an outage is of utmost importance. By backing up this communication equipment, fuel cells effectively immunize all utility substations – especially those that are carrying the black-start corridor.
More utilities today realize that relying on batteries alone to keep their critical systems running is problematic, especially when facing severe weather. There is growing awareness that fuel cells can complement the batteries, keeping them fully charged and operational during power outages of almost any duration. For as long as they have hydrogen and oxygen, fuel cells can continuously generate electricity. Moreover, it is easy to accurately monitor the fuel cell’s hydrogen consumption by measuring the pressure in each cylinder. Operationally, this makes management of these assets a lot easier, more predictable, more reliable and cost-effective.
The broad interest in hydrogen as a fuel for energy applications is propelling the market to share knowledge about hydrogen safety and handling, driving down costs and increasing its availability. The regulations governing the use of hydrogen vary between countries, but it is becoming increasingly less complex and thus less expensive to obtain a permit from local fire prevention authorities for hydrogen storage and transport. As hydrogen is commoditized, utilities alongside other businesses can more readily adopt fuel cells to displace fossil fuel engines in relevant power generation applications.
While providing utilities with an innovative and advantageous auxiliary DC backup power solution for substations enhances grid modernization, as utilities adopt new business models, fuel cells can also open up additional revenue streams for utilities behind the meter. And most important for the utilities of the future, running on chemical compounds devoid of carbon will maximize clean energy storage and generation.
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