Cars Could Be Powered by Wind Energy, Thanks to Hydrogen

Technology  /   /  By Bradley Berman

While hydrogen is generally viewed as a source of energy—like petroleum or coal—it’s more accurate to see it as “carrier” of energy. That could be a key to using wind energy to power vehicles, as indicated by two projects in Japan and Germany.

Here’s the background: you can’t simply drill for hydrogen or dig it up. It has to be taken (or stripped) from other sources—such as water or natural gas—and then stored, usually in gaseous form. Then, the hydrogen can be put through a fuel cell to produce electricity for use in a car or other device.

It’s not that much different to the way electricity on the grid is produced in many different ways, and then sent on wires to building throughout a region. Of course, the electricity—which could come from dirty carbon-intensive sources, or renewables such as solar and wind—can also be stored in batteries.

Enertrag, a German energy company, started a project in 2012 to produce hydrogen through a cluster of 200-meter-high wind turbines in Prenzlau, Germany. Notably, the wind turbines are being used to power electrolyzers: a device that splits water into oxygen and hydrogen. Of course, it takes energy to make energy—but in this case, the wind turbine is producing the energy without carbon emissions and hydrogen as its primary product. It was the world’s first direct wind-hydrogen power plant.

The hydrogen is used in a range of applications, including hydrogen fuel-cell cars in Berlin and Hamburg. The German government aims to increase the number of hydrogen stations in the country from about 50 today, to 100 stations by 2017 and 400 by 2023.

Enertrag is collaborating with Vattenfall and Total, two traditional energy companies, on the Prenzlau project. “We are talking about terawatt hours of electricity which has to be stored,” said Robert Doring, a spokesperson for Enertrag, in a story for Public Radio International in late May. “But in batteries you cannot store large scales of energy.” On the other hand, gaseous hydrogen can be stored in inexpensive tanks for long periods of time with minimal losses—and then transported in those tanks when and where it’s needed.

Moreover, the intermittent nature of wind power can be overcome because the hydrogen can be produced when the wind is most active—and then stored for later use, as demand dictates.

Wind Power in Japan

In a separate project, Toyota started working in March with Toshiba and Iwatani Corp, an energy supplier, to produce hydrogen from wind power in Japan—for later use in fork lifts. It’s a pilot project, but could lead to powering hydrogen fuel-cell cars in a similar way. The three companies believe that hydrogen from wind power could reduce carbon-dioxide emissions by at least 80 percent compared to today’s common hydrogen methods.

Shigeki Tomoyama, a senior manager at Toyota, emphasized that it’s easier to store hydrogen than electricity—echoing the belief expressed by Enertrag.

The hydrogen in the Toyota project is produced at a wind power plant in Yokohama, southwest of Tokyo. It’s then transported in special trucks to four sites—a factory, a vegetable and fruit market and two warehouses—where it’s used to power fork lifts. The transport of the hydrogen from the wind farms is made via special trucks that can also act as mobile fueling stations for hydrogen fuel-cell cars, such as the Toyota Mirai. In this way, the hydrogen travels to the car—rather than the other way around—again revealing the flexibility of producing, storing and distributing hydrogen fuel.

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