Why hydrogen economics does not work

I have read tens if not hundreds of enthusiastic articles about how hydrogen economics will soon take off, how we will drive hydrogen cars soon, and everyone would have a solar roof and how excessive solar energy is stored into hydrogen, to use it later. Now, as I can remember, already 15 years, but nothing really happened except that some proof of concept prototype cars have been built along with few hydrogen gas stations, that get their hydrogen made from natural gas - a fossil fuel.

To my opinion this far there are two major reasons why hydrogen economy does not work.

1. The energy conversion and losses during the hydrogen production, storage, transport, and conversion back to electricity are prohibitively high. Out of 100kWh electricity at input, there is rouoghly only 20kWh elctricity left at output, which make Li batteries much more efficient energy storage medium.

2. The infrastructure for producing and storing hydrogen and turning it back into electricity is prohibitively costly. Somebody has to pay for electrolyzers, pipework, compressors, tanks and precious metals containing fuel cells. And of course safety. Hydrogen is a nasty gas, as it makes metal brittle and makes explosive mixes with air. It burns at +3000C without visible flame. It adds more costs to make that infrastructure safe to operate.

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1 minute ago, entertenter said:

Now, as I can remember, already 15 years, but nothing really happened except that some proof of concept prototype cars have been built along with few hydrogen gas stations, that get their hydrogen made from natural gas - a fossil fuel.

^  noteworthy observation.

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7 hours ago, entertenter said:

I have read tens if not hundreds of enthusiastic articles about how hydrogen economics will soon take off, how we will drive hydrogen cars soon, and everyone would have a solar roof and how excessive solar energy is stored into hydrogen, to use it later. Now, as I can remember, already 15 years, but nothing really happened except that some proof of concept prototype cars have been built along with few hydrogen gas stations, that get their hydrogen made from natural gas - a fossil fuel.

To my opinion this far there are two major reasons why hydrogen economy does not work.

1. The energy conversion and losses during the hydrogen production, storage, transport, and conversion back to electricity are prohibitively high. Out of 100kWh electricity at input, there is rouoghly only 20kWh elctricity left at output, which make Li batteries much more efficient energy storage medium.

2. The infrastructure for producing and storing hydrogen and turning it back into electricity is prohibitively costly. Somebody has to pay for electrolyzers, pipework, compressors, tanks and precious metals containing fuel cells. And of course safety. Hydrogen is a nasty gas, as it makes metal brittle and makes explosive mixes with air. It burns at +3000C without visible flame. It adds more costs to make that infrastructure safe to operate.

It also takes 35-40% of the energy to compress into a usable form. 

If you have a supply of surplus Hydrogen (not 'fake' Hydogen made from Natural Gas)  there are much better ways of using this than trying to run cars. 

1. Blend into natural gas networks. Most can take Hydrogen up to 10% of the content. The UK gas grid was original designed for Town Gas so can cope with a higher Hydrogen content.

2. If you have a clean supply of CO2 use it to manufacture ethylene (c2H4) which is the basis of many plastics

3. Convert into Ammonia which aside from being used as a fertiliser can be used to run diesel engines

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Readers should note that Hydrogen does not need to be compressed into a tank for storage, at say 3,000 psi.  Hydrogen readily adsorbs onto the surface of finely ground iron particles, so if you fill up a tank with iron shavings, and put in the H2 at say 250 psi, you can have a huge amount of hydrogen in there.  If you puncture a low-pressure tank and set a fire on the hole, all you get is a soft flame. Won't explode.  Also, H2 is not explosive when in pure form, the Germans were meticulous to keep the H2 at purity, above 95%, in those Zeppelins to avoid having them ignite.  (Didn't help when the bags ripped, though). 

Because H2 can be burned in a conventional gasoline engine if you fix up the carburetor for a gas fuel, same as natural gas engines, no need to first convert to electricity in some fuel cell.  It can be run "straight" in a conventional auto.  There are guys out there that have converted their used cars to run on hydrogen, more for a lark than anything else.  As always, neat ideas go nowhere because of the social inertia of whatever is the current system.  

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2 hours ago, Jan van Eck said:

Readers should note that Hydrogen does not need to be compressed into a tank for storage, at say 3,000 psi.  Hydrogen readily adsorbs onto the surface of finely ground iron particles, so if you fill up a tank with iron shavings, and put in the H2 at say 250 psi, you can have a huge amount of hydrogen in there.  If you puncture a low-pressure tank and set a fire on the hole, all you get is a soft flame. Won't explode.  Also, H2 is not explosive when in pure form, the Germans were meticulous to keep the H2 at purity, above 95%, in those Zeppelins to avoid having them ignite.  (Didn't help when the bags ripped, though). 

Because H2 can be burned in a conventional gasoline engine if you fix up the carburetor for a gas fuel, same as natural gas engines, no need to first convert to electricity in some fuel cell.  It can be run "straight" in a conventional auto.  There are guys out there that have converted their used cars to run on hydrogen, more for a lark than anything else.  As always, neat ideas go nowhere because of the social inertia of whatever is the current system.  

Hydrogen at atmospheric pressure is only 12.5 MJ/m3 (Natural Gas is 39) . One way or another that is going to require a lot of compression force to get it down into a transportable format for a car or commercial vehicle. 

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2 hours ago, Guillaume Albasini said:

It seems its possible to transport hydrogen in liquid ammonia instead of pressurized gaz then convert it in gaz using a new membrane developed by an australian team :

https://www.carsguide.com.au/car-news/csiro-hydrogen-breakthrough-ignites-fuel-cell-car-potential-70345

I've seen the liquid ammonia solution to storing energy suggested before. There is nothing technically wrong with the idea but, as with all the other ideas proposed on energy over the years, its a small matter of cost per MWhr. How does that cost compare with, say, pumped hydro, and so on. Basically no-one-rushing to do it so I wonder just how cost-effective it would be. 

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Natural gas vehicles run clean, and natural gas is very abundant and very cheap. The technology is fully developed. Greater use eliminates the problem of mechanics who are not familiar with the maintenance. Cylinders have greatly improved. There is a core network of CNG and LNG fueling facilities aside from Montana and the Dakotas.which have minimal transport anyway. 

I saw my first hydrogen car in a Los Angeles Car show in 1965. It was an experimental model. If hydrogen was an economic and practical fuel it could have taken off long ago. Natural gas already has but will probably not take off until diesel and gasoline marketers try to  push up gasoline prices for an extended period. I don't see that happening without strict anti-pollution laws. 

Natural Gas Vehicles https://docs.google.com/document/d/1kM7_6rwI5iG7s1EF1RNuVmFHEGFbteRsPjjzzxx5UTA/edit

Natural Gas Vehicles CNG https://docs.google.com/document/d/1DjSFf0dyd74Wx-OdtmNaHfGiRCmDgrZmRwyIR9NNv8c/edit

The Natural Gas Revolution https://docs.google.com/document/d/1G8WIlaY5yFF_uhp0SAK9GML_I77FDgtj6qk0AUQbkh4/edit

 

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12 hours ago, markslawson said:

I've seen the liquid ammonia solution to storing energy suggested before. There is nothing technically wrong with the idea but, as with all the other ideas proposed on energy over the years, its a small matter of cost per MWhr. How does that cost compare with, say, pumped hydro, and so on. Basically no-one-rushing to do it so I wonder just how cost-effective it would be. 

At present Natural Gas is much cheaper. The Ammonia concept is one which comes into play where Natural Gas is a lot more expensive and / or intermittent renewables become very cheap.

The Norwegians used to produce a lot of Ammonia using surplus Hydro electricity 

Lets say the cost of solar panels falls to 10% of where it is now. You then have a situation where a massive overbuild of solar is worthwhile but you need to store some of that energy for night time or possibly inter-seasonal use. Ammonia is one way of doing this.

1. Storage is relatively cheap

2. Ammonia can be used to power diesel engines so can be used in transport or quick response power generation

3. Its the basis of nitrate fertilsers

4. Converting back to Hydrogen adds a layer of complexity that is unnecessary when the options above are an option 

 

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9 hours ago, ronwagn said:

Natural gas vehicles run clean, and natural gas is very abundant and very cheap. The technology is fully developed. Greater use eliminates the problem of mechanics who are not familiar with the maintenance. Cylinders have greatly improved. There is a core network of CNG and LNG fueling facilities aside from Montana and the Dakotas.which have minimal transport anyway. 

I saw my first hydrogen car in a Los Angeles Car show in 1965. It was an experimental model. If hydrogen was an economic and practical fuel it could have taken off long ago. Natural gas already has but will probably not take off until diesel and gasoline marketers try to  push up gasoline prices for an extended period. I don't see that happening without strict anti-pollution laws. 

Natural Gas Vehicles https://docs.google.com/document/d/1kM7_6rwI5iG7s1EF1RNuVmFHEGFbteRsPjjzzxx5UTA/edit

Natural Gas Vehicles CNG https://docs.google.com/document/d/1DjSFf0dyd74Wx-OdtmNaHfGiRCmDgrZmRwyIR9NNv8c/edit

The Natural Gas Revolution https://docs.google.com/document/d/1G8WIlaY5yFF_uhp0SAK9GML_I77FDgtj6qk0AUQbkh4/edit

 

Agree. Converting Natural gas into hydrogen to use as a road fuel is madness. 

The lunatics who run London Transport had the option of converting the bus fleet to CNG and passed on this option. An ultra clean Bus would be one designed as a Plug in Hybrid run on natural gas. This would have made a significant contribution to improving Londons Air quality. 

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NW, I am all for hybrids. My only gripe is the inflated price that they are sold for. In normal use hybrid cars don't seem to ever pay off the price differential. High use vehicles do. 

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Nick W,  We have a natural gas plant near me that produces ammonia fertilizer. I don't know the process but it doesn't require hydrogen to my knowledge. 

It seems that a lot of electricity is wasted in producing hydrogen. Natural gas does not require a conversion, just filtering. 

http://naturalgasnow.org/fertilizer-made-natural-gas-lifting-world/ 

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3 hours ago, ronwagn said:

Nick W,  We have a natural gas plant near me that produces ammonia fertilizer. I don't know the process but it doesn't require hydrogen to my knowledge. 

It seems that a lot of electricity is wasted in producing hydrogen. Natural gas does not require a conversion, just filtering. 

http://naturalgasnow.org/fertilizer-made-natural-gas-lifting-world/ 

In ammonia plants Natural Gas (CH4) is converted into Ammonia (NH3) and Carbon Dioxide (CO2) which is then used in the food industry as a an agent for Carbonating drinks, preservation of food, stunning of pigs and poultry before slaughter.

3-5% of global gas production is used to generate Ammonia

At current gas prices the only scenario where you might use electricity to produce Ammonia is where that source is isolated and exceeds the demands in the locality - in the Norwegian example it was a large Hydro plant with no capacity to export power- the surplus electricity is converted into Ammonia which is relatively easy to transport by ship or converted in to solid Ammonium Sulphate. 

Another example of where this approach might be used is if the Saudis built their proposed 200GW of solar. The daytime peak surpluses could be used to generate Ammonia and desalinate water. 

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4 hours ago, ronwagn said:

Nick W,  We have a natural gas plant near me that produces ammonia fertilizer. I don't know the process but it doesn't require hydrogen to my knowledge. 

It seems that a lot of electricity is wasted in producing hydrogen. Natural gas does not require a conversion, just filtering. 

http://naturalgasnow.org/fertilizer-made-natural-gas-lifting-world/ 

The Natural Gas certainly does need processing through the steam reforming process which involves heating it to 1000 degrees C with steam which then forms Hydrogen and Carbon Monoxide. 

The Hydrogen is then mixed with Nitrogen and converted in the Haber Process to Ammonia which involves passing the mixture over a catalyst at high temperature

The Carbon Monoxide is burned in Oxygen to form pure food grade CO2

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Nick W, I attached a link which explains the process for making ammonia from natural gas. It requires processing but not a seperate source of hydrogen. The hydrogen comes from the natural gas in this process.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural-gas_processing 

 

http://naturalgasnow.org/fertilizer-made-natural-gas-lifting-world/  

Screen-Shot-2014-10-13-at-5.21.33-AM.jpg

Edited by ronwagn

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5 hours ago, NickW said:

The Carbon Monoxide is burned in Oxygen to form pure food grade CO2 

natural gas is converted to syngas (CO and H2) by steam reforming (catalytic reaction). then, the CO is converted with steam to H2 by CO shift reaction (catalysis) producing CO2. next step is to remove the CO2 (e.g. rectisol process) and clean up of the remaining H2 (e.g. PSA). This pure H2 can be mixed with N2 in the right ratio for producing ammonia by final catalystic step.

The extracted CO2 ia already quit clean but can be further purified and liquified for different purposes such as in the food industry etc. part of CO2 can be used for processing ammonia to urea, which is a solid easy to handle and store.

personally, i would always check and total the efficiencies for the different conversions of energy carriers. the thermodynamics will always limit the suitable application of chemical conversion technologies. i can see three main factors against the wide application of hydrogen economy:

1. total energy efficiency decreases by every conversion step

2. every conversion of energy carrier is either a power plant, electrochemical plant or chemical plant with corresponding investment costs

3. natural gas, oil and coal are and will be available in the midterm future. who can predict the crude price in 2020? i am expecting that the gas and coal price will be not too high. no idea about crude... but, who is taking the risk and will invest billions in competing energy carriers such as in hydrogen economics? only possible for specific niche markets, which are arleady existing.

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18 hours ago, NickW said:

At present Natural Gas is much cheaper. The Ammonia concept is one which comes into play where Natural Gas is a lot more expensive and / or intermittent renewables become very cheap.

The Norwegians used to produce a lot of Ammonia using surplus Hydro electricity 

Lets say the cost of solar panels falls to 10% of where it is now. You then have a situation where a massive overbuild of solar is worthwhile but you need to store some of that energy for night time or possibly inter-seasonal use. Ammonia is one way of doing this.

1. Storage is relatively cheap

2. Ammonia can be used to power diesel engines so can be used in transport or quick response power generation

3. Its the basis of nitrate fertilsers

4. Converting back to Hydrogen adds a layer of complexity that is unnecessary when the options above are an option 

 

You've said storage is relatively cheap but again there are no figures with that or working examples that I know of. The two comparisons are pumped hydro and/or batteries. I would strongly doubt that it is cheaper than pumped hydro but at least it doesn't have to be built on a massive scale. Is there than actual application that someone can point to an analyse? If you can find a reference that would be good.

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3 hours ago, markslawson said:

You've said storage is relatively cheap but again there are no figures with that or working examples that I know of. The two comparisons are pumped hydro and/or batteries. I would strongly doubt that it is cheaper than pumped hydro but at least it doesn't have to be built on a massive scale. Is there than actual application that someone can point to an analyse? If you can find a reference that would be good.

The comparison I was making was that storage of Ammonia is cheap compared to storing elemental Hydrogen. Storing Ammonia is comparable to storing Propane so if you want a liquid / gaseous fuel (Ammonia can be easily used in a diesel engine) Ammonia is the way to go. 

Alternatively there is a 200 mt a year demand for Ammonia. If you have a cheap source of surplus electricity to burn up there is a ready market for Ammonia. 

As for large scale examples Norway did it from 1911 to 1971 using surplus Hydro. The arrival of cheap North Sea Natural Gas out competed it. If Natural Gas prices rise then the process will become economic again.  I'm not sure what the cross over price is. 

From Wiki:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ammonia_production

The Vemork hydroelectric plant in Norway used its surplus electricity output to generate renewable ammonia from 1911 to 1971,[4] requiring 15 MWh/Ton of nitric acid. The same reaction is carried out by lightning, providing a natural source for converting atmospheric nitrogen to soluble nitrates.[5] In practice, natural gas will remain the major source of hydrogen for ammonia production as long as it is cheapest.

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10 hours ago, ronwagn said:

Nick W, I attached a link which explains the process for making ammonia from natural gas. It requires processing but not a seperate source of hydrogen. The hydrogen comes from the natural gas in this process.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural-gas_processing 

 

http://naturalgasnow.org/fertilizer-made-natural-gas-lifting-world/  

Screen-Shot-2014-10-13-at-5.21.33-AM.jpg

Read your diagram - one of the inputs is Water - that's where the extra input of Hydrogen comes from

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6 hours ago, wa601 said:

natural gas is converted to syngas (CO and H2) by steam reforming (catalytic reaction). then, the CO is converted with steam to H2 by CO shift reaction (catalysis) producing CO2. next step is to remove the CO2 (e.g. rectisol process) and clean up of the remaining H2 (e.g. PSA). This pure H2 can be mixed with N2 in the right ratio for producing ammonia by final catalystic step.

The extracted CO2 ia already quit clean but can be further purified and liquified for different purposes such as in the food industry etc. part of CO2 can be used for processing ammonia to urea, which is a solid easy to handle and store.

personally, i would always check and total the efficiencies for the different conversions of energy carriers. the thermodynamics will always limit the suitable application of chemical conversion technologies. i can see three main factors against the wide application of hydrogen economy:

1. total energy efficiency decreases by every conversion step

2. every conversion of energy carrier is either a power plant, electrochemical plant or chemical plant with corresponding investment costs

3. natural gas, oil and coal are and will be available in the midterm future. who can predict the crude price in 2020? i am expecting that the gas and coal price will be not too high. no idea about crude... but, who is taking the risk and will invest billions in competing energy carriers such as in hydrogen economics? only possible for specific niche markets, which are arleady existing.

I'm not - my view is that Hydrogen itself as a fuel is a dead end. The only scenarios I can see in which Hydrogen is produced from renewables is where significant over build has occurred (Ex Saudis 200 GW of Solar plan & 30 GW Nuclear ) and there is a need to use up the day time surplus. this could be done by:

Blending Hydrogen into the Natural Gas network. I recall blending 5-10% poses no practical problems

Using the surplus to produce Nitrogen and Hydrogen for Ammonia production

Other outlets (not Hydrogen based)

Desalination

Pump storage (using sea water) on the west coast.

Other more novel storage mechanisms - Electric regen trains in the Mountains / compressed gas storage in the Red Sea / Salt Caverns.

 

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@nickw

my issues with producing H2 from power are:

- efficiency limited by electrochemistry

- what to do with the valuable O2? release to atmophere, fill in saudi desert into bottles?

- "excess" power will be most probably a temporary phenomenom. if there is cheap power available, then there will be technology development for more economic utilization

- for power to ammonia you need 100% investment costs for electrolyser (producing unused O2), air separation (producing unused O2,too), compressor, ammonia loop. however, you only get maybe very cheap power during some day & sun hours to feed your plant. this will limit plant availability, produced amount of ammonia and thus revenue. until now usually no sufficent return of investment possible.

- availability of very cheap power usually not possible to guarantee for the next 15 years, i.e. high risk for investor.

would you invest your own money? probably only in very specific and rare projects with well defined boundary conditions. no mass market in sight. i feel sorry by myself because i would like to deliver and build the technical solutions.

cheers

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55 minutes ago, wa601 said:

@nickw

my issues with producing H2 from power are:

- efficiency limited by electrochemistry

- what to do with the valuable O2? release to atmophere, fill in saudi desert into bottles?

- "excess" power will be most probably a temporary phenomenom. if there is cheap power available, then there will be technology development for more economic utilization

- for power to ammonia you need 100% investment costs for electrolyser (producing unused O2), air separation (producing unused O2,too), compressor, ammonia loop. however, you only get maybe very cheap power during some day & sun hours to feed your plant. this will limit plant availability, produced amount of ammonia and thus revenue. until now usually no sufficent return of investment possible.

- availability of very cheap power usually not possible to guarantee for the next 15 years, i.e. high risk for investor.

would you invest your own money? probably only in very specific and rare projects with well defined boundary conditions. no mass market in sight. i feel sorry by myself because i would like to deliver and build the technical solutions.

cheers

The scenario is one where Saudi Arabia has a huge surplus of day time electricity should it build its 200GW of PV . Other comparable scenarios might be Iceland utilising all its geothermal, Hydro and wind power and having a massive oversurplus that only a small proportion could be sent down a HVDC link to the UK. 

The reason KSA wants to / needs to do this is that it is consuming too much of its own oil to produce electricity. This is its only tangible export commodity for which to buy everything else. 

In KSA with Solar if you orientate panels in a variation of configurations from east to West then output will be pretty much full on for 8-9 hours per day / 365 days a year. 

Conversion to Hydrogen is one of a number of options that can be used in combination with others

In priority order Id guess it would go something like this:

1. Desalinate water using R/O which is very easy to ramp up and down. 

2. Longer term try and develop electricity markets that utilise cheap day time electricity to shift some demand from the evening to day (ex. Air Con, washing machines, dishwashers, water heaters etc) 

3. Promote electric vehicles - frees up more oil for export

4. Utilise conventional power storage systems - Pumped Storage, Batteries to shift some of that power so it can be used at night

5. Convert  to Hydrogen and blend into Natural Gas supply. KSA already has a shortage of Natural Gas 

6. Ammonia production - for agricultural use in preference to a fuel. 

 

As for the O2 - well given the air quality in KSA perhaps market it as a clean source of breathable air? 😄

 

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NickW you know what you are talking about.

your ranking is sensible.

yes, usage of technical O2 for so called oxygen therapy (means breathing pure oxygen and feel good about) was kind of fashion in the 90ies. maybe the saudis like it. however, there should be a lot of saudis for therapy - and of course we had our fun as students with oxygen in the laboratory but we would never had payed for it...

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1 hour ago, wa601 said:

@nickw

my issues with producing H2 from power are:

- efficiency limited by electrochemistry

- what to do with the valuable O2? release to atmophere, fill in saudi desert into bottles?

- "excess" power will be most probably a temporary phenomenom. if there is cheap power available, then there will be technology development for more economic utilization

- for power to ammonia you need 100% investment costs for electrolyser (producing unused O2), air separation (producing unused O2,too), compressor, ammonia loop. however, you only get maybe very cheap power during some day & sun hours to feed your plant. this will limit plant availability, produced amount of ammonia and thus revenue. until now usually no sufficent return of investment possible.

- availability of very cheap power usually not possible to guarantee for the next 15 years, i.e. high risk for investor.

would you invest your own money? probably only in very specific and rare projects with well defined boundary conditions. no mass market in sight. i feel sorry by myself because i would like to deliver and build the technical solutions.

cheers

200GW of solar power in Saudi Arabia will generate approx 340TWH. The Saudis consume 200 TWH (and growing). Peak demand is approx 70GW (early evening) so the question will be what to do with up to 150-160GW of surplus daytime output between 0700 and 1600 (ish) and how to use the additional 140TWH of electricity generated beyond actual current needs. 

Export of electricity in any meaningful quantity is a non starter - to who - UAE, Iraq, Qatar & Iran 😂

What other options?

1. Use solar to displace daytime usage of Oil to generate electiricity

2. Use solar to displace daytime usage of gas to generate electricity. Use saved gas  to displace oil used at night

3. Produce Hydrogen and blend into gas network to further stretch gas supply. That could account for approx 100 TWH of that surplus.

4. Use desalination plant (R/O) as a balancing mechanism for the grid. These are very easy to ramp up and down

5. Produce Ammonia feedstocks Nitrogen and Hydrogen from surplus - I guess this would be another way of balancing the grid. 

 

 

 

 

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