Running a race series like Extreme E that takes place in remote locations poses numerous challenges. Supplying the event location with sufficient energy is a particular problem, accentuated by the fact that the series aims to have the highest possible credentials for sustainability. Extreme E has just changed its partner for this aspect of its events, and with it underlined a commitment to hydrogen as a power delivery medium.
For the first two seasons, Extreme E partnered with AFC Energy for its hydrogen power. The company has been supplying the race series with hydrogen fuel cells to act as off-grid generators, instead of using diesel. However, there wasn’t always enough hydrogen available and, in some locations, additional combustion generators burning GreenD + HVO biofuel have been required. As a result, Extreme E wanted to expand its generation abilities using a system that doesn’t rely on pure hydrogen, and so has moved on to technology provided by Kaizen Clean Energy for Season 3.
Each Extreme E event consumes 18-22MWh of electricity across the course of its week. That includes all the site power and charging the racing cars themselves. Extreme E can use local grid power but tries to avoid this when the sources are not renewable. This was possible in Uruguay because its grid is almost entirely supplied by renewable sources. But in many countries, this is not the case, and in a remote location there probably won’t be a reliable grid connection anyway. One of the Season 1 races took place in Greenland, for example.
This is why Extreme E has been exploring the use of hydrogen for off-grid generation. However, pure hydrogen can be hard to obtain and difficult to transport, because it either needs to be stored at extremely high pressure – 700 atmospheres is typical in hydrogen fuel cell cars – or frozen into liquid form. This has been problematic when Extreme transports most of its kit in containers via the converted mail ship St Helena.
There is also a dearth of green hydrogen produced cleanly via renewable energy in many countries, with most hydrogen still produced via steam reformation of methane, if it’s available at all. This emits significant CO2 unless captured. In order to distribute clean hydrogen all over the world from green sources that have both excess renewable energy and a ready supply of water for electrolysis, better transportation systems are required than high pressure or cryogenics.
You can store hydrogen in another compound, and then extract it again for use. One compound that has been employed for this is ammonia, but that requires temperatures of 1,100C (over 2,000F) to extract the hydrogen again. Kaizen Clean Energy solves this problem by using methanol, which only requires a temperature of 400C (750F) to reform the hydrogen for use in a fuel cell. Methanol does contain carbon, but the company produces its methanol via carbon capture, so even if the carbon is then released again the process is at least neutral.
Kaizen claims it can fit everything it needs to produce 38MWh of power into a single container, which would be enough for an entire Extreme E race week and then some. Because methanol can be transported in unpressurized tanks or drums, the system can be safely carried on the St Helena ship to each race location.
Extreme E has other plans for hydrogen, too. In one of Extreme E’s talks on climate change at the Uruguay finale, Founder and CEO Alejandro Agag argued that hydrogen would be essential to decarbonization. As part of this commitment, Extreme E won’t just be using hydrogen for site power. At the beginning of Season 2 in Neom, Saudi Arabia, Agag also announced a partner series for Extreme E using hydrogen-powered variants of the Odyssey 21 racing SUV. Called Extreme H, this series will explore the use of hydrogen directly for vehicular transport and will be the first race series to use hydrogen-powered cars.
However, in a later interview in Uruguay, Agag admitted that there have been teething problems. Hydrogen is not very efficient, so you need a lot of it to go any distance. There are also safety issues, so that after a race the hydrogen tanks need to be emptied and cleaned. Nevertheless, Agag expects to see prototype cars by June or July 2023, with the series starting in 2024, although he still hasn’t decided how Extreme H will interleave with Extreme E. The cars won’t be racing each other, because the hydrogen versions would lose, but they might run alternately across the same race weekend.
The jury is still out where hydrogen will fit in the decarbonized energy landscape, with many arguments against transportation being a likely application. However, for off-grid power such as Kaizen Clean Energy supplies, it makes considerable sense. Although Extreme E uses its own solar, this needs to be supplemented. The Kaizen microgrid enables the race series to pioneer the possible by taking its entire event off grid with 100% carbon neutral energy.
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