Korea’s gamble on fuel cell energy

The landmark Paris Agreement on Climate Change came into effect last month, with almost two-hundred countries promising to battle global warming. That means renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power, are increasingly coming to the fore. But for Korea, one of the fastest growing renewables is hydrogen fuel cell technology. Korea produces almost half of the world’s fuel cell power and is banking on its breakthrough to help it reach its emissions targets. Betting on fuel cell: our news feature tonight with Kwon JAngho.

The fight against climate change is on. With the Paris accord now in effect, Korea has pledged to do its part, by reducing its carbon emissions by 37-percent by 2030, and more than doubling the country’s energy dependency on renewable sources to 11-percent. One of the key sources for Korea is hydrogen fuel cell power.

“I’ve come to Gyeonggi Green Energy Park, the largest fuel cell park in the world. Even so, the whole complex is only about 20-thousand square meters, or the size of about three football pitches. But as we’re about to find out, size isn’t everything.” Built in 2013, this park produces 59-megawatts of energy.

That’s enough to power 140-thousand homes in nearby Hwaseong city. To get the equivalent power from a solar plant, it would require a plot of land that’s 75 times bigger. Wind farms would be up to 100 times bigger. “Another advantage is that, unlike solar or wind energy, we don’t rely on nature, so we can keep producing energy over 90-percent of the time.” The principle behind fuel cell technology is this: you take hydrogen as the main fuel source and create a chemical reaction with the oxygen in the air. This reaction causes electrical energy and heat.

The only by-product is H-2-O, or water. Hydrogen is available from various sources, most notably from water, but the process of extracting the hydrogen is inefficient and costly. Currently the easiest way to get hydrogen is from natural gas, so most fuel cells use natural gas to extract hydrogen to make electricity.

This *does also produce a by-product of carbon dioxide, but at a much lower level than other fossil fuels. It also produces very low levels of nitrogen oxide and sulfur oxide. “It’s not complicated to produce hydrogen, but the difficulty is in getting it cheaply and getting it in mass quantities. Fuel cell technology, compared to other energy sources, is still at a very early stage of development. That means it’s still very expensive and difficult for expansion.”

Korea’s moderate climate and limited land mass means it’s not well suited for solar or wind energy. That’s made Korea the fourth highest nuclear power dependent nation, and 82nd for renewable energy dependency. So the government has decided that fuel cell power could provide the solution. “Fuel cell energy produces 9-and-a-half percent of the country’s renewable energy, but that’s set to increase to 15-percent by 2029. Korea currently generates about half the world’s fuel cell energy power, so we’re really leading the field.” Hydrogen fuel cells can also be scaled down, and their best known application in this realm is for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

But that’s not all. “Inside here we can find a fuel cell generator for home use. It uses the same principle as the fuel cell park we saw earlier. Liquid natural gas and air goes in, to produce electricity.” This generator provides energy for the home of Rah Tae-sang.

It produces enough electricity for everyday use, including TV time and vacuuming, and even hot water. Although Rah is still connected to the national grid, his electricity bills have fallen significantly. “Especially in winter, when we use heaters and electric blankets, we normally use a lot of electricity, but that is now covered by the fuel cell generator, and so we only pay the minimum basic fee for our electricity.” But like the fuel cell plant, the generator still uses natural gas as its hydrogen fuel source, which critics argue doesn’t solve the fundamental problem of reliance on fossil fuels.

However, experts say it’s only a matter of time before the technology advances enough to produce hydrogen more cheaply and efficiently, which would minimize the need for natural gas and reduce CO2 output. And the current push for fuel cells in Korea could eventually provide the solution.

“If Korea can develop the technology that everyone is seeking, not only will it help solve the country’s energy and emissions problems, it will also create new economic and business opportunities around the world.”