Could Hydrogen Power the Future of Costa Rica

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By John McPhaul

All the elements of a development of hydrogen energy in Costa Rica to power public transportation, trucks and even part of the electric energy grid have been invented and are proven technologies, now all that is missing is putting the elements together to sizably reduce Costa Rica’s carbon footprint, said Juan del Valle Gamboa, Director of Operations for Ad Astra, the Costa Rican firm coordinating a Public-Private effort to make Costa Rica carbon-neutral.

Ad Astra, the company formed by Costa Rica’s former NASA astronaut Franklin Chang, has taken on partners in the Government Development Bank System and the local Toyota distributor Purdy Motors, the U.S. Companies Cummings, the mass distributor or natural gas and diesel motors and U.S. Hybrids, which bills itself as having “integrated solutions for clean energy transportation” and the French Company Air Liquide, a producer of hydrogen.

Together these companies will provide financing or technology to put together the pieces of the hydrogen production puzzle, said del Valle, who added, “It’s a matter of time when all of these pieces will fit together and be viable.”

Costa Rica will be increasingly in need of renewable sources of energy since it will eventually reach the limits of its already massive hydro-electric capacity. While solar and wind energy will eventually be part of the energy mix, they rely on sunny and windy days to be reliable sources of mass electric capacity.

Hydrogen, on the other hand, can be used at any time and has multiple applications. Plus, fortuitously, hydrogen can be mass-produced using electrolysis, the process of passing electricity through water, to separate hydrogen from oxygen, at the country’s many hydro-electric dams.

Hydrogen can also be produced at the county’s geothermal and biomass plants.

Machines called electrolyzers must then be installed at the renewable electric generation plants to perform the electrolysis, said del Valle.

The hydrogen must be pressurized, since, as the lightest element on the periodic table, without pressure, the hydrogen would evaporate.

At the hydroelectric dams, the energy produced can then be diverted into the country’s energy grid.

At the beginning of the current government, President Carlos Alvarado issued presidential directive No. 002-MINAE that instructed the institutions of the environment and energy sector so that, within the framework of their competences, they could develop an action plan that would encourage research, the production and commercialization of hydrogen as a fuel in the country, said Karla Alfaro, spokeswoman for the Ministry of Environment and Energy.

To meet this guideline, the Hydrogen Commission was created, whose objective was to integrate the efforts of the Energy subsector in the preparation of a plan on ydrogen, considering the experience and the field of action of each institution within this context, she said.

The result is a plan that contains the actions to create an environment conducive to research and production of hydrogen, from the institutional perspective

“A common misunderstanding of hydrogen power is that hydrogen, which is an energy carrier, not an energy source, is burnt like hydrocarbons like gasoline or diesel,” said del Valle. What actually happens is that hydrogen is passed through a device called fuel cell takes the hydrogen atom and combines it with oxygen.

The ensuing chemical reaction produces electricity and H2O, water, which is the only byproduct produced by the reaction

The Fuel cell is an old technology and has been in use since at least the 1970s when they were used for power sources in Apollo Project space capsules

For public transportation, a distribution system must be created and buses and trains must be outfitted with fuel cells.

“We are looking to work first with large bus companies which own around 200 buses,” said del Valle. “The operation of a fleet of 200 hydrogen buses is mostly the same as a fleet of 200 diesel counterparts: buses cover the same range, can be refueled in the same amount of time (fleet operators can clean and refuel all 200 buses in the usual period of 4-5 hours), in the same way (at a gas station, except it is a hydrogen one), they can be operated in any route a diesel bus can travel, and using the same number of buses and drivers. “

In essence, the bus company does not have to change its business model. This is a key advantage of hydrogen-electric transportation, in comparison to battery-electric units which may need longer times to recharge and cover smaller distances, said del Valle.

“Battery buses will be the ideal solution for smaller fleets not requiring long distances and able to cope with reduced flexibility, while hydrogen will be used to long-range buses, larger fleets and heavy-duty vehicles (trucks and others),” he said “Both technologies are essential, and both will coexist in a future decarbonized economy.”

Law 9518, approved last year to incentivize electric transportation in Costa Rica, mandates all public transit companies to convert 5 percent of their fleets to electric units every two years, starting presumably on 2020, said del Valle. Hydrogen is a key technology for a larger fleet.

Making hydrogen available through a distribution system will also present a challenge, said del Valle.

“Alternatives are either a centralized production and distribution system, similar to what we currently have for fossil fuels, or a de-centralized system, producing hydrogen on-site right where it is needed,” said del Valle. “In the case of Costa Rica, since we already have a very robust nation-wide electric grid, we at Ad Astra tend to favor the second model, a de-centralized architecture where hydrogen can be produced at regional plants, and what gets transported is just the electricity in our existing grid. This would avoid the need of laying down distribution pipes, or even transporting the hydrogen using trucks or trains.”

Other pieces of the hydrogen puzzle must be put into place to make the dream a reality.

“A typical hydrogen station (for buses and cars) requires a source of hydrogen, a compressor to boost the pressure of the hydrogen, hydrogen tanks and a hydrogen dispenser,” said del Valle.

Since Ad Astra believes stations that produce renewable hydrogen on-site are the ideal solution for Costa Rica, (electrolyzers) which produces the hydrogen out of renewable electricity and water would be put in place at stations.

“In other countries, hydrogen is delivered to the station via a pipe or truck, or produced out of fossil fuels,” said del Valle. “These are the components of the station. This model of hydrogen station is analog to having a gas station that also includes the oil well and the oil refinery on site, but without any of the carbon emissions; it’s important to keep this in mind when understanding the scope of the technology and the investments required.:”

Buses and trucks would have to be retrofit with fuel cells, stationary devices which replace conventional diesel- or gasoline-powered generators, and can be installed at industrial or commercial sites to produce on-site power.

To make economic sense, though, capital costs of all this equipment will need to come down, but he said that eventuality is on the horizon as numerous counties are looking to develop hydrogen, the biggest of which is China.

“China is a game changer,” said del Valle.

As with battery-electric vehicles, the Chinese government is pretty serious with promoting the development of hydrogen transportation and hydrogen technologies in general, said del Valle.

“China is currently the largest market in the world for electric vehicles (of both kinds) and also produces the largest amount of electric vehicles and components,” he said. “We know from experience that Chinese manufacturers are already offering hydrogen station components at half the price of U.S. and European companies. The same is happening with the cost of hydrogen buses and trucks.”

Japan is also planning to heavily showcase hydrogen technologies during the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. “Japan is the country with the larger number of hydrogen stations, and they already have a nationwide hydrogen policy,” said del Valle. “South Korea, the European Union and the U.S .states of California and Hawaii also have their own official hydrogen policies.”

With China and Japan getting heavily into development hydrogen it is possible to conceive of a time when private electric vehicles will be powered by hydrogen.

Ad Astra has set up a demonstration program with solar power to generate electricity for a hydrogen-powered bus, which President Alvarado and his entourage rode to the president’s inauguration last May 8.

In his inauguration speech, Alvaro said Costa Rica aims to be totally carbon-free by the country’s bicentennial year of 2021.

Del Valle said the president must have meant to say something else.

“It is unrealistic to think that we can have all private electric vehicles by that date,” said.

But such a scenario is not out of the realm of possibility in the non-too-distant future.

And, as it stands, plans are in place that will benefit Costa Rica economically, ecologically and from a public health point of view given that removing diesel-belching trucks from the nation’s highways will appreciably reduce the smog in the country, said del Valle.

The government in its VII National Energy Plan, plans to move “Towards a vehicle fleet more friendly to the environment” and “On the route to cleaner fuels”, actions aimed at incorporating lower technologies in emissions and improvements are defined. the quality of fuels in order to reduce the emissions derived from their use, said Alfaro

“The National Decarbonization Plan recently joined to reinforce these commitments through the establishment of a road map to promote the modernization of the Costa Rican economy, generate jobs and boost its growth based on a model based on the generation of 3D services goods,” she said.

Given that most of the country’s energy consumption is generated in the transportation sector by means of fossil fuels, it is clear that the country’s policies are geared towards boosting zero-emission transport technologies, she said.

The benefits of hydrogen and natural gas in transportation help to improve air quality in cities such as GAM and rural areas, even reducing to high levels of polluting emissions that affect the health of many cities around the world today. in day. This makes it an interesting fuel as a substitute for fossil fuels.

This would be an indicator and added value in tourism giving a marketing contribution with a positive impact on the improvement of the environment and thus raising awareness with the tourist an extra feature that they will find that is not included in their product or service.

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