ISTANBUL, Turkey—At the end of June, Henry Puna, prime minister of the Cook Islands, a 90-square-mile archipelago in the South Pacific, traveled more than 11,000 miles on an unusual fact-finding mission to Turkey's Bozcaada island in the Aegean Sea.
Puna came to see Bozcaada's hospital and the house of its governor — two of the only buildings in the world partially powered by hydrogen-generated electricity. The unique prototype technology, which sounds like a back-to-the-future experiment, has been churning out zero-emissions power for the past few months.
At the governor's house a 20-kilowatt rooftop solar array and a free-standing 30-kilowatt wind turbine generate clean electricity, which is run through an electrolyzer that splits water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen gas gets compressed and stored in tanks on the island and is later converted back into electricity whenever extra power is needed. The gas can also fuel hydrogen cars or vessels.
Currently, Bozcaada's system supplies all the electricity at both buildings, as well as a boat and golf cart. Combined, it's equivalent to powering about 20 households in Turkey.
That minuscule amount is emblematic of the uphill battle that hydrogen technologies face in becoming a solution to reckon with in the contest for alternative fuels. Still, experts say the facilities on the small Aegean outpost, 175 miles southwest of Istanbul, illustrate some of the more promising uses of hydrogen as an energy carrier — especially its potential to fill crucial niches within a larger clean energy economy.
Today, Istanbul is home to some of the world's most cutting-edge research and development of hydrogen energy applications. That's because the UN International Development Organization located its International Center for Hydrogen Energy Technologies (ICHET) here eight years ago. Turkey was chosen for its proximity to both rich and poor countries.
For Puna, the visit to Bozcaada was a glimpse at the energy future of his own country. ICHET is currently installing a similar system on Aitutaki in the Cook Islands. Hydrogen energy is particularly suited to islands, which generally have abundant renewable resources but are removed from main grids.
But can the technology ever reach the mainland in Turkey or anywhere?
For now, no one can deny that hydrogen energy is still a peripheral technology. In the United States, Pres. Obama slashed financing for hydrogen technology in his 2012 budget by roughly 40 percent, or $70 million, of its $174 million allocation in 2010, angering proponents.
But across parts of Europe, enthusiasm for hydrogen remains steady, primarily among automakers, as countries move toward cleaner-burning cars. Several companies continue to invest in experimental models with fuel cells — electrochemical devices that generate electricity — such as the three Mercedes Benz hydrogen fuel-cell hatchbacks that toured the world this spring. Used in a fuel cell, hydrogen emits only water, no carbon dioxide.
In Germany, renewable energy utility Enertrag is building a 500-kilowatt hybrid wind-hydrogen power plant, the world's first.
ICHET's Progress to Date
Hydrogen is not a primary energy source like coal, but rather an energy carrier. It is generated through the conversion of another fuel source, such as natural gas, usually by electrolysis, and can be stored for later use and reconverted into power. In fuel-cell cars, for instance, the energy from a hydrogen cell is converted into electricity to power the engine.
According to ICHET managing director Mustafa Hatipoğlu, hybrid electric-hydrogen cars could be cruising Turkey's streets as early as 2020. But before that can happen, he said, the public must be aware of, and buy into, the potential value of the fuel source.
To that end, ICHET is building a hydrogen fueling station in the center of Istanbul on an estuary of the Bosphorus Strait called the Golden Horn. The station, which is expected to be finished next May, will be Turkey's first hydrogen-fueling station and the first one in the world that can supply hydrogen to both land and sea vehicles.
Its first customers will be a 142-kilowatt hybrid hydrogen-battery bus and a 48-kilowatt hybrid passenger boat that ICHET is currently building for the Istanbul municipal government.
The center's most high-profile creation, the Ekokaravan — a RV-type vehicle that requires no refueling — has already toured 10 Turkish cities and visited energy summits in Abu Dhabi and Vienna since its completion last year. It produces all of its energy through four combined renewable energy systems: a 17-kilowatt battery storage system that requires no recharging for three days; a 1,200-watt hydrogen fuel cell; a 1,710-watt solar array; and a 1,000-watt retractable wind turbine.
"It can be used in emergency situations, or as a touristic caravan, a mobile health center, a mobile power unit," said Hatipoğlu. "There are so many potential usages."
The Case for Hydrogen
"Granted, producing hydrogen is not so efficient yet," conceded Hatipoğlu. "But one kilogram of hydrogen contains three times the amount of energy in gasoline. This is a big advantage."