Plugging the gaps: Areva and Schneider Electric look to empower islands

26 March 2014 (Last Updated March 26th, 2014 18:30)

AREVA and Schneider Electric have entered into a strategic partnership to develop energy management and storage solutions based on hydrogen fuel cell technology. We look at the technology at the centre of the deal and what the partners are bringing to the table.

Plugging the gaps: Areva and Schneider Electric look to empower islands

The world's largest nuclear power company Areva is looking to increase the efficiency of its existing hydrogen fuel-cell storage technology by teaming up with energy management specialists Schneider Electronics. Under a strategic partnership signed earlier this month, the two companies will pool their research and development resources to produce more efficient energy storage solutions that will be specifically targeted at remote and island based communities that are seeking to decarbonise.

In a statement announcing the deal, Areva Renewables CEO Louis-Francois Durret said: "This agreement will allow AREVA and Schneider Electric to combine their experience, knowledge and achievements in energy management and storage."At the centre of the deal is Areva's existing storage application, the Greenergy Box."

Using a combination of hydrogen fuel cells and an electrolyser, the shipping container sized system uses the process of electrolysis, where a charge is passed through water, to provide carbon free storage of hydrogen and oxygen. For the industrial market, particularly data centres and business parks, it offers a carbon-free contingency for existing power arrangements as it can be used to provide backup power for untimely grid outages.

Island power and other market opportunities

Although solar power is packed with potential, prices are kept impractically high because output drops to zero after sundown.

Other markets that Areva is looking to target with the technology include Smart grids, water desalination and selling it into the mining sector as a power source for operations. But the primary market for the product is isolated or islanded communities that are pushing forward with green energy generation by virtue of its ability to guarantee power generated by intermittent Renewable Energy Sources (RES).

When connected to a power generation plant, such as a solar farm, the application enables efficient and carbon free storage of the energy garnered from solar rays. This creates the ability to lessen the impact of the day-to-day variability of solar power generation. In simple terms, it means that the power generated on a particularly sunny day, which might also be a day of low demand, can be stored up for when there is a greater need for it.

While the deal has only recently been struck, Areva has been operating in the space for a number of years. Areva's first steps into the market were takenin early 2012 when it developed the MYRTE platform on the Island of Corsica. The project, which was conducted in partnership with the University of Corsica and the French Nuclear and Alternative Energies Forum, connected hydrogen fuel cell technology from Areva to a 560Kw solar power plant.

This enabled more efficient storage of the solar power but more importantly for it to be distributed more effectively in line with demand, with supplies growing in down times and falling at peak demand. The company will soon be connecting the technology to a smaller 35kW solar plant in the town of La Croix Valmer.

"The price of achieving such a difficult task is high financial cost and low energetic efficiency."

The partnership with Schneider Electric, which builds on a longstanding relationship between the two that has seen the two collaborate on nuclear and wind energy projects, will enable Areva to take the technology to the next step. One of the leading lights in solar production, Schneider Electric will open up a wide array of market opportunities for the Greenergy Box, while its research and resources in the energy management sphere will enable the efficiency of the product to increase at rapid pace.

Industrial weight brings exciting opportunities

Dr Rupert Gammon, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Energy and Sustainable Development, believes that the partnership between Areva and Schneider Electric, could prove to be a welcome development for its target market of isolated communities: "Technically, this is not a particularly new concept, but if they can get hydrogen energy storage to work commercially in this application, then it is a significant step forward."

He also believes that their initial focus is well directed: "In isolated and islanded situations, the economics tend to work more in their favour, which is why it makes sense for them to target this niche."

While the concept of a carbon free storage solution for renewable energy is very in keeping with the modern drive for sustainability, it is not immune from traditional market fundamentals and must work on an economic level. This, according to Gammon is where the challenge lies: "At the heart of this is the challenge of storing large amounts of energy over long periods of time. In conventional power networks, electricity storage is uneconomic at large scale and beyond a couple of days, but these are different circumstances. The price of achieving such a difficult task is high financial cost and low energetic efficiency. The round-trip efficiency of an electrolyser and fuel cell based system, for example, is typically less than 30%."

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Importance of increasing demand

In broader terms, Gammon believes that there could be a bright future in marrying up low carbon energy with hydrogen fuel cells, however success will depend in large part on how the overall demand fares: "In theory, both technical and economic viability can be improved by integrating low carbon transport with the grid balancing and electricity storage task, but this is highly dependent upon the evolution of electric and hydrogen vehicle markets. This is why other playersin the hydrogen market, such as ITM Power and Hydrogenics, are paying more attention to the grid-to-gas market for helping to balance variable renewable energy outputs on more mainstream grids."

The partnership between Areva and Schneider Electric is a notable development for an area that is yet to make waves in commercial terms. Combining their technical expertise in energy storage and management should give Greenergy Box users greater control over how energy supplies are distributed and make them more secure in times of outages. Whether the same technology will be scaled up and used in a larger setting is beyond its control and relies largely on how the future pans out.

The value of the application is its ability to link renewable power such as solar with hydrogen, and it is those that will dictate success. If solar power continues to grow and demand for hydrogen based electric and hydrogen spikes then it is well placed to benefit. If not, its fortunes will suffer.

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