Renewable Hydrogen in Ports

January 5, 2018

Never have ports around the world been under as much pressure to “green” their operations to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions and criteria pollutants released from port activity as they are today. The old ways of using diesel equipment to move containers around a port terminal and burning bunker fuel to keep the lights on big vessels is becoming less and less acceptable in today’s world.

The San Pedro Bay Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach have addressed this issue with their Clean Air Action Plan created in 2006, and updated it as recently as December 2017. It outlines aggressive targets for “greening” the port such as going to zero emission equipment for container and cargo handling by 2030. In order to accomplish this goal, zero emission equipment utilizing technologies such as batteries and fuel cells will need to quickly become commercialized.

Where Renewable Hydrogen Comes From

To really make the case for using fuel cell equipment, there must be a consideration of where the hydrogen is coming from. Currently 95% of the hydrogen produced in the United States comes from steam reformation of natural gas. In order for ports to really be “green” the hydrogen used in their zero emission equipment must be produced renewably with preferably with zero emissions in the process.

Today there are a few different ways to produce hydrogen renewably from both centralized and non-centralized sources. Some ports have the luxury and convivence of a hydrogen pipeline running through or near their land. This can create an opportunity for a hydrogen station to be installed by tapping into the pipeline. Ports with this option include Los Angeles in Southern California, Rotterdam in the Netherlands, and Antwerp in Belgium. The issue then becomes how will the hydrogen be renewably supplied to the pipeline.

The Port of Rotterdam is taking this subject very seriously and is in the process of developing off shore wind farms to produce large amounts of electricity to power large scale electrolyzers. Beyond the future potential of zero emission fuel cell drayage equipment, there is a current demand for refineries and chemical factories located on port land that have a large daily need for hydrogen—it is in everyone’s best interest for that hydrogen to be renewable.

Companies such as ITM Power, Hydrogenics, and Nel have been looking at ports as a great opportunity for their electrolyzers. In the case of Rotterdam, the large offshore wind parks would produce gigawatts of electricity to be cabled to scalable megawatt size electrolyzers to split water and store clean hydrogen. Other ports in the northern European countries and in Scandinavia with offshore wind capabilities, such as Gothenburg and Amsterdam, are performing feasibility studies on this idea.

While producing hydrogen from electrolyzers using wind power is an excellent option, it is not a viable option for every port. The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach have looked at the potential of offshore wind parks, however there are a number of constraints that make the likelihood of this project very small. Therefore, another method of producing hydrogen renewably must be looked at.

Currently in the deserts of California where the wind blows strong just about every day and the sun shines bright, the renewable energy produced from these sources overwhelms the traditional electricity grid. The result is often negative electricity pricing, and the owners of these wind farms receiving payment to keep the windmills off.

This curtailing is an opportunity for renewable hydrogen to be produced through electrolysis using electricity that would otherwise be wasted. Hydrogenics and Stratos Fuel are doing exactly that with a project currently under development using a 2.5-megawatt Zero Impact Production (ZIP) hydrogen facility in Palm Springs, California with Hydrogenics’ PEM electrolyzers to convert wind and solar energy into 1,000 kilograms of renewable hydrogen per day. This hydrogen will be delivered to hydrogen stations throughout California. This gives the San Pedro Bay ports an option to receive trucked in renewable hydrogen.

The Challenges of Hydrogen in Trucking and How to Address Them

There are however obvious drawbacks of trucking in hydrogen whether it be renewable or not. The emissions from the transportation (assuming it will not be delivered by a fuel cell truck) by diesel truck create a problem if the goal is to have a zero emissions “well-to-wheel” solution.

To address this, the Port of Los Angeles recently announced with Toyota that it will use a tri-generation fuel cell system from FuelCell Energy. The tri-generation system takes renewable biogas and through a carbonate fuel cell produces hydrogen, heat, and electricity. The hydrogen produced will be used to fuel Toyota’s fuel cell Class 8 truck currently undergoing demonstration and durability testing in the Port of Los Angeles. Toyota’s Class 8 fuel cell truck caught the industry by surprise last April and has increased the intrigue on what Toyota will do in the future within the heavy duty truck space.

The tri-generation SureSource fuel cell power plant will be located onsite at Port of Los Angeles producing 100% renewable hydrogen. This shows a second onsite renewable hydrogen production method to an electrolyzer. It’s interesting to note that the California Air Resources Board’s team performed a complete Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) on the fuel cell plant and determined that it has a negative carbon intensity, as the power and hydrogen generation process is carbon-neutral due to the use of renewable biogas and the fuel cell waste heat is used to feed the internal reformation reactions.

With ports across the globe looking to move to renewable technologies it is critical for them to understand the different pathways of producing renewable hydrogen. Off shore wind parks to provide renewable power to electrolyzers work great for ports such as Rotterdam and Gothenburg for various reasons, including relatively shallow surrounding water compared to the ports on the US West Coast. In other ports such as Los Angeles, Long Beach and Oakland the best option for producing hydrogen renewably may be through an onsite tri-generation fuel cell system as shown in the recent development between Toyota and Fuel Cell Energy. Renewable hydrogen is the ultimate goal for ports when considering using fuel cell equipment and therefore have a complete “well-to-wheels” zero emission operation to meet the increasingly stringent environmental targets.