Futuristic fuel cells planned for Ramea wind project

Team working to overcome problems with hydrogen generators

Brodie Thomas editor@gulfnews.ca
Published on May 31, 2014
The community of Ramea is the site for an innovative project exploring alternative storage methods for wind energy. — Submitted photo

Nalcor is pushing ahead with its experimental project in Ramea that has found a way to use hydrogen to store the energy from wind turbines.

The Ramea Wind-Hydrogen-Diesel (WHD) Project is starting Phase II, which is slated to last five years. Representatives from Nalcor were in Ramea earlier this month to give presentations to citizens and schoolchildren on the upcoming plans.

Nancy Hart, manager of business development with Nalcor, said Phase I of the project showed how wind power could be used to offset diesel generation in a remote community.

Besides sending power to the town’s grid straight from wind turbines, the setup allows excess power generated by Nalcor’s three wind turbines to be sent to an electrolysis machine, which splits filtered tap water into pure oxygen and hydrogen.

Hart said the hydrogen is stored in basic metal tanks, and used as fuel in specially designed generators when the wind isn’t blowing. The hydrogen generators also offset the town’s diesel generators.

Phase II will build on that success and work on one key problem the project has had so far — the hydrogen generators.

“We’ve had reliability issues with those,” said Hart. “They’re specially designed units — a research and development project in and of themselves.”

The units were designed by Natural Resources Canada and their research arm. Hart said only two of the five are currently working.

In Phase II, at least some of the generators will be replaced by hydrogen fuel cell technology. The fuel cell purchases will be made possible in part with money from ACOA.

Fuel cells create electricity using the same principles as any battery, but instead of dangerous chemicals and acids they use hydrogen and oxygen to create electricity. Water and heat are the only byproducts.

“We’re convinced that if we could replace those (generators) or augment them with something that could reliably produce electricity from hydrogen, then we could prove to the world that we have a failsafe (automated) system that our operator can walk away from,” said Hart. Hart said fuel cells are an emerging technology, but they are expected to be more reliable and roughly double the efficiency of the hydrogen-powered generators.

Efficiency factor

She said sending power directly from the wind turbines to the grid is always the most efficient and preferred option. Every time energy is converted from one form to another, some energy is lost as waste.

Going from electricity to hydrogen and then back to electricity isn’t as efficient, but it does allow Nalcor to capture energy that would have gone to waste anyway, and use it when it is needed.

While each component of the WHD system was purchased and put together, Nalcor has developed its own computerized energy management system which automatically runs the equipment at optimal conditions. Hart said the energy management system is like the brain, which keeps everything running optimally.

Nalcor is seeking patents on that “brain” system, and that will hopefully give the corporation an edge in marketing wind-energy solutions to customers around the world.

Hart said if the team can fine-tune the system, there’s potential to put it to use in other remote Newfoundland communities, as well as finding customers in Canada’s North, and in small island nations, which also rely on diesel generators.

Ramea Mayor Clyde Dominie said the town was happy to receive an update on the project, and it is glad Nalcor chose Ramea as the test site for its research and development work on the project.

“There’s no direct employment in town, but every time you bring in people the bed and breakfasts and the stores notice,” he said.

Dominie said Nalcor has invested in the local fire department, which has to be ready to respond to potential emergencies most small fire departments would never see. He said Nalcor is providing ongoing training and help with equipment costs.

He hopes the windmills and the project will draw tourists as well. And he hopes it brings energy savings to the people of Ramea, who pay higher rates than other communities on the grid.

“Hopefully, the end goal will be generation without diesel at all,” said Dominie. “At some point, if this proves successful and comes through, we can get on a rate system the same as everyone else on the island.”