Splitting water, shaping the future
Two communities in Germany go for green hydrogen.
Two communities in Germany are setting an example: They produce green hydrogen as a means of storing locally generated renewable energy – or will do so soon. The district of Düren and the town of Wunsiedel have chosen different concepts but with a common denominator: They’re not only producing their own hydrogen on-site, they’re also utilizing it in their region to save on fuel transport costs and increase the economic efficiency of the projects.
Hydrogen is the most abundant element on Earth, and it’s gaining ground worldwide as a more powerful and cleaner fuel. Green hydrogen, which is produced using only renewable energies, is a source of hope in the struggle to master the energy transition.
Along with South Korea and Japan, Germany is one of the pioneers in the use of green hydrogen. As part of its plan to decarbonize all consumer sectors by 2050, the country is moving toward a supply system dominated by electricity from photovoltaics and wind energy. According to the federal government’s Climate Protection Plan, Germany is on its way to becoming greenhouse gas neutral. However, if fossil fuels are to be eliminated, the energy system must be able to store excess renewable energy.
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Tremendous potential for decarbonization
Whereas battery storage and electromobility have proven effective for the short-term storage and subsequent use of electricity, hydrogen is a promising option for the long-term storage of excess electricity. The gas is generated from water by means of electrolysis, a process that will make it possible to stockpile wind and solar electricity for long periods of time.
When needed, hydrogen can be converted back into electricity, either in a cogeneration plant or in a vehicle, or it can be used as a gas in industry. The latter application is important because hydrogen is already in widespread use today. “In Germany alone, there’s a demand for more than 1.8 million tons of hydrogen per year,” says Bernd Koch, Head of Distributed Energy Systems at Siemens Smart Infrastructure Germany. “If this could be covered by green hydrogen instead of the grey hydrogen generated from fossil fuels, CO₂ emissions could be reduced by 18 million tons.”
Wherever transport distances are long, it’s worthwhile to produce green hydrogen locally.Bernd Koch, Head of Distributed Energy Systems at Siemens Smart Infrastructure Germany
Today, however, the higher cost of generating green hydrogen are still an obstacle to this transition. But according to estimates by the Clean Energy Technology Network, price parity with liquid natural gas (LNG) will be achieved by 2030.
Nevertheless, economical projects using green hydrogen are in progress right now. Because the volatile, explosive gas is difficult to transport, the cost of delivering it over long distances is high. “Wherever transport distances are long, it’s worthwhile to produce green hydrogen locally,” says Koch. “What’s important is that the generator and consumer be near one another.”
Wunsiedel: Combining renewable generation and hydrogen production
Rural regions that generate a lot of renewable energies locally are ideal for hydrogen production – so it comes as no surprise that an electrolysis plant is being built at the municipality of Wunsiedel. This Upper Franconian district with 73,000 inhabitants is currently seen as a pioneer in Bavaria when it comes to renewable energies from wind and photovoltaics.
Because the share of power generated from volatile sources like wind and sun is often over 100 percent, the municipality was looking for options for making better use of the energy generated – and finally opted for green hydrogen.
If we build hydrogen generation plants like Wunsiedel directly where the electricity is produced, we can also ease the burden at higher grid levels.Andreas Schmuderer, Head of Project Development Energy Performance Services at Siemens Smart Infrastructure Germany
However, the goal is not to maximize production: Instead, hydrogen will be produced whenever the region generates excess electricity. “Because the generation of solar and wind energy fluctuates, we have to respond to this volatility,” says Andreas Schmuderer, Head of Project Development Energy Performance Services at Siemens Smart Infrastructure Germany. Hydrogen production can increase the flexibility of the region’s energy system and prevent grid bottlenecks. “If we build hydrogen generation plants like Wunsiedel directly where the electricity is produced, we can also ease the burden at higher grid levels, because temporary overcapacities can be managed locally,” says Schmuderer.
In the region, for the people
With an electrical power intake of six megawatts (MW) in the initial development phase, the plant is one of the largest of its type and serves as a model for all of Germany. It can provide up to 1,000 tons of hydrogen for the region per year. It not only supplies hydrogen to regional end customers in Upper Franconia, the northern Upper Palatinate, southern Thuringia, Saxony, and Western Bohemia in the Czech Republic, it ensures security of supply during “dark doldrums” – times of low renewable energy production – by feeding energy back into the system on-site.
We think in terms of system solutions, and not just of products: What matters is how we put them together.Marco Krasser, Managing Director of Stadtwerke Wunsiedel (SWW)
What’s so extraordinary about the project in Wunsiedel is that, in addition to hydrogen, the oxygen generated during water electrolysis is also used by nearby industrial operations. In addition, the waste heat can also be utilized in industrial processes. The result is maximum energy efficiency and a plant that’s unique because all element flows are utilized. There are very few locations in Germany where this combination of applications, called “sector coupling,” is feasible. Like a nuclear power plant, it offers efficiency in the 90 percent range.
With Siemens as a technology partner, Wunsiedel is making consistent progress toward a comprehensive solution for generating and optimally utilizing renewable energies. “We think in terms of system solutions, and not just of products: What matters is how we put them together, which is what’s so great about the technology partnership,” says Marco Krasser, Managing Director of Stadtwerke Wunsiedel (SWW). Schmuderer adds: “What makes this project so valuable is that it’s embedded in an overall regional concept that involves the energy system as well as hydrogen utilization and the hydrogen market.”
Green hydrogen takes off in Düren
Another innovative hydrogen project is planned for the Düren district. Like Wunsiedel, this district with well over 270,000 inhabitants has set itself an ambitious goal. The district administration plans to become climate-neutral by 2025 and the district as a whole by 2035.
By the end of 2022, a solar farm with about 18,000 modules and a capacity of nine MWp will be established at Brainergy Park Jülich, along with an 8.5 MW electrolyzer that will convert solar energy to hydrogen. The goal is to enable sustainable mobility in the Düren district. Düren is currently converting its local public transportation to electromobility and hydrogen drives.
“Green hydrogen is the technology of the future. It’s a key factor in the electrification of our local public transport, which makes it an important step toward achieving our goal of climate-neutrality,” says Wolfgang Spelthahn, Düren District Administrator. “We’re also fortunate to have received funding from the BMVI (German Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure). This is paving the way for decarbonizing our transportation.”
Green hydrogen is the technology of the future. It’s a key factor in the electrification of our local public transport.Wolfgang Spelthahn, Düren District Administrator
Just like the project in Wunsiedel, the electrolysis plant processes electricity from local photovoltaics and also interacts with the grid. As a result, all the electricity from the photovoltaic plant will be sufficient to meet the needs of the Düren district’s hydrogen buses and the four hydrogen trains currently being planned (nine megawatts). The plant is expandable, which means that it could produce even larger quantities of green hydrogen.
The first hydrogen filling station for hydrogen vehicles will soon be operational at the A4 freeway’s Düren exit. “We’ll be building five hydrogen filling stations in the Düren district,” says District Administrator Spelthahn. “This will resolve the age-old question of the chicken and the egg: If you want to purchase a hydrogen-powered vehicle, you won’t have to worry about fuel in our region. And the more hydrogen cars there are, the more filling stations will be built.”
Is green hydrogen the future?
The projects in Wunsiedel and Düren are proving that green hydrogen production can be profitable when integrated in regional energy concepts. They also kill two birds with one stone by enabling optimal utilization of renewable energy while at the same time laying the groundwork for the decarbonization of more sectors.
What makes hydrogen so attractive is its versatility. It has long proven its worth not only as a storage medium for energy but also in industrial applications, and it’s increasingly conquering the mobility sector. The widespread use of green hydrogen for rail traffic, public transportation, heavy-duty traffic, air traffic, and even personal mobility is now conceivable for the future.
March 4, 2021; updated February 23, 2022
Picture credits: Siemens AG
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