After June fires, energy group says hydrogen is future’s fuel

Hydrogen fuel facilities experienced two fires this month in Santa Clara, Calif., and in Norway. But despite these setbacks, the International Energy Agency (IEA) released a report on Friday saying that the fuel is an important potential part of a low-carbon future.

The first fire in Santa Clara happened on Saturday, June 1 at a hydrogen reforming facility run by Air Products and Chemicals, Inc.

No one was injured, but according to the Silicon Valley Voice, multiple hydrogen tanker trucks caught fire. The fire was extinguished a little over an hour after the firefighters arrived on the scene.

After the fire was put out, Santa Clara Fire Department Battalion Chief Drew Miller told the press that “a hydrogen tanker truck was being fueled and a leak occurred,” adding, “when the shutdown of the tanker truck that was being fueled occurred, an explosion resulted.”

According to Green Car Reports, the hydrogen fuel explosion affected hydrogen fuel cell vehicle drivers in the Bay Area. A week after the incident, nine out of eleven passenger vehicle hydrogen refueling stations in the Bay Area were offline due to short hydrogen supply. Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai, the three vehicle makers who sell fuel cell vehicles in the Bay Area, said they would work with owners to get their cars refueled or find them rental vehicles in the interim.

The second incident occurred in Sandvika, Norway, on June 10 at a hydrogen refueling station supplied by Nel Hydrogen. Nel is a 90-year-old Norwegian company that has historically produced hydrogen for industrial purposes using water electrolysis methods. Recently, Nel has expanded to supplying hydrogen for passenger vehicle refueling, taking advantage of the strong market for alternative-fuel vehicles in Europe and Norway in particular.

The incident last week resulted in a fire as well as two injuries that were caused when a resulting pressure wave set off airbags in two nearby passenger vehicles, according to Autoweek.

According to Nel’s website, the company sent in a crisis response team to investigate what happened, and it shut down its other 10 hydrogen refueling stations in Europe and the US for safety. In a press release on June 13, Nel said that preliminary results of the investigation showed that neither the on-site electrolyzer nor the dispenser of the fuel were responsible for the accident.

The company has not yet been able to rule out whether the stationary low-pressure storage unit, the low-pressure transport unit, the stationary high-pressure storage unit, the various valve panels, or the hydrogen refueling station unit were responsible for the fire.

On its website, Nel said that “When the root cause is clear, and all the information from the event has been gathered, we will assemble learning points to take forward. These will be shared publicly and specifically within the hydrogen industry at large.”

Perspective on a fuel

The two incidents are a setback for hydrogen as a fuel, especially on the political stage. On Thursday, The Korea Times wrote that South Korean President Moon Jae-In decided to downplay a planned announcement of cooperation between Norway and South Korea with respect to expanding hydrogen fuel.

Still, hydrogen isn’t the only fuel out there that’s capable of catching fire or causing explosions. Oil and natural gas infrastructure also cause multiple fires and explosions every year. We accept these hazards because the economic benefits outweigh the costs.

On Friday, the IEA published a report suggesting that developing renewable sources of hydrogen fuel is a reasonable step towards a low-carbon future. The agency wrote that hydrogen can act as “storage” for solar and wind energy by using extra electrical output to split water into H2 when demand for electricity is otherwise low. Hydrogen “offers ways to decarbonize a range of sectors—including long-haul transport, chemicals, and iron and steel—where it is proving difficult to meaningfully reduce emissions,” the IEA wrote.

The agency also made policy recommendations for leaders hoping to increase the use of hydrogen. The recommendations included citing clean hydrogen manufacturing facilities at existing industrial ports, making use of existing natural gas infrastructure and pipelines, and “launching the hydrogen trade’s first international shipping routes.”

The report also stresses that more expensive renewable methods need to be scaled up for the production of hydrogen. “Today, hydrogen is already being used on an industrial scale, but it is almost entirely supplied from natural gas and coal,” the IEA wrote. “Its production, mainly for the chemicals and refining industries, is responsible for 830 million tonnes of CO2 emissions per year. That’s the equivalent of the annual carbon emissions of the United Kingdom and Indonesia combined.”

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