Promising solutions, such as hydrogen storage, can counteract the intermittency of solar and wind energy and optimize the use of stored energy when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. Certification and testing play a pivotal role to ensure hydrogen storage is carried out safely.

Solar panels _ Image by Freepik
Image by Freepik

“The phase-out of fossil fuels is essential and inevitable to avoid a global climate catastrophe.” That is the position UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has taken, voicing what several global leaders have come to realize.

The massive reliance on renewable energies everywhere in the world is one of the ways of mitigating climate change and renouncing fossil fuels. Global investment in renewable energies is steadily on the rise. A report by the International Energy Agency shows that for the past few years, renewables have seen higher investment than fossil fuels. According to the report, in 2023 low-emissions power is expected to account for almost 90% of total investment in electricity generation.

Solar photovoltaic energy is the main beneficiary of this investment surge, while financing for wind energy is more patchy, depending on the years. Hydropower, while also a renewable energy, has seen its share of investment decline over recent years.

Ensuring constant supply to the grid

Wind and solar energy are intermittent and cannot be relied upon to constantly meet the grid's electricity requirements. Innovative solutions have emerged to ensure a continuous power supply. Solar or wind energy can be stored using batteries and grids can be supported by industrial-scale battery sites or other grid-scale storage technologies. Pumped-storage hydropower is one of the most widely used technologies in this regard, where water is pumped up into reservoirs and can be released to generate electricity in times of demand.

For instance, in the UK, when wind and solar are not generating power, the grid infrastructure is supported by a range of technologies including flexible hydro plants that can provide power immediately when needed. Hydropower does not have the same constraints of intermittency as solar and wind and contributes to the biggest share of renewable electricity generation worldwide. 

There is also the scope of scaling up “interconnectors” to share energy supplies between countries. The concept revolves around balancing energy supply and demand. When one country faces reduced energy supply, perhaps due to minimal wind activity, it can rely on a shared supply pool, tapping into excess energy from neighbouring countries. Already, countries such as Denmark, Germany and the UK have setup interconnectors to share the supply load from renewable energies with nearby countries.

Periods of under-supply can cause fluctuations in the grid, which may result in brownouts or in complete power outages. Smarter and more flexible grids using advanced energy storage systems and communication technologies are needed to balance supply and demand in real time.

Grid balancing refers to ensuring the correct amount of electricity circulates in the grid to prevent fluctuations resulting in disruptions or outages. Researchers have been working on innovative technologies and storage alternatives for grid management and balancing, and there is a growing interest hydrogen storage.

The advantages of hydrogen for storage

Because hydrogen can be stored, it presents a feasible option to balance grid fluctuations expected from renewable energy sources such as wind or solar. Thanks to reversible fuel cell technology, water can be split through electrolysis to produce hydrogen, as well as convert hydrogen back to electricity. That translates in using the electricity in times of high supply to generate hydrogen gas. The gas can then be stored in containers for long-term usage.

The existing infrastructure for natural gas, if supplemented with an hydrogen infrastructure, could potentially be a viable option for a scalable and smoother transition to clean energy solutions. When hydrogen combustion is used to produce electricity, it does not emit carbon, which makes it an appealing alternative. Ongoing research into cleaner methods for hydrogen production holds promise. Consequently, hydrogen emerges as a strong contender for decarbonizing hard-to-abate industries such as steel, concrete or aluminium production.

Standards for the smart grid

Standardization plays a key role in the transition towards a more sustainable energy infrastructure. It helps international experts agree on terminologies, technical specifications and best practices to ensure infrastructure reliability, while at the same time guiding new players in this field.

IEC TC 57 develops key standards for smart grid technologies and their integration with existing power grids. Many other IEC technical committees contribute to smarter grids with standards for sensors, intelligent switches, automated substations or smart meters.

The IEC has also set up a systems committee, SyC Smart Energy, to provide systems-level standardization for smart energy and smart grids. Besides, IEC TC 82 develops several technical specifications for small renewable hybrid systems for rural electrification. A joint working group between IEC TC 82 and IEC TC 21 publishes standards relating to batteries for on-grid and off-grid energy storage.

IEC TC 105 prepares publications relating to fuel cell technology, and one of its standards, IEC 62282‑8‑201, deals with energy storage systems using fuel cell modules in reverse modes. IEC TC 4 develops standards relevant to the design, testing, operation and maintenance of hydraulic machines including turbines, storage pumps and pump turbines.

Ramping up certification activities

Since its inception, one of the four Conformity Assessment Systems run by the IEC, IECEx (the IEC System for Certification to Standards Relating to Equipment for Use in Explosive Atmospheres) has been covering certification for equipment, services and competence of people in areas associated with hydrogen. IECEx oversees the compliance with international standards that address hydrogen safety, performance and interoperability, and its certification continues to be a valuable tool for facilitating hydrogen-related trade at national levels and across international markets.

During 2022 and 2023, IECEx ramped up its activities with the establishment of a formal cooperation with ISO/TC 197 and the publishing of a standard operating procedure for international IECEx Certification of gaseous hydrogen dispensing equipment and assemblies (IECEx OD 290). With an increased emphasis on scaling up the green-hydrogen economy, IECEx has an on-going close collaboration with the International Renewable Energy Agency, IRENA, dedicated to developing a future roadmap for the quality infrastructure for clean hydrogen production.The Conformity Assessment System, in partnership with other international organizations, is planning an International Hydrogen Conference in Singapore on 29 May 2024,  which will be followed by special meetings of experts dealing with hydrogen certification.