GenComm and the Future of Hydrogen: An interview with Paul McCormack, Program Manager of GenComm

Paul McCormack, Program Manager of GenComm (GENerating energy secure COMMunities) describes himself as an entrepreneurial innovator, technology ambitious, green hydrogen proponent and intellectually curious. As Project Coordinator on international projects he engages with many companies across different industries, positioning them truly at the forefront of innovation. He is an engineer and MBA graduate with over 30 years experience within global manufacturing, engineering, software, renewable energy, packaging and environmental industries. REM sat down with McCormack to discuss the GenComm Project and the future of hydrogen in the UK. This is Part One of a two part interview.
GenComm and the Future of Hydrogen: An interview with Paul McCormack, Program Manager of GenComm
Paul McCormack

REM: On your website you say GenComm is striving to address “the energy sustainability challenges of North-West Europe communities.” Now, this might just be a case of referring to your service area, but are there unique energy challenges in this region? And if so, what are they?

Energy is the very lifeblood of today’s society and economy. Our work, leisure, and our economic, social and physical welfare all depend on the sufficient, uninterrupted supply of energy. Yet we take it for granted – and our energy demand continues to grow, year after year. Traditional fossil energy sources such as oil and gas which supply this energy are part of the climate crisis and in the not too distant future this will have to be met increasingly from alternative primary energy sources. We must strive to make these more sustainable to avoid the negative impacts of global climate change, the growing risk of supply disruptions, price volatility and air pollution that are associated with today’s energy systems.

The energy policy of the European Commission advocates securing energy supply while at the same time reducing emissions that are associated with climate change. This calls for immediate actions to promote greenhouse gas emissions-free energy sources such as renewable energy sources, alternative fuels for transport and to increase energy efficiency.

Energy security for Europe is a major issue, for peripheral communities it is a critical issue, remote communities that are at the end of the grid and as a result suffer from energy insecurity. Fossil fuel, particularly crude oil, is confined to a few areas of the world and continuity of supply is governed by political, economic and ecological factors. These factors conspire to force volatile, often high fuel prices while, at the same time, environmental policy is demanding a reduction in greenhouse gases and toxic emissions. To address this energy challenge a coherent energy strategy is required, addressing both energy supply and demand while taking account of the whole energy lifecycle including fuel production, transmission and distribution, energy conversion,the impact on energy equipment manufacturers and the end-users of energy systems. In the short term, the aim should be to achieve higher energy efficiency and increased supply from European energy sources, in particular renewables.

In the long term, a hydrogen-based economy will have an impact on all these sectors. In view of technological developments, vehicle and component manufacturers, transport providers, the energy industry, and even householders are seriously looking at alternative energy sources and fuels and more efficient and cleaner technologies – especially hydrogen and hydrogen-powered fuel cells.

Security of energy supply is of major concern for the European Union. As North Sea production peaks, our dependence on imported oil – vital for today’s transport systems – is forecast to grow, with much of it coming from the Middle East. It is essential we increase the renewable energy generated locally to reduce the dependency of imported fuel.

Rural and isolated communities in Europe face unique energy issues related to efficiency, reliability and sustainability. This is commonly due to dependency on external and fossil fuel energy supply, low electricity grid capacity and limited or no connection to wider grids. As a result these communities have higher than average carbon emissions and are more vulnerable to fluctuating fuel prices.

Renewable energy sources continue to increase their share of installed capacity worldwide. Their integration, in conjunction with increased energy efficiency and other low-carbon technologies, constitutes the best opportunity to achieve energy sustainability. Renewable energy sources also constitute the best option to avert the risks that conventional non-renewable sources pose to health, geopolitics, the economy and the environment.

Can Hydrogen be part of an energy security solution for peripheral communities? The answer with these new conversion technologies is yes they can!

GenComm is working with communities across Europe to deliver a paradigm shift in the energy sector and put communities at the start of energy grids. GenComm seeks to enable communities to move away from the environmental degradation and energy insecurity they have suffered and use Hydrogen as the energy vector to put communities first in the new net zero energy equation. 

REM: New, work on hydrogen-based energy technologies has been going on for some time, and it has been particularly robust in Europe. Why do you think it’s the best “clean energy” solution for the communities you serve?

Hydrogen and fuel cells are seen by many as key solutions for the 21st century, enabling clean efficient production of power and heat from a range of primary energy sources but can they deliver for local and peripheral communities?

Hydrogen is not a primary energy source like coal and gas. It is an energy carrier. Initially, it is being produced using existing energy systems based on different conventional primary energy carriers and sources. As renewable energy sources increasingly become the most important source for electricity generation the production of green hydrogen will become a viable solution in the longer term.

As we strive to achieve the 2050 Zero Emission targets hydrogen is a ‘game changing’ technology with extensive applications across transport, stationary power and beyond. Hydrogen, as an energy carrier, and as an enabling technology, will be critical in the delivery of a clean energy future.

As an energy carrier, hydrogen can play a significant role in energy security, carbon reduction and economic growth. It will be the crucial element of any future energy system and will change the energy dynamic putting consumers at the start of the new energy system instead of being at the end where they currently are.

On the technology front, hydrogen, a clean energy carrier that can be produced from any primary energy source, and fuel cells which are very efficient energy conversion devices, are attracting the attention of public and private authorities. Hydrogen and fuel cells, by enabling the so-called hydrogen economy, hold great promise for meeting in a quite unique way, our concerns over security of supply and climate change.

REM: Could you explain, for the sake of readers who don’t know, what smart hydrogen is?

Smart Hydrogen combines (1) a solution to the electrical grid network challenges faced by the mature renewable electricity technologies, (2) opportunities in hydrogen supply pathway, (3) prospects for new hydrogen applications and (4) creation of different and new trends in energy markets with “Power to X technologies”. The aim of Smart Hydrogen is to create a hydrogen value chain that is optimal in technical performance and financial revenues.

SMARTH2 is a disruptive technology that will enable Europe to reach a position where it can utilize excess amounts of this green electricity which is currently curtailed, but also, in the future, support further deployment of renewables across the region. When the ‘tipping point’ of renewable generation is reached (there is more renewable generation than demand), electricity is inexpensive on wholesale markets. As such, this cheap electricity can be used to produce hydrogen as an energy carrier for use especially in the transport sector. Through the sector coupling approach, it is intended to link the green production of electricity with the transport sector with SMART H2 as the energy vehicle because it is highly efficient, flexible and sustainable. To this end, SMARTH2 will develop H2 hubs and couple the renewable energy and transport sectors resulting in increased renewable energy generation and productivity and directly reducing GHG gases. In order to achieve successful energy transition to renewables in Europe we must look to achieving full commercial opportunity for renewable energy. In order to achieve this, we have to ensure commercial flexibility in the coupling of the renewable energy sector and the transport sector.

The concept “Power to X” (P2X) refers to energy conversion technologies that allow for the decoupling of power production plants from the electrical market to use their product in other sectors (such as transport, heating and chemicals). P2X is particularly relevant for renewable power technologies as they face a series of challenges to increase their participation in the current energy matrix. These challenges without a robust solution hinder the uptake of renewable energy technologies hence delaying the current transition to a sustainable energy sector and decelerating the effort to reduce GHG emissions from this sector. The GenComm project is creating a roadmap for Hydrogen in which investors from existing and future renewable power plants can identify, techno-economically analyze and project the inclusion of a fitting P2X technology to their infrastructure.

SMARTH2 aims to overcome the challenge of increasing the deployment of renewable energy in grid constrained European regions by demonstrating future large scale hydrogen energy storage flexibility via greening the fuel sector to be used within the transport and industry sectors. It will help create a European 2050 Hydrogen transport energy vision, create a techno-economic usable model with a decision support tool that can technically and financially optimize the fuel production and commercialization, and also develop the first hydrogen suite of training course for maintenance, operator and user of hydrogen vehicles.

The global energy context has three main sectors: power, heating/cooling and transport. Despite seeing a growth deceleration from the early years of this century, global electrical power demand is expected to continue in a trend of unceasing growth. Projections up to 2040 present an expected average annual growth trend of 0.6% for OECD countries, with a considerably higher expected growth trend of 1.9%for non-OECD nations. Parallel to the constant increase in power demand, renewable energy capacity has experienced, and will continue to experience, an exponential rise. At the end of 2015 renewable electricity represented 23.7% of global electricity production. In Europe alone, continuing an ongoing trend, renewable energy accounted for a large majority (86%) of all new power installations in 2016. Currently there are eight different renewable sources identified and present in global energy markets, particularly in the power market:

(1) biomass energy,

(2) geothermal power and heat,

(3) hydropower,

(4) ocean energy,

(5) solar photovoltaics (PV),

(6) concentrating solar thermal power (CSP),

(7) solar thermal heating and cooling,

(8) wind power.

 In 2015, the share of renewable energy in global final energy consumption was 24.5% .Global energy demand in the transport sector has followed a continuous increase of 2% annually on average since 2005. The sector accounts for about 28% of overall energy consumption and for 23% of energy-related GHG emissions. Crude oil products account for around 93% of final energy consumption in transport. Renewable energy in the transport sector has three main entry points: (1) liquid biofuels as a standalone fuel or in a mixture with conventional liquid fuels, (2) gaseous biofuels, and (3) electric transport, which relies on battery storage or hydrogen as an energy carrier. It has been established in many studies that high shares of renewable energy in the European electricity sector can be both technically feasible and affordable.

These studies show that the most cost-effective solutions from renewables are dominated by wind and solar renewables generation but are limited by grid saturation. Therefore, for Europe to meet energy demand from renewable energy a disruptive technology is needed that negates the need for an expensive expansion of the transmission network or expensive electricity storage solutions and which allows us to look beyond the electricity demand side of the energy equation. In order for Europe to meet renewable energy targets and reductions in GHG we must look to other energy sectors especially transport in order to maximize the flexibility and variability of energy from renewables.

Energy supply and transport account for 39% of the world’s CO2 emissions. If we want to achieve a position where energy demand can be met from renewable energy supply, then look where SMART H2 has the potential for real ‘sector coupling’ in linking the renewable energy sector with the transport sector and achieving demand/supply balance with a zero CO2 footprint. SMARTH2 provides a solution to the electrical grid network challenges faced by the mature renewable electricity technologies, Opportunities in hydrogen supply pathway, Prospects for new hydrogen applications in the transport and industry sectors and creates new energy markets


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