The Center for Solar Energy and Hydrogen Research Baden-Württemberg (ZSW), in cooperation with the Fraunhofer Institute for Wind Energy and Energy System Technology (IWES) have come up with a process to convert electricity from wind and other intermittent sources to natural gas or methane.

Dr. Michael Specht of ZSW explains, “Our demonstration system in Stuttgart separates water using surplus renewable energy using electrolysis. The result is hydrogen and oxygen. A chemical reaction of hydrogen with carbon dioxide generates methane – and that is nothing other than natural gas, produced synthetically.”

The researchers and entrepreneurs would like to store surplus electricity – such as from wind power or solar energy as climate-neutral methane and store it in existing natural gas storage facilities and the natural gas network. Solar Fuel Technology, the Austria-based partner company is already successfully operating a demonstration system built in Stuttgart and is moving to setting up the industrial implementation of the process. One big advantage of the technology: it can use the existing natural gas infrastructure for storage and sales.  By 2012, a substantially larger system is planned for launching in the double-digit megawatt range.

ZSW is saying it’s the first time the process of natural gas production combines the technology for hydrogen-electrolysis with methanisation in commercial quantities.

Dr. Michael Sterner of Fraunhofer IWES, who is investigating engineering aspects and energy system analysis of the process notes with the rapid expansion of renewable energies, the need for new storage technologies grows massively, “So far, we converted natural gas into electricity. Now we also think in the opposite direction, and convert electricity into ’real natural’ gas. Surplus wind and solar energy can be stored in this manner. During times of high wind speeds, wind turbines generate more power than is currently needed. This surplus energy is being more frequently reflected at the power exchange market through negative electricity prices.”

Sterner believes in such cases, the new technology could soon keep green electricity “in stock” as natural gas or renewable methane. This should be of special interest for energy utilities and power companies.

Two core motivators drove the research effort.  Specht explains, “Which storage systems offer sufficient capacity for fluctuating renewable energies that depend on the wind and weather? And which storage systems can be integrated into the existing infrastructure the easiest?”

From the German perspective the storage reservoir extent of the natural gas network is vast: It equals more than 200 terawatt hours – enough to satisfy consumption for several months. The total electrical power-generating network has only a capacity of 0.04 terawatt hours. The integration into the infrastructure is simple: The natural gas substitute can be stored like and with conventional natural gas in the supply network, pipelines and storage systems, in order to generate power, drive natural gas cars or fire natural gas heating systems.  Very clever forethought, indeed.

RAG Natural Gas Storage Facility. Click image for more info.

There is substantial logic in the plans. The new technology aims at facilitating the integration of high shares of fluctuating power generation from renewable energies into the energy system. One goal is to structure the delivery of power from wind parks on a scheduled and regular basis. Sterner adds, “The new concept is a game changer and a new significant element for the integration of renewable energies into a sustainable energy system.”  That’s key – integration – will make all the difference for adoption.

Specht says, “In our opinion, this is definitely better than a total loss.”  A total loss looms if, for instance, wind power has to be curtailed or if the power could be sold but the wind isn’t blowing.

How good is it? The efficiency claim of converting power to gas equals more than 60 percent.

The two German research institutes have joined together with the company Solar Fuel Technology of Salzburg to push the new energy conversion technology forward.  Starting in 2012, they intend to launch a system with a capacity of approximately 10 megawatts.

It’s very likely to work in Europe with those incredibly high natural gas prices.  In North America the situation is economically quite different. But will idle wind, transmission costs, and other investments rolled in paint a better picture?  Power companies, wind investors, and consumers need to know.  If anyone has infrastructure and storage for natural gas its North America. Check the Fraunhofer English web page for contact info.

This team may have the best integration of renewable power generation to the economy seen to date.  One just wonders where or how they will get all that CO²?


24 Comments so far

  1. jp straley on May 6, 2010 4:34 AM

    Straight electrolysis of water to H2 is inefficient; you can only get back about 2/3 of the energy expended. Multiply the efficiency of the reduction of CO2 to methane and the efficiency of processing the methane back to electricity. Factor in processing leaks and losses, of course. The overall process efficiency may be dauntingly low.

  2. Al Fin on May 6, 2010 7:25 AM

    Agree with JP. Low efficiency plus the cost of acquiring all the CO2 (atmospheric CO2 is less than 0.04%).

    Wind energy can be converted into heat fairly efficiently, but there is no demand for intermittent, unreliable heat — and there is no “heating grid” to foist off all of the intermittent unreliable heat onto.

    The Europeans (and Obama – Pelosi) are straining credibility in the attempt to justify big wind energy investments. But there is no justification for such investments.

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  8. Jon on May 7, 2010 10:49 AM

    Regarding the need for CO2, we still have a lot of coal plants and the Chinese are building more by the day. They are also hungry for transportation fuels and aren’t wedded to gasoline the way we are. One alternative they are pushing is methanol. Methane to methanol is a straight-forward, fairly efficient proess. Surplus electricity to methanol might make sense. On the plus side, a stable, long-term supply of methanol would be very valuable when compared to oil. On the negative side, lots of energy loss and probably high capital costs, plus the need for high-capacity transmission lines from the renewable power to the source of C02.


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  18. thanuja on January 21, 2011 7:41 AM

    mr.Al Fin send that Co2 in atmosphere is 0.04% i agree with him but wat abt the emission of Co2,wat abt the pollution caused by this emission i think by this technology we can convert that harmful Co2 to a great useful thing and also we can reduce global warming to some extent.

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