Hydrogen works for the water sector

Hydrogen presents the water sector with interesting opportunities to contribute to the energy transition. Through research and innovation, KWR, together with a wide range of partners, is on the forefront in exploiting them in practice. In 2021, the fruits of these efforts included the opening of a hydrogen filling station in Nieuwegein, and the granting of European LIFE-Climate funding for a regional hydrogen project.

With the Dutch policy of shifting way from natural gas, hydrogen will take on an important role in our future energy system. This is the firm conviction of Jos Boere, Director of Allied Waters, a KWR sister organisation. ‘It is impossible to do everything electrically,’ says Boere, as he sketches his vision of the future. ‘Twenty years from now, in the Netherlands we will have a gas network through which hydrogen will flow, instead of natural gas. A few adjustments to the network will make it suited to the new purpose.’

Emission-free mobility

Many challenges still remain to be met of course. Like the development of an entire hydrogen chain. Hydrogen needs to be produced and purchased. Boere sees opportunities for the water sector at both ends. ‘Water utilities and Water Authorities have a green heart. They have big sustainability ambitions. At the same time, a small Water Authority easily combusts half to one-and-a-half million litres of diesel every year; for instance, in transporting waste sludge. If the Water Authorities were to shift over to hydrogen, they could render their mobility completely emission-free. That means zero CO2 or nitrogen emissions – nothing.’

Two-track hydrogen producer

Apart from being a user of hydrogen, Boere also sees the water sector as a potential producer of the gas. He points to two tracks here. One track runs through biogas, a product that the Water Authorities make through the digestion of waste sludge. Hydrogen can be produced from biogas through the application of conversion and upgrading processes. ‘Some Water Authorities are already receptive to the idea,’ says Boere. But he thinks that the other track, through electrolysis, holds the greatest promise. Using green electricity, generated for instance by solar or wind energy, water can be split into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen is then stored as an energy carrier and used for example to power heavy machinery or freight transport. Boere: ‘Many water utilities are active in the generation of green electricity – take, for instance, the floating solar parks on water reservoirs. But I often hear that they have grid congestion problems, which means that they can’t transmit the generated power at peak hours, because the power grid is overloaded. These cases raise the logical question: can I do something useful with this sustainable electricity? For me, the answer lies in hydrogen.’

Connect with the energy sector

But to implement this answer in practice is still pretty complex. Because the entire hydrogen chain still needs to be developed. What role can the water sector play here? To find out, Boere thinks that research and innovation is necessary. About six years ago KWR began working with Prof. Ad van Wijk (TU Delft/KWR) on the conceptual development surrounding the question of what hydrogen could mean for our sector. ‘We concluded that the hydrogen economy was very promising, but that it would also turn the whole world upside down,’ says Boere. ‘That’s why more was called for than a couple of projects and reports, and in fact we’re still working on it. We’re establishing connections with the energy sector. And you may well ask: why is KWR doing this? Doesn’t your work primarily concern water? But we are seeing how societal challenges call for tailored approaches. Adjacent sectors have to work together. Only by getting involved will you create the opportunities which are needed to bridge science and practice.’

Hydrogen filling station and European LIFE-Climate grant

What such collaboration can lead to has since 2021 become clear to everyone. In the spring of that year Nieuwegein had a premiere, when it opened the first hydrogen filling station in the region.  The station belongs to Hysolar, a joint initiative of Allied Waters, the Nieuwegein contracting company Jos Scholman, and two other shareholders. Boere, co-founder of Hysolar, sees the filling station as splendid proof of how the tailored approach he talked about earlier can work out in practice. ‘We first developed a plan for how we could realise the filling station. Now that it is in place, we are also going to start producing hydrogen ourselves. Last year, along with the Province of Utrecht and other companies in the region, we received a European grant for the initiative: the regional LIFE NEW HYTS  hydrogen project. An electrolyser will be installed on the KWR site. We will use it to produce hydrogen using the green power produced from Waternet’s neighbouring solar park. We will make the residual heat generated by the process available to an industrial laundry located nearby. KWR is taking care of the research to put the whole package together. We are in this way jointly developing a story which affects the world around us. I invite everybody to come and check it out soon.’

Dynamics and coordination

Nellie Slaats, senior project manager at KWR and coordinator of the NEW HYTS project, knows how challenging it is to shape this story. The bar is set high. The objective is, by means of a combination of expertise, operational capacity, implementation and policies, to set up a local green water cycle: from the acquisition of an electrolyser to that of a number of hydrogen-powered vehicles. This will make it possible to determine the level of CO2 emission reduction that can be achieved through the use of hydrogen in transport. A consortium has been established for the project, including the Province of Utrecht, Hysolar, three transport companies, a contracting company and KWR. The project approach is being replicated, in the first instance, in Belgium and Germany. Slaats: ‘Besides the practical implementation, various monitoring programmes are also being set up. And a good business case has to be developed. Also, technicians need to be trained to work safely with vehicles that run on hydrogen. With such a wide variety of activities, the project requires strong coordinating capacity. All of the partners are equally important; nobody can do this alone.’

Concrete contribution to energy transition

Besides projects focussed on demonstration and implementation, such as NEW HYTS, KWR is also actively working on other hydrogen questions with a strong research component. One example is the H-flex project, in which KWR and Hysolar are jointly investigating how to maximise the contribution of hydrogen production in relieving grid congestion. And an entirely different example from 2021 – one with a far bigger practical component – comes from Hysolar, which is collaborating with a consortium of pioneers on the use of hydrogen for the greening of inland shipping. But whatever the projects’ specific approach, they are all directed at making a contribution to the urgently needed energy transition. According to Boere, it is a matter of continuous interaction, in which the right parties need to come together. ‘Without practical applications, KWR has no raison d’être. And conversely, groups like Hysolar cannot accomplish anything without the input of scientific thinking. This dynamic is wonderful, and demands boldness, vision and courage.’