NREL (National Renewable Energy Lab), in partnership with Xcel Energy, has been performing a wind-to-hydrogen (Wind2H2) demonstration project at the National Wind Technology Center in Boulder, Colorado. The Wind2H2 project links wind turbines to electrolyzers that produce hydrogen. The turbines generate the electricity that is fed to the electrolyzers that split water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen is then stored and used later to generate electricity from an internal combustion engine or a fuel cell (go to source).
Exploring a solution to the energy storage challenge
Before alternative or renewable energy can replace fossil fuel energy, the challenge of storing and distributing the clean energy needs to be met. Whatever the solution, it will need to be as cost effective, convenient, and safe as the current method of storing and distributing diesel, coal, and gasoline. By storing the hydrogen first, then consuming it later for on-demand electricity, the Wind2H2 project allows researchers to explore a solution to this energy storage challenge. The alternative solution of scaling up the current method of battery storage is probably not sustainable in the long run because current battery material is not local, is expensive, and not environmentally friendly.
Unlike the material that is currently used as energy storage (batteries), hydrogen is abundant. Hydrogen has the advantage of being the lightest and most abundant element in the universe. Being most abundant, possibilities exist for local production of hydrogen, reducing dependency on foreign sources for energy. Being the lightest with approximately 3 times the energy density of fossil fuels, hydrogen is attractive as a transportation fuel because energy is conserved when transporting a lighter weight fuel. See related article for more information.
Drawbacks of conventional hydrogen production
Conventionally, most hydrogen is "reformed" from natural gas or other fossil fuels by stripping out the hydrogen atoms, a process that creates greenhouse gas emissions. Another conventional method is to produce hydrogen through electrolysis of water, but the electricity used during the process is from “dirty” sources such as coal and other fossil fuels.
Using wind power to eliminate the drawbacks of conventional hydrogen production
The process of generating hydrogen from a clean energy source is unconventional, but promises to be better for the environment that traditional hydrogen production. By using wind as the power source, hydrogen is produced without releasing greenhouse gases or other harmful byproducts.
Sustainable and local
Sustainable, local energy sources are the only solution to long term energy independence. Fed by only wind and water, the Wind2H2 project demonstrates the possibility of achieving an energy independence that is both sustainable and local. Although water is becoming increasingly valuable, less valuable water such as untreated snow and groundwater, or waste water such as bath, laundry, and sewer water could be used in electrolysis for hydrogen production.
This form of sustainable and local energy is promising for Colorado since it receives a relatively high amount of wind energy, and is in the unique position of controlling its water source since it is the only state where all the water flows away from it and no water flows in to it. See the related article discussing wind energy in the state of Colorado.