Why are GeoPura and Siemens bringing a hydrogen fuel cell to Goodwood?

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Kat Auckland

Communications Manager

Kat Auckland

The Goodwood Festival of Speed is ‘the world’s greatest festival of motor sport.’ For 2019 Siemens is technology partner, showcasing a host of ingenious technology to help make the world a cleaner, greener, and digital place.

At Goodwood, Siemens and GeoPura are using ‘green’ hydrogen and a fuel cell to provide clean power to charge the batteries of electric super-cars making the iconic hill climb. Why are we doing it and how did we get here? This is the story of a busy year, pioneering a small part of the hydrogen economy.

How do we displace fossil fuels that are damaging the climate?

Burning petrol, diesel, coal and natural gas is damaging our climate. But our modern world relies on the ability to transport and store energy dense fossil fuels. They will be very hard to displace.

For years, hydrogen has been proposed as a carbon neutral alternative. By weight, hydrogen carries more energy than any hydrocarbon. And making it from water means it is clean and abundant.

But the ‘hydrogen economy’ only makes sense once it is all there. Today there are no market mechanisms to make hydrogen competitive and no regulations to push out the incumbent, so we keep on burning fossil fuels and adding to climate change.

We need to decarbonise the whole UK economy, urgently, and that calls for a response of epic speed and scale.

Energy policy needs to catch up with the political rhetoric of a ‘climate emergency.’ Good energy policy can take time to develop and then more time for it to trigger the right investment.

But this is an emergency. Are there some things we can start on already? Can we kick start the hydrogen economy, while we wait for government to get the policy right?

Three people and an idea

A year ago, three of us met up in the Faraday Centre at the IET in London to see if we could find a niche application for hydrogen that would already work in today’s market. Andrew Cunningham, Ian Wilkinson and me. Andrew is an entrepreneur who has made significant investments in renewable energy research and development as well as being a visiting professor at the University of Nottingham. Ian built Siemens Ammonia Demonstrator which converts wind power to a green fuel and then uses it to make electricity when the wind is not blowing.

We knew we should start with transport, where the value of energy is greater than it is for heat and power. We quickly realised this ‘transport premium’ would not be enough on its own. We needed to find a business model that had additional value for its customers. One that overcame some additional problem as well as providing clean energy.

Britain’s total demand for electricity is expected to at least double as we decarbonise heat and transport by switching to electricity. But in some very local situations the need for electricity will grow much more. We realised that a large city centre car park might see demand for electric vehicle (EV) charging grow to several Mega Watts as most cars become electric and car owners without off-street parking seek places to recharge. A car park could need a 1,000% increase in its electricity supply which today only powers lights, lifts and ticket machines.

For many car parks there is capacity in the local grid to deliver such a load. Siemens offers a range of enhancements to get more out of a grid connection. But for a few customers, this unprecedented growth in demand for EV charging and the need to get involved with High Voltage networks would be very challenging.

Our business idea is to offer a clean, flexible EV charging service to the car park owner that grows with demand from their customers. We will use hydrogen and containerised fuel cells to make electricity at the car park site. We are not selling hydrogen, we are de-risking the roll out of EVs.

Where does the clean hydrogen come from? We identified another problem we could solve. Some land owners want to make renewable energy, but the local grid is constrained and can’t offer them sufficient capacity to take the power away. For these customers we can bring an electrolyser to convert water and renewable electricity into hydrogen and bypass the grid constraint. We also remove uncertainty over the future price of electricity, with a long term contract.

One of the great things about Siemens is the range of expertise within the company. We quickly enlisted other colleagues who could help, including Jason Stonier and Paul Weston who provide EV charging and traffic management services to councils including some car parks.

The unique nature of this business model and the potential for rapid growth called for a new type of business to deliver it. One that combines the reach and scope of Siemens with the flexibility of a smaller business that can attract investment to match the growing need. Andrew knew plenty of investors who were interested. Working collaboratively beyond the boundaries of a single organisation has been a very positive experience.

A very public demonstration

While we were developing the business model, we learned that Siemens would be technology partner for the 2019 Goodwood Festival of Speed. Siemens would also be launching a new range of EV charging posts this summer. Powering them with green hydrogen was an opportunity too good to miss.

Once our idea was accepted, we realised what a tight timescale this would be, especially for a group of people who each has a day job. Over the last six months there have been a few bumps in the road but this week you can see the result at Goodwood and it’s a success.

First, we needed a fuel cell. We realised that this new industry is still finding its feet and the supply chain is far from commercial scale. The initial response from some fuel cell manufacturers we approached was to ask who was providing our research grant? They were surprised we had a commercial application.

We signed Non-Disclosure Agreements with each manufacturer before meeting them, but a few days after one visit the manufacturer concerned revealed part of our idea in a national newspaper.

We finally settled on a ‘second hand’ fuel cell which was reconditioned and containerised, along with a battery Uninteruptable Power Supply (UPS) so we could operate completely off grid.

We applied to one of Siemens internal start up funding calls but were turned down without even the opportunity to pitch our idea. However, Jason’s management team liked it and provided some vital funding to develop the design.

Most of the funding for the Goodwood prototype came from Andrew, who formed the GeoPura company to deliver this business model. Without Andrew’s commitment this would have remained just another idea.

We were determined to use ‘green’ hydrogen, made in an electrolyser with renewable energy. This proved harder to come by than we hoped. Our hydrogen for Goodwood was made with Irish wind power and brought over on a ferry. Renting the tube trailer for a month to fill it and allow time for testing at Goodwood cost a few times the value of the hydrogen we will actually use. This time my boss kindly bailed us out.

We are creating a temporary hydrogen installation in a field where 200,000 members of the public are wandering about. That led us to design an exclusion zone with a secure enclosure around our tube trailer and fuel cell. This footprint is the size of some of the larger exhibition stands at Goodwood. The organisers were so keen on the idea that they found us the extra space. The enclosure includes a 30m long panel explaining the fuel cell and the potential of hydrogen as a clean fuel. There are porthole viewing windows for visitors to see inside. They can learn more from colleagues at our electric camper van picnic area nearby and you can follow us with #TimeToCare or via our web site.

Lots of preparation and hard work by the whole team and our sub-contractors saw a freshly painted container arrive on site 2 weeks before the start of Goodwood. Commissioning went smoothly and the system worked first time.

So what?

You don’t really learn until you try something new. We’ve learned a lot in putting together our first system for Goodwood that we can apply to the version we will offer customers.

Siemens and GeoPura are serious about this business model, and we are looking for strategic partners who can help us realise its potential. We’ve made a big statement, in a very public place, that we believe in the hydrogen economy. We will continue to press government for a supportive policy framework. But the need to get on and try hydrogen solutions is so urgent that we mustn’t wait. We will try to find more niche applications for green hydrogen and ammonia to show that the world can thrive after fossil fuels.

Blog written by Matthew Knight, Siemens

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