Something is going on in a little town in Sweden that has the potential to change how the world understands and embraces sustainable energy generation for homes, housing estates, disconnected communities, city council buildings, schools or hospitals and more crucially even for mobility (powering vehicles and boats).
Mariestad is a community, located in the middle of the Swedish countryside, halfway between the capital city Stockholm and Gothenburg – an industrial city located close to the western coast of the country. With a population of 24,000 and drastically changed economic conditions, Mariestad’s Mayor Johan Abrahamsson along with the city council decided to make some bold decisions to attract investment back to the city and also give the youth a reason to stay.
Mariestad embarked on a path to becoming carbon neutral city by 2030. The city analysed its carbon footprint and identified that its cars, schools and community buildings were the largest consumers of energy (besides private homes) and made the bold decision to move to a solar PV-based hydrogen generation solution that could provide adequate energy to all of these, purely from renewable energy sources.
It all started with a quaint and unique home in Gothenburg. Hans-Olof Nilsson, a technologist from that city, has always been driven by green initiatives that were aimed at saving the planet. When the opportunity presented itself, Nilsson designed a PV (solar) hydrogen generation solution and decided to make himself the proverbial guinea pig by installing it in a specially built home that he would live in. He designed this house specially to maximise the use of solar PV panels in areas that faced the Sun to the south, maximising the energy intake of the home. In the basement of this house, Nilsson designed his generation plant which includes a battery bank and two battery chargers to charge the batteries using energy from the solar panels. This micro-power plant also includes an electrolyser, connected to a small compressor, and a cylinder storage facility. As a result, it is able to generate hydrogen continuously when the battery banks are full. It also incorporates a bank of fuels cells which convert the hydrogen back to electricity so as to charge the batteries when solar energy is unavailable (at night or during rainy days, for example).
This is pertinent because Gothenburg experiences some 220 days of rain each year. Yet, the home that Nilsson designed has been off-grid for more than three years. In the few sunny days each year at this location, it generates so much hydrogen that Nilsson decided to put a set of hot water pipes under his driveway, to use heated water in the winter months to melt snow so that he did not need to go out and shovel. This is the first home in the world that is disconnected from the grid and generates energy sustainably – completely from renewable energy sources.
Nilsson has welcomed over 4,300 mostly uninvited guests to his home, who have knocked on his door to see for themselves how this technology works. Consequently, his home ended up in the Guinness Book of World Records under the category of the largest amount of visitors ever to visit a private inhabited home. These guests have included energy consultants, ministers from various countries, heads of large energy companies, as well as ordinary folk inquisitive about what they can do to help save the planet from pollution and depletion of resources using fossil fuels.
“…Gothenburg experiences some 220 days of rain each year. Yet, the home that Nilsson designed has been off-grid for more than three years”
Mayor Johan Abrahamsson of Mariestad heard about Nilsson’s home and was one of the early visitors. Impressed with what he saw, Mayor Abrahamsson asked if Nilsson could design something for Mariestad that used solar energy to generate hydrogen for a vehicle filling station, and eventually for the city council schools and buildings. The city council decided to allocate land within the city-limits for a solar farm, which would have a hydrogen filling station adjacent to it. At this point, Nilsson created a company called Nilsson Energy together with two partners, Martina Wettin and Pontus Lundgren, to design and deliver the solution that Mariestad wanted: a solar-based hydrogen vehicle filling station, off-grid and with public access, had never been done before anywhere in the world. Even though the idea had existed for a long time, no one had previously been able to successfully demonstrate the generation of hydrogen purely from renewable energy such as the Sun and the wind, and then successfully compress it to fill vehicles.
Nilsson Energy ended up taking what was an academic hypothesis for economical yet sustainable generation of hydrogen with a low (or no) environmental impact and delivered a real life solar PV-based hydrogen vehicle filling station at Mariestad. This is not a prototype demonstration site in a controlled laboratory environment, but an actual live location that is already fulfilling a very real need. The Nilsson solution uses solar panels to generate energy and charge batteries (lithium, lead-acid or any chemistry). The energy generated by the solar panels is used to power an electrolyser, which generates hydrogen that is then stored in cylinders on-site using a compressor. It is then connected to a hydrogen filling station that is commercially available from suppliers in various parts of the world. When the hydrogen is used to charge batteries, the by-product is simply water – which in the case of a home like Nilsson’s, then gets used again as a heating medium or for water systems.
‘Not a hybrid solution’
This is not a hybrid solution requiring inputs from the power grid that uses fossil fuels for energy. Consequently, there is no negative environmental impact on the planet. Beyond the investment in the cost of capital, the energy is really free for the lifetime of the generation assets. Generation capacity is admittedly small, but adequate for individual homes and housing communities to go entirely off-grid and operate as sustainable individual energy balanced islands.
The solar hydrogen vehicle filling station is located on a 1/2-acre block (~2,000 square meters of land). With the filling station now commissioned, Mariestad has been encouraging public buses, taxis and private vehicle users to switch to hydrogen vehicles and gas refills have been made available for free in the early days, to help citizens and business owners make the decision to convert from fossil fuel-based energy.
Soon, the city council pre-schools will go off-grid using solar hydrogen and eventually the plan would be for all city council buildings to do so too. This makes Mariestad a path-breaking community on our planet – one that is focused on a zero-emission future and sustainable generation of its own power requirements. Mayor Abrahamsson and his council have become unlikely champions of the initiative to save our planet in their efforts to ensure their city economy is sustainable. These are folks with the vision to do something path-breaking, to make a difference to their community and our planet. They are leaders who have displayed the courage to implement their decisions during their tenures.
The Nilsson solution at Mariestad proved so successful, a housing estate not far from Mariestad decided to employ the same technology to provide PV solar-based hydrogen power for public utilities for 172 homes. With three varying sized projects using hydrogen energy for vehicles, homes and housing estates working seamlessly using renewable energy generation in Sweden, a few Australians decided to come all the way north to have a look at what this hubris about 100% sustainable hydrogen using renewables was all about.
Along came hydrogen…
Australia, located on the other side of the world was dubbed the ‘Lucky Country’ by Paul Keating, who was Prime Minster from 1992-1996. The country has found it hard to wean itself of the use of fossil fuels for energy generation, given the abundance of natural resources that it has. Successive government scoffed at the opportunity to make substantial investments in renewable energy generation technologies, preferring to wait till early experiments elsewhere proved resilient.
“These are folks with the vision to do something path-breaking, to make a difference to their community and our planet…”
Globally, given the policies of some of its governments over the last 20 years, Australia came to unfortunately not be regarded as an environmentally-friendly geography. Successive governments voiced a need to move to a carbon-free energy economy, but not many initiatives were implemented.
Then along came hydrogen – and with it, the city of Warrnambool in Victoria located on the southern coast of Australia. The city faces the Southern Ocean and has an abundance of both the Sun and wind. The Liberal Party government that was voted into power in Australia in 2016 instituted a hydrogen task force led by the Chief Scientist of the country. Its mandate was to identify projects in all states of Australia that not only created jobs through the generation of hydrogen, but also supported projects in each state in Australia, which could be used as trial sites to test technologies available globally to generate hydrogen both commercially and sustainably.
CSIRO – Australia’s premier research institute – also invested heavily to identify ways to generate and transport hydrogen safely and economically. Numerous technology demonstrators were embarked upon including ammonia-based hydrogen generation and transportation, and the use of natural gas pipelines to transport hydrogen mixed with methane.
Like Mariestad, Warrnambool City Council too decided to be bold and set itself a target to be carbon neutral in its energy usage by 2040. Having heard of and studied the Mariestad experience, the city council of Warrnambool decided to invite the Mayor and his key resources, including Nilsson Energy to visit Australia and showcase what can be achieved similarly in Warrnambool. The city exemplifies what Paul Keating meant by ‘Lucky Country’. It has an average amount of 2,330 sunny hours each year and average wind speeds of more than 13.7 miles per hour during winter months. In other words, it is a renewable energy heaven. The problem has always been how to store the energy when the grid is incapable of taking any more and the battery banks are full. Hydrogen stares at this dilemma as the panacea.
The City Council invited Mayor Abrahamsson of Mariestad and senior members of his project team to visit Australia and go over the key success factors of the Mariestad project. Their intent was to see if the same could be recreated in southern Australia. Mayor Abrahamsson visited and not only presented to the city council in session, but also in an open forum to all the townsfolks as well as to students from all of the city’s schools. His view always has been that it’s the youth who will convince any city or government to make the bold decisions necessary to save the planet.
With the support of the Australian Hydrogen Initiative, Warrnambool now plans to have its own PV solar-based hydrogen filling station for vehicles and to power some of the more energy hungry locations in the city such as the city’s swimming pools, schools and council housing.
Tony Herbert, Mayor of Warrnambool City, enthused, “We’ve been inspired by Mariestad’s great example. A Swedish regional city similar in size to Warrnambool. The work of Hans-Olaf Nilsson has meant that this is technology that could work anywhere. It means that hydrogen is finally becoming the game-changer everyone knew it could be and that local governments and communities can lead the transition to renewables. The push towards renewable energy also aligns with the aspirations of our community contained in our long-term plan, Warrnambool 2040.”
Mayor Abrahamsson said he was delighted to be invited to Warrnambool and was looking forward to an exchange of ideas to expand the use of renewable energy. “Mariestad was keen to act on climate change. We believed we could start the move to using renewables ourselves. Our community – including schools and university – is behind this transition,” he said. “We have been able to demonstrate that it is possible for a regional city to lead the way.” Mariestad has since been declared a UNESCO model of sustainability.
Solar or wind-based hydrogen generation has the ability to deliver unique benefits to countries such as Australia which have remote towns and communities in distant locations and where the cost of dragging electricity lines is horrendously expensive. More importantly, each of these communities will become carbon neutral.
The Nilsson Energy solution uses standard commercially available equipment including solar panels, batteries, battery chargers, fuel cells, electrolysers and a small compressor. The genius is in the design and execution of the solution, which includes multiple redundancies and design efficiencies to optimise battery charging and battery life. Hydrogen cars are increasingly proving they are here to stay based on the autonomy they provide, which is similar or greater than petrol cars. Solar is already a proven technology for households. It is only a matter of time then that the world will discover the sustainable benefits of solar-based localised hydrogen generation, positively further impacting the cost efficiencies that this technology will require to rapidly be implemented globally.
Watching the city councils and the bold Mayors of both Mariestad and Warrnambool, it does look like the world has the opportunity to change for the better.
Only 160 years ago, humankind was still hunting whales to generate oil to illuminate street-lamps and lamps inside homes. It seems absurd now to even contemplate that humans did that to a species. It is only a matter of time then, that future generations will look back and consider how we generated energy using coal and fossil fuels with a similar viewpoint and disdain. There is hope for our planet yet – and that hope (as Mariestad and Warrnambool have shown us) is hydrogen!