Into the clean-hydrogen frontier

Even as a student in mechanical engineering “power generation without pollution” fascinated her.  Now at a groundbreaking research facility in Sweden, Åsa Lyckström and her team have put all the pieces together to make it happen.

By Niels Anner

“Right now, we’re in the assembly workshop,” says Åsa Lyckström above the whirring and pings of gas turbines being put together, “and right outside here we have the Zero Emission Hydrogen Turbine Center, where we show how gas turbines and renewables work together to create sustainable and reliable energy systems.”

Lyckström, Sustainability Strategist at Siemens Energy, is part of a team of engineers and researchers advancing the use of green hydrogen in gas turbines. At the center in Finspång, Sweden, they have created a model for the transformation of the energy sector, using turbines, solar power, hydrogen and energy storage. “We have all the necessary puzzle pieces in place,” says Lyckström. “It could be scaled for a city, for an industry – or even larger.”

“When you have green hydrogen fuel powering turbines, they release zero carbon emissions – and it’s 100 percent renewable.”

Åsa Lyckström Sustainability Strategist, Siemens Energy

The future of gas turbines

“This project to build an energy system of the future has been three years in the making,” says Lyckström. Solar and wind power, of course, had been around for a long time, but more complex and sustainable solutions were required to store excess capacities and balance grids powered by fluctuating sources.

Future energy systems will therefore consist of many different “puzzle pieces,” Lyckström argues. While today’s gas turbines can provide both reliability and flexibility in power generation, energy storage and green fuels like hydrogen will be key.

“The bridge between gas turbines and renewables is hydrogen,” she says. “[At ZEHTC] hydrogen can be produced from solar power and excess gas turbine power, and then we use that hydrogen as fuel in the gas turbine. When you have green hydrogen fuel powering turbines, they release zero carbon emissions – and it’s 100 percent renewable.”

Why don’t they use renewables?

For the 48-year-old Swede both engineering and sustainability were always important. As a child, she recalls being fascinated by urban traffic systems with their networks of roads, bridges and tunnels. But when she started her studies in mechanical engineering at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, the topic of energy captivated her – “power generation without pollution,” as the students called it back then.

Decarbonization and sustainability were not buzzwords yet, but when Lyckström got the chance to write her master’s thesis on Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion in Hawaii, renewables definitely came into focus. “It was striking for me, that Hawaii – as many other parts in the world – didn’t utilize the huge energy potential it has in wind, sun and water. Of course, at the time, many people across the world didn’t understand the full value of renewables or know how to use these resources properly.”

When Lyckström joined Siemens Energy, she got into the gas turbine business as a technical sales manager for global markets. She brings together perspectives from different energy areas, and she is convinced that a step-by-step approach is vital for the transition. “We need several backup solutions for future energy systems relying on volatile renewables.”

Going from turbines to net zero

That is why the ZEHTC brings different components together. An electrolyzer produces hydrogen from solar power and surplus electricity from gas turbine testing that would otherwise be wasted. A battery helps to increase operational flexibility and show various ways for storing energy – either as compressed hydrogen, electricity in batteries or both. The stored hydrogen is then fed back into the workshop as gas turbine fuel for the next test – the zero-emissions loop is closed.

“We are noticing a great deal of interest from our customers, both in operational flexibility to support electrical grids with fluctuating renewables and in the use of hydrogen in gas turbines,” Lyckström says. Siemens Energy has continuously improved the technical capabilities for hydrogen-capable turbines in recent years and has already reached volume levels of up to 75 percent. The company has set itself the target of being able to operate gas turbines entirely with hydrogen by 2030.

Hydrogen is not yet available in sufficient quantities in many places. But the turbines’ fuel flexibility, combined with interconnected energy systems, will allow for a gradual transition as the infrastructure is put in place.

A promising solution for California?

The center will also provide valuable data on how the different components best interact, with the goal of building similar systems on a larger scale. Lyckström expects to see this development in just a few years’ time.

She lists Germany and California as examples where scaled-up systems could offer a promising solution soon. Both states have many Siemens Energy gas turbine customers and renewables play an increasingly important role. California, for example, wants to achieve fossil-free power generation by 2045. Therefore, a major infrastructure to produce green fuels and balance the grid will be essential. “Properly connected, all of California could develop into a ZEHTC at a very large scale.”