Flexibility of Methane-Fueled Power Generation
Selecting an energy source for electricity generation requires careful consideration of various factors including flexibility of the fuel source. Although this is far from an exhaustive list, flexibility factors have to include things like; ease of access, affordability, safety, and transportability. These factors are described in more detail below.
Ease of Access
There are two main components of ease of access that we will cover here:
- Methane is a prolific fuel used all over the world for heating, transport, and power generation. As with any fossil fuel, the source is not infinite, but many estimates suggest there is at least 52 years or more left of fossil-based methane (1).
- Hydrogen does not exist naturally in nature like hydrocarbons or coal so it must be manufactured. Hydrogen can be produced in a number of ways (e.g., electrolysis, coal gasification, biomass gasification, hydrocarbon processing, etc. (4)) but it is a manufactured gas that “takes energy to produce energy” (6) (7). The energy required to produce hydrogen means that it costs more to produce (see notes below on affordability). It is also complicated to produce, store, and transport so it has been slow to become adopted as a mainstream fuel.
- There is already a well-established infrastructure for methane extraction, storage, transportation, and distribution in North America and most of Europe. Natural gas pipelines, refinement, and storage facilities are abundant, allowing for reliable and widespread access.
- There is little to no infrastructure existing in the world today for hydrogen gas supply to the everyday consumer. For example, there are approximately 1.5 billion cars on the earth today (2) and only 11,200 of those are hydrogen powered (3). The infrastructure that is in place is not built for hydrogen and will take significant investment to allow for that fuel changeover. This is reinforced by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory website (8) which states; “Hydrogen has very high energy for its weight, but very low energy for its volume, so new technology is needed to store and transport it.” Building out an infrastructure that will support the use of hydrogen as a consumer fuel is just getting started (5) and will probably take decades to achieve.
Because methane is an abundant fuel, it is generally affordable in the western world. Pricing and availability can be impacted by weather or geopolitical events but methane is typically an affordable fuel even if it is transported long distances including via ocean transport (see below for more details).
Conversely, as mentioned above, hydrogen does not exist naturally in nature, so it must be manufactured. This manufacturing process takes energy and creates green house gas emissions. As per the National Renewable Energy Laboratory website (8); “Most hydrogen production today is by steam reforming natural gas. But natural gas is already a good fuel and one that is rapidly becoming scarcer and more expensive. It is also a fossil fuel, so the carbon dioxide released in the reformation process adds to the greenhouse effect.” New and more effective ways of hydrogen production are underway but this will take time before it is an affordable fuel.
There are inherent dangers with the use of any fuel. For example, there is a risk, albeit small, that your gasoline tank on your car may explode in an accident, or that your electric car battery may ignite due to a battery fault, or that a natural gas pipeline may be ruptured by a backhoe. However, each of these “fuel systems” have had many years of refinement and have built in safety designs that now result in extremely safe use of these fuels with very few incidents.
Conversely, there is very little history yet with hydrogen fuel in the marketplace. As per the above quote taken from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, ” . . . new technology is needed to store and transport it. And fuel cell technology is still in early development, needing improvements in efficiency and durability.” The technology development is underway but it will take time to implement it and refine it to the level of safety currently seen with methane.
When it comes to transportability, the infrastructure in the western world for methane is well established with well sites, hydrocarbon processing facilities, pipelines, LNG facilities, etc.
This infrastructure does not yet exist for hydrogen and is still in its infancy. As we can see below, the inherent properties of hydrogen impose some transportation limitations and inefficiencies that add cost and complexity.
In comparing ship-based methane transport to ship based hydrogen transport, hydrogen takes 2.5 times the tanker space to transport the equivalent energy value (in this case 1 TWh). In addition to this, hydrogen boils off at a rate of 1% per day during transport while methane boil off rate is one-tenth of that.
Similarly, ground transport challenges for hydrogen transport are illustrated in the following diagrams (again sourced from Michael Sura (9).
After careful examination of the flexibility of methane as a fuel source compared against hydrogen, it seems that methane comes out ahead in each of the categories that were examined:
- Ease of access
In conclusion, when the flexibility of methane as a fuel is factored into a decision matrix along with EROEI conclusions from Part 2 of this series and the GHG emissions conclusions from Part 1 of this series, one must seriously consider the responsible use of methane as a fuel for electric power generation.
If you have any questions regarding this article or if you have a microgrid or power project of any kind that could benefit from a methane powered generator, give us a call at Collicutt Energy at 888.682.6888. We have a team of experts that will work with you to evaluate your project and determine the best fit solution for you.