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The power of many

Collaboration is a chief component in Wärtsilä’s efforts to scale up Power-to-X technologies. 

In a continuously evolving energy market, Wärtsilä has committed to the role of leading the global transition towards a future powered entirely by renewable energy. A key factor in attaining this vision is Power-to-X technology. But what exactly is Power-to-X? And how does Wärtsilä plan to harness it?

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Sometimes referred to as P2X, Power-to-X is an umbrella term for methods that use electrochemical conversion to transform surplus electricity into a certain X. This X could take the form of a liquid or gas energy carrier – for instance, hydrogen, methane, or methanol – and be stored for later use. An example of a Power-to-X process would be the generation of synthetic fuel from hydrogen and excess CO2 emissions.

As an emerging concept, Power-to-X shows immense promise and is especially important within the scenario of a future where a high share of energy is produced from renewable sources. Because energy generated through Power-to-X technologies can be stored, it can be accessed when needed – in other words, during times when the sun is not shining, or the wind is not blowing.

“Many companies in Europe are making their first investments in Power-to-X today, and I’m happy that we are one of the first ones to drive this change and talk about the opportunities,” says Matti Rautkivi, Director of Strategy and Business Development in Wärtsilä’s Energy Business.

“A couple of years ago, we could see the direction the world was taking, particularly when we looked at the evolving energy market. It was at around that point when we launched our vision to lead the transition towards 100% renewable energy systems. One part of this vision – the missing piece of the puzzle – is Power-to-X and how to actually produce synthetic fuels,” he relates.

“When we were thinking about our vision and where we should take the business, we recognised that it is vital for us to produce energy with the resources that we have here in the atmosphere, and that in the future, fuel should no longer be taken from underground,” Rautkivi says. “This is why we are developing Power-to-X as an essential part of the power system that will become a reality in the coming years.

The missing piece of the puzzle

It was in June 2018 that Wärtsilä first launched its Smart Energy vision aspiring towards a 100% renewable energy future. But while it was the Energy Business that brought Power-to-X into the picture for the technology group, the concept is relevant to the Marine Business, too, as Rautkivi explains:

“In both the Energy and Marine businesses, we have efficient engines that provide flexibility and which can also be used with renewable systems. Our engines themselves are already more than capable of fulfilling these requirements, but how do we produce fuel for them?”

It was through Wärtsilä’s link with its long-standing research partner, Lappeenranta-Lahti University of Technology (LUT), that the company first came into contact with the Power-to-X concept. Since then, a number of the Energy business’ investments have been steered by an ethos of engaging partners with the best insight into the topic.

“Collaborating with LUT, an organisation conducting in-depth research, has helped us understand the Power-to-X concept and its potential. Eventually, when it became clear that Power-to-X is a promising field that we wanted to invest in, we began partnering with our customers on the concept,” Rautkivi points out.

To illustrate, in late 2018, Wärtsilä, together with LUT, signed a memorandum of understanding with the Nebraska Public Power District (NPPD), the US state of Nebraska’s largest electric utility. The three parties agreed to develop a business case for using alternative fuels in Wärtsilä generating sets with a view towards finding a viable solution that will enable NPPD to generate energy from fully renewable, carbon-free sources on an industrial scale.

The following spring, Wärtsilä and LUT signed an agreement on strategic power system modelling to examine and develop pathways towards 100% renewable energy systems.

Innovation over competition

“Our approach really has to do with innovation. It involves trying out new business models,” says Rautkivi, who suggests that the willingness to work collaboratively comes from a particular mentality: “We need to value innovation over competition because the market still needs to be developed. Currently, there is no market for Power-to-X. The whole ecosystem will change, and we cannot do it by ourselves. We shouldn’t try to do it by ourselves.”

In January 2019, Wärtsilä recruited another ally in Carbon Recycling International (CRI), an Icelandic firm that bested nearly 70 other start-ups competing in Wärtsilä’s SparkUp Energy Challenge. The competition aimed specifically at scouting enterprises with promising Power-to-X technologies. Rautkivi points to the contest as an opportunity that Wärtsilä’s Energy business took to enlist a partner that would help the company better understand the process of methanol synthesis.

It was CRI’s innovative solution for producing synthetic methanol, along with their expertise in commercialising their solution, that set them apart from the rest. Vulcanol, CRI’s renewable methanol product, is already in use in Europe and China. Furthermore, up to 4,000 metric tonnes of synthetic methanol can be produced at the company’s George Olah Renewable Methanol Plant in Grindavik, Iceland, per year.  

Not long after CRI’s SparkUp Challenge win, in spring 2019, Wärtsilä agreed to fund Finland-based start-up company Soletair Power. Soletair has developed a revolutionary technology that captures CO2 from the air in buildings, combines it with hydrogen, and converts it into multifunctional hydrocarbons used to produce, among other things, synthetic renewable fuel.

As in the case of CRI, Soletair, along with its proprietary technology, supports Wärtsilä’s strategy of leading the transformation of the energy sector.

“If we want to go beyond our existing business, we need to look outside. We will not be able to get the best ideas from our organisation alone,” stresses Rautkivi.  “We are investing in resources and openly sharing and supporting different kinds of players because we all share the same goal.”

Creating a market for synthetic renewable fuel

The pattern of partnering and co-creation has continued to emerge in Wärtsilä’s efforts to understand Power-to-X and scale up its development. In September 2019, Wärtsilä recruited yet another valuable partner on the road to a fully renewable-powered future.

The technology group signed a cooperation agreement with Q Power, a company with a patented technology for producing biomethane from hydrogen and carbon dioxide. Considered a Finnish pioneer in biomethanisation, Q Power has joined forces with Wärtsilä to further speed up the development of renewable fuels and capture opportunities to market them globally.

“Power-to-X is a novel market that presents immense possibilities, and we are constantly reviewing all of these prospects,” Rautkivi concludes.

“One thing we know for certain is that collaboration is essential for us on the path towards our target of a 100% renewable energy future. Our role now is to accelerate this transition and scale this significant opportunity,” he asserts. 

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