Interview: Oil & Gas’ Energy Storage Lesson for Clean Energy

By Johnny Wood
Paul Browning is President and CEO of Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems Americas

Building a future with net-zero carbon dioxide emissions will depend on energy storage – and lots of it.

In some cases, energy will need to be stored for just a few hours, and in others for days, weeks, or whole seasons. When looking at how this can be done, there are valuable lessons to be learned from the oil and gas industry.

Hydrogen, for example, has long been part of the sector’s processes. And it now has an important role to play in powering the world with clean energy. Converting excess energy from renewables – which could otherwise be lost or flood existing markets and lead to negative pricing – into hydrogen through electrolysis can provide long-term energy storage.

Paul Browning, President and CEO of Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems (MHPS) Americas, knows all about this potential. MPHS and Magnum Renewables are jointly developing the Advanced Clean Energy Storage project, which will transform vast underground salt caverns in Utah into one of the world’s biggest energy storage facilities.

The project’s site sits beside the Intermountain Power Project, a coal-fired power plant that will run on a mix of natural gas and 30% hydrogen, before transitioning to 100% hydrogen fuel once the technology exists.

Here, he explains more about developing hydrogen storage and the ways in which it could hold the key to a more sustainable energy landscape.

What practices from the oil and gas industry have influenced the development of the Advanced Clean Energy Storage project?
The project largely replicates what the oil and gas industry has been doing for around 30 years in the U.S. Gulf Coast: storing vast quantities of hydrogen below ground in salt caverns. The hydrogen they stored was for the refining industry and companies built pipelines hundreds of miles from these underground storage facilities to connect the domes with refineries. What we're doing is new in the power sector, but we're really borrowing proven technology from the oil and gas sector.

MHPS is using the same gas turbines, the same power plants and other infrastructure, but introducing some new combustion technology that allows us to use hydrogen as a fuel rather than natural gas.

Utah’s salt flats are home to vast underground salt caverns
How easily can this kind of storage facility be replicated elsewhere in the world, as you’re using geographical features?
Salt domes aren’t that common, but there are quite a few dotted around the globe. The U.S. Gulf Coast has three caverns similar to those in Utah, for example. MHPS is working with a number of its customers to develop a regional strategy for using hydrogen in different parts of the world.

Salt domes can be connected by pipeline to places that need renewable hydrogen. The real question is, where do we want to transport hydrogen molecules versus where do we want to transport electricity through electrical transmission systems, and at what cost?

We think renewable hydrogen is going to become the lowest-cost alternative for long-duration storage in most parts of the world. Even countries with enough renewable penetration need to do something with the excess power they generate.

What challenges do projects like these face?
There are four factors that are going to determine the pace of the Advanced Clean Energy Storage project. First, the technical challenges related to our gas turbines: they are already capable of burning a 30% hydrogen and natural gas mix, and we are working on enabling them to use 100% hydrogen.
MHPS J-Series turbines can operate using a natural gas/hydrogen fuel mix

Next we have to ask, is the grid ready? These projects need a grid that requires lots of long-duration storage, which is one that already has a fair amount of renewables on it.

Southern California already has very high renewable penetration, but many other parts of the world have not invested heavily in this technology.

Third, the regulatory environment in different parts of the world can impact a hydrogen storage project. Policymakers may have different requirements depending on their energy outlook. For example, Los Angeles has a clear target to achieve net-zero carbon emissions.

Finally, what does it cost to produce hydrogen? This is closely linked to the cost of electrolysis technology, which is a relatively small industry but one we're looking to scale massively. Just as scale brought down the cost of PV solar, onshore wind, and lithium ion battery storage, we're going to see the same kind of significant cost reduction from electrolysis.

How will the relationship develop between natural gas and hydrogen as fuels for future power generation?
The interplay between natural gas and hydrogen will give power generators a great deal of flexibility to cut emissions. Just as natural gas continues to replace coal as a supporting fuel for renewables, the next phase of decarbonization will involve a smooth transition from natural gas to hydrogen.

For example, the technology MHPS is developing basically gives customers a dual-fuel power plant that can use either natural gas or hydrogen. Turbines can already operate using a 30% hydrogen mix, and as technical advances increase the hydrogen content customers can gradually replace natural gas with this cleaner fuel. Using the same infrastructure, customers who need more natural gas today can be ready for a future where they need more hydrogen.

Why should oil and gas companies and traditional power generators see the energy transition as an opportunity?
Power generators and the wider oil and gas industry need to consider how to position themselves to be the beneficiaries of change. While renewable power and energy storage could be viewed as a threat to oil and natural gas, they also create new opportunities.

Transforming the global energy sector will take some time and oil and natural gas are going to be very important fuels for the foreseeable future, both in the developed world and more so in the developing world.

For oil and gas companies there are lots of exciting technologies to look at, such as carbon capture utilization and storage, or ecosystems surrounding battery storage technologies. Opportunities also exist for the energy sector to play an important part in owning the infrastructure and assets that are going to be needed to produce and store hydrogen.

Johnny Wood has been a journalist for over 15 years working in different parts of the world – Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. As well as an accomplished features writer he has edited several prestigious lifestyle magazines and corporate publications.