A small Norwegian island testing a way to store wind-generated energy for those calmer days may have found the answer to producing power when there is not a breeze in the air, utilising hydrogen gas and wind energy to maximum effect.

The tiny, windswept island of Utsira, situated off Norway’s southwestern coast, is home to what is believed to be the world’s first full-scale system for cleanly transforming surplus wind power into hydrogen.

On a good day, the island’s two wind turbines produce more energy than the 210 people living on the island can use. When they are down however, most of Utsira, which measures only six square kilometres, is furnished with electricity from the mainland.

Ten households however, receive clean, wind-generated electricity regardless of the weather conditions, thanks to a pilot project launched in July 2004 making it possible to store wind power by transforming it into hydrogen. Surplus wind-generated energy is passed through water and through a process of electrolysis, the hydrogen atoms are separated from the oxygen atoms that make up water molecules. The hydrogen is then compressed and stored in a container that can hold enough hydrogen gas to cover the energy needs of the ten households for up to two wind-free days.

“Utsira has more than enough wind power to be self-sustained ... but the problem arises on a day like today when there is not enough wind,” explained Halgeir Oeya, who heads up the hydrogen technology unit at Norwegian energy giant StatoilHydro, which is running the project.

“This system allows us to deliver power with expected quality and reliability.”
Islands like Norway’s Utsira have long been considered ideal laboratories for renewable energy due to their total dependence on outside energy supplies and their access to powerful wind energy.

Oeya notes that the people participating in the Utsira test project have no restrictions on how they use power, switching on the lights, dishwashers, television sets and stereos without a thought to how the wind is blowing.

And amid growing alarm over greenhouse gas-promoted global warming, they can do so with a clean conscience, he says, pointing out that “the only emission is oxygen.”

Producing and storing energy this way however, is still nearly four years after testing began, and far more expensive than the hydraulic power produced on Norway’s mainland.

StatoilHydro apparently has no intention of building up the system to compete with large-scale energy production, but even making it competitive in small, remote communities on such islands remains years off.