EPRI Releases Ammonia Energy Report

By Stephen H. Crolius on March 07, 2019

Last month the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) released Renewable Ammonia Generation, Transport, and Utilization in the Transportation Sector, the organization’s first public treatment of ammonia energy.  The report is positioned as a communique from the cutting edge – a “Technology Insights Brief” from EPRI’s “Innovation Scouts” – and, bracingly, manages to be both brief and comprehensive.  Within its format, it does an excellent job of conveying the positive case for ammonia energy and the R&D that will allow it to reach its potential.

It would be hard to overstate the significance of EPRI’s acknowledgement of ammonia energy in the context of energy transformation in the United States.  According to its website, EPRI is “an independent, nonprofit organization for public interest energy and environmental research” with a “worldwide membership that . . . comprises more than 1,000 organizations [from] more than 35 countries.” American electric utilities make up a plurality of the membership.  These members collectively account for “approximately 90% of the electric utility revenue generated in the United States.”   In short, EPRI is a core member of the American energy establishment, and arguably the only such member not fundamentally beholden to one or more of today’s mainstream primary energy carriers.  EPRI’s positive take on ammonia energy will encourage serious attention — both positive and negative — from other members of the establishment.

The report is built on a solid foundation of technical papers and other references.  Cited materials include those from the U.S. Department of Energy’s ARPA-E REFUEL program (click here for the relevant Ammonia Energy tag); Siemens’ U.K. Green Ammonia Demonstrator (click here); the Government of South Australia (click here); Ammonia Energy Association member thyssenkrupp (click here); the Netherlands’ Institute for Sustainable Process Technology (click here); the University of Minnesota (click here); and the AEA’s 2018 NH3 Energy Implementation Conference (click here).

The report’s first paragraph delivers an explicit endorsement of ammonia as an energy carrier: “Transitioning the transportation sector to new, renewable energy carriers is an opportunity to improve the global economy and its sustainability. Renewable and low-carbon electricity is a key input to the generation of novel renewable energy carriers; one of the most viable and near-term is ammonia.”  Its second paragraph continues in the same vein: “Ammonia has technical and economic benefits that make it preferable to other renewable energy carriers in the transportation sector.”

In its middle sections, the report speaks to topics of central importance for ammonia energy, addressing, for example, the substantial economic benefits ammonia could create for utilities:

The generation of ammonia from renewables gives utilities some potential to realize value from renewable energy sources that would otherwise be curtailed or spilled. As the share of renewable generation on the electric grid increases with time, the capacity factor and therefore ROI of renewable energy generation resources may decrease. By using this over-generation of renewables to produce ammonia or other electrofuels, the utilization and value of renewable energy generation may be able to be increased. By connecting the renewable energy market to the commodity market for ammonia (which primarily serves an agricultural and chemical industry), utilities may be able to realize higher value for geographically or temporally “stranded” renewable generation assets.

Renewable Ammonia Generation, Transport, and Utilization in the Transportation Sector.  EPRI.  February 18, 2019.

Visible within this formulation is the ultimate system in which renewable generation capacity is sized to meet the needs of both the electricity and transportation sectors, and ammonia serves as the bridge between the two.

This point takes a more tangible form a little farther on when reference is made to the supply of hydrogen for fuel cell vehicles:

For example, California implemented policies to encourage hydrogen-powered vehicles, but California may not have the capacity to generate enough low-cost hydrogen to meet that need. Using the renewable ammonia hydrogen pathways described above, ammonia can be transported long distances using existing technologies such as trucks, pipelines, or ships, and can be chemically “cracked” to generate renewable hydrogen for use as a renewable fuel.

Renewable Ammonia Generation, Transport, and Utilization in the Transportation Sector.  EPRI.  February 18, 2019.

(EPRI’s presentation of this scenario is a helpful counterpoint to Air Liquide’s November 2018 announcement of a $150 million liquid hydrogen plant whose primary mission will also be to supply California’s fuel cell vehicles.)

The report ends with a section on “Next Steps and Collaborative Opportunities,” which appears to signal EPRI’s interest in a joint program of ammonia energy research:

R&D projects focused on the technologies of renewable electricity-based ammonia generation, transmission, and end use are ongoing, but few have concentrated on utility-scale implementations and use cases. By bringing a utility perspective to the design and demonstration of these systems and conducting further research, EPRI and its collaborators might be able to identify ideal locations, controls implementations, and economic models (for example, providing information on costs/benefits from potential system investments and observations on possible pricing structures).

These ammonia generation systems and end uses cut across domains of expertise at EPRI and utilities, so a collaborative model can allow engagement across the electricity sector and more broadly with existing stakeholders in the chemical industry, agriculture sector, transportation system, regulators and end users.

Renewable Ammonia Generation, Transport, and Utilization in the Transportation Sector. EPRI. February 18, 2019.

Talk is cheap, as the saying goes, but EPRI has the wherewithal to spearhead a significant program.  In 2017, the organization had revenues of more than $400 million, consisting of $218 million in membership levies and $187 million in “supplemental funding” from sources such as “federal awards.”  The EPRI contact provided at the end of the report is the Manager of the Electric Transportation Program.  Electric Transportation has “estimated 2019 funding” of $4.5 million.  A variety of other EPRI programs could conceivably participate in the type of cross-cutting approach called for by the report, including the three programs focused on sustainability-oriented strategic planning (2019 funding of $7.6 million in total), and the five that address various aspects of distributed, variable, and/or renewable generation (2019 funding of $20.8 million in total).

The U.S. is a long way from the lead in the ammonia energy race.  EPRI’s emergence as an active player in the field could help close the gap.