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Hydrogen first used for energy storage then wider applications: Mitsubishi Power


Cheaper than batteries for long duration storage

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New York — Mitsubishi Power Americas is positioning itself as a decarbonization company based initially on hydrogen and lithium-ion battery storage technologies, with longer-term plans for hydrogen to be used in other applications like power generation, according to President and CEO Paul Browning.

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"Four and a half years ago when we put together our five-year strategic plan, we were very clear headed about the US power sector and power around the world and in the Americas decarbonizing," Browning said in a webcast Nov. 12 interview with Mona Dajani, global head of the energy & infrastructure finance group at law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman.

Mitsubishi Power, a subsidiary of the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Group, changed its name from Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems in September after Mitsubishi acquired Hitachi's position in the venture.

There has already been about a 40% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from the US power sector in the past 20 years with about 97% of the explanation for that reduction being the retirement of coal- and oil-fired power generation, Browning said.

Those power generation resources have been replaced with a combination of natural gas and renewable energy, with gas producing about 60% fewer emissions per unit of output than a retiring coal-fired plant, he said.

With a roughly 50% mix of gas and zero-emissions renewables replacing the dirtier fuels, the result is about an 80% carbon emissions reduction and that has been going on for about 20 years. So, after all the coal is gone, his company started thinking about what's next, Browning said.

The only remaining fuel generating emissions was natural gas and his team decided gas would be replaced with renewables and energy storage of varying durations at utility scale. So, the company launched a new division that focuses on lithium-ion batteries for short duration storage, renewable power development focused on solar PV and hydrogen as a storage technology for power generation.

Asked if he considers lithium-ion batteries as complimentary or competing with hydrogen, Browning said they are both due to the duration issue.

"If you want to store electricity for an hour or four hours, lithium-ion batteries are by far the better solution," he said. "But if you want to store electric power for eight hours, 24 hours, a week, month or season, batteries will be prohibitively expensive and hydrogen will be dramatically less expensive."

Technology cost, active projects

Trying to compete with gas as a fuel the economics are "extremely challenging," but trying to compete with lithium-ion batteries to store power for long periods of time, there is an economic solution today with hydrogen, Browning said.

Today hydrogen is a storage technology, but in the future, it can become an alternative fuel, though cost reductions will be required.

Regarding that cost reduction, Browning compared wind power turbine technology and prices in 2008 to where they are today, along with solar PV prices in 2012 and today, and battery storage costs in 2012 compared with today.

"That's exactly where hydrogen is right now today," he said. "If you are looking backwards it looks expensive and dangerous. But if you are looking forward you can see we are on the cusp of massive cost reduction and an industry that's going to really take off."

The company is doing the front-end engineering on a hydrogen production and storage facility in Utah and is seeing "massive" cost reduction opportunities through economies of scale because the electrolysis industry currently does less than 100 MW of electrolysis per year and Mitsubishi needs a gigawatt for phase one of their project, Browning said.

The company is also developing gas turbine technology to be able to combust hydrogen, as well as talking to customers interested in storing nuclear power using hydrogen.

Steel making is another potential application that could use heat produced from hydrogen and the oxygen that is also produced from electrolysis.

The company is also pursuing 3 GW of projects with customers in PJM Interconnection and New York Independent System Operator markets to build hydrogen-ready gas plants. Mitsubishi would install gas turbines that would start running 100% gas and be able to convert to 100% hydrogen over their lifetimes, he said.

The prepackaged hydrogen-ready plants would also store the gas in smaller quantities for use improving power plant flexibility through faster ramping and start-stop capability, Browning said.

The next big thing in power generation is storing renewable power and lithium-ion batteries along with hydrogen are complimentary parts of that, he said, adding that Mitsubishi Power has announced $3 billion in power projects and will soon announce "a bigger number" focused on storage.