Blowing away the national grid

Ten homes are to be cut off from their electricity grid for more than two years in an experiment aiming to bring clean power to remote communities throughout the world.

The houses in the tiny wind-swept Norwegian island of Utsira will have their electricity supplied by wind turbines, hydrogen generators and a fuel cell from July.

Oslo engineering company Norsk Hydro has already been generating electricity from two wind turbines on the island since autumn 2003. But this month it will install hydrogen generators and a hydrogen fuel cell to store the electricity produced by the turbines.

Utsira has two 600kW wind turbines to meet the needs of the tiny community – approximately five gigawatts per year. But wind farms are subject to the same constraints as any power-generation system that relies on the weather – it won’t always be windy, and as a result power is not generated constantly.

To combat this problem conventional wind farms, including Utsira’s two turbines, pump electricity into a grid system, which then provides electricity to householders. If there is no wind the grid will continue to provide electricity from other sources.

But in July Norsk Hydro hopes that 10 households – around 10 per cent of the tiny island’s population – will become entirely independent from the grid.

Utsira’s wind turbines will produce and distribute electricity locally without the use of a grid. During windy times excess energy will be converted into hydrogen by electrolysis – whereby an electrical current is passed through water to separate oxygen and hydrogen.

The hydrogen will be stored in the fuel cell. During times of no wind the fuel cell and generators will kick in to convert the hydrogen back into electricity – so replacing the grid system.

Electricity generated from hydrogen is emission-free – producing only water – but high costs and relatively poor rates of electrical output have limited its use.

This is the first time wind turbines, hydrogen generators and fuel cells have been tested together at full scale. ‘We want to prove that this is possible. Not economically viable, but technically possible,’ said project manager Paal Otto Eide.

Norsk Hydro is spending £4.5m on the experiment and hopes that a successful test could see the system rolled out to the world’sisolated communities to replace high-emission diesel generators.

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