Opportunity for green fuel

By Niels Hendrik Petersen

November 29, 2023

Image titel: Axpo’s hydropower plant in Reichenau

Sources: Axpo

Opportunity for green fuel

Axpo drives H2 production in Switzerland forward

The Swiss energy corporation Axpo has identified hydrogen as a field for strategic growth. The H2 production facility at Kraftwerk Reichenau – the power plant on Reichenau Island – is one of several set by run-of-the-river hydropower plants that Axpo has planned for the coming years. Because Switzerland is striving for climate neutrality by 2050. Green hydrogen is playing a central role in this – particularly to decarbonize the heavy transport sector.

Axpo is the largest producer of green electricity in Switzerland. By 2030, the energy corporation wants to have installed in the domestic market alone 3 GW of wind power plants and 10 GW of solar. The energy supplier, however, also wants a part in shaping the future of green hydrogen in Switzerland and Europe. Because the Alpine republic currently has a total H2 consumption of 430 GWh, or 130,000 tonnes. In perspective: This corresponds to 0.2 percent of EU demand. And 85 percent of this consumption is alone attributable to the Swiss petroleum refinery Raffinerie Cressier.

First H2 production end of 2023 in Graubünden

Visible results can already be seen from the new strategic field. Axpo and Rhiienergie have installed at hydropower plant Wasserkraftwerk Reichenau in Domat/Ems an H2 production plant with a capacity of 2.5 MW. The plant is to go into operation at the end of 2023. The two companies have together invested the equivalent of over 8.35 million euros. The production facility will be directly connected to Wasserkraftwerk Reichenau, in which Axpo holds a majority interest, situated in the canton Graubünden.

At this site, up to 350 metric tons of green hydrogen are to be produced annually using hydropower. This is analogous to about 1.3 million liters of diesel. The green hydrogen will be delivered from the production plant directly to refueling stations. Alternatively, the green hydrogen could additionally help make energy supply for industrial operations more eco-friendly.

So far, likewise to Germany, hydrogen has not been widely used as a fuel in Switzerland. A network of fueling stations is only slowly being established, although the first H2 trucks are already on the roads. H2 mobility remains a niche area for now. Nevertheless, the current 53,000 heavy vehicles in Switzerland offer great potential for the growth of a future hydrogen market in the coming years. A demand of around 5 t H2 per truck per year from this market is quite realistic. If so, 30 percent of the vehicles would then require 80,000 t H2. At 5,000 operating hours per year, this would necessitate an electrolysis capacity of 1,000 MW.

Environmental and heritage protection prevent expansion

Not all of the innovative projects will see a successful implementation, as the resistance from some persons with an interest in nature and heritage protection is in some places simply too strong. One example is wind energy: The time for the planning and design phase of projects is enormously long; time and again, they do not advance. The result: In the whole of Switzerland, just 41 wind power plants are running. Axpo operates only one of these, through its subsidiary CKW.

But the protest is not limited to wind power alone: Earlier this year, an H2 project on the Swiss-German border was halted due to objections made by local residents (see H2-international Feb. 2023). “The hydrogen production facility at Wasserkraftwerk Eglisau-Glattfelden has been tanked as a result,” confirmed Axpo CEO Christoph Brand. Three private individuals had lodged protests. They did not want one truck once per day driving through their residential neighborhood and picking up the hydrogen, Brand explained. In addition, however, a power generation structure erected outside of the developable land zone will have to be demolished and placed elsewhere, as the court did not grant it exception approval from the zoning. The H2 plant when finished was to likewise have a capacity of 2.5 MW and produce around 350 tonnes of green hydrogen annually. That is now history. The green gas must come from elsewhere – from Northern Europe, among other places.

Fig. 2: The H2 plant under construction

Luka Cuderman, who as energy manager at Axpo is working on the strategic direction of the future H2 business, summarized the general requirements for an H2 production site once more. So the power plant itself needs sufficient space and connection capacity. Outside of the buildable land zone, according to his statements, certain constraints must furthermore be met in order to conform to zoning restrictions and be allowed there. Equally important are proximity to end consumers as well as a good connection to transport routes. “A secondary application such as utilization of incidental waste heat is a further plus,” stressed Cuderman.

The electricity price is the determining factor for H2 costs here. It accounts for more than half of the total cost. The investment costs, the capex, of the plant are in turn directly linked to the number of operating hours. An increase of this working time is only sensible under certain conditions, however, since operation at high electricity costs is uneconomical. “For the example of an electrolyzer with 2.5 MW, we assume 5,500 operating hours,” stated Cuderman. The cost of operating the plant, or opex, accordingly accounts for twelve percent of the H2 cost per kilogram. Grid costs do not incur for the operation if the H2 plant is directly connected to the power source. That is, however, not always the case.

Summary: The more hours an electrolyzer can work, the more weight the electricity costs take on. So close to full load, the cost for electricity constitutes 80 percent of costs.

2,000 t H2 per year from Aargau

Axpo wants to advance the topic of hydrogen in its homeland in another way: At the industrial park Wildischachen in the canton Aargau in Northern Switzerland, a still larger production facility is to soon appear. It is designed to have up to 15 MW of installed capacity. Annually, 2,000 t of hydrogen is to be made available. The electricity required for production is coming entirely from the nearby run-of-the-river power plant Flusskraftwerk Wildegg-Brugg. With direct connection to the hydropower plant owned by Axpo, climate-neutral production of hydrogen will be ensured.

The H2 produced will then be delivered partly to the nearby refueling station of company Voegtlin-Meyer via a pipeline and partly to other refueling stations in the region. The green hydrogen is to be made available to private users, on the one hand, as well as used in H2 buses for public transport commissioned by the company PostAuto. With the produced H2 quantities, around 300 trucks, PostAuto vehicles or buses can be run per year.

The utilities provider IBB is designing the pipeline that will lead from the H2 production plant to the refueling station in Wildischachen. The waste heat resulting from the electrolysis process is to be utilized in the heat network of neighboring industrial operations. The location of the plant is therefore ideally selected, as it is in the direct vicinity of the Axpo hydropower plant in Wildegg-Brugg and of the refueling station of Voegtlin-Meyer. The construction and start-up of the H2 plant is planned to occur in the course of 2024. Which is when the fleet of PostAuto is to be supplied with green hydrogen. So in Switzerland as well, the niche for green fuel is starting to grow.

Author: Niels Hendrik Petersen


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