Published: March 16, 2023
By: Concentric Staff Writer
It is no secret that hydrogen, the most abundant and lightest element in the universe, is also one of the most powerful. Research in recent years is moving closer towards expanding its commercial applications to power generation and transportation.
Hydrogen has many applications and is already in widespread use in industrial processes such as refining petroleum, treating metals, making fertilizer, and processing foods, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. It is even used by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for rocket fuel and fuel cells that power spacecraft. Now, new efforts are underway aimed at making hydrogen an everyday part of the power sector and the U.S. vehicle fleet.
The Inflation Reduction Act (“IRA”), passed in the summer of 2022, has created a surge in the development of the hydrogen resource. In December 2022, the U.S. Department of Energy (“DOE”) responded to concept papers submitted for a program created by the IRA, known as the Regional Clean Hydrogen program. DOE, in a news release, said the program “will be a central driver in helping communities across the country benefit from clean energy investments, good-paying jobs, and improved energy security—all while supporting President Joe Biden’s goal of a net-zero carbon economy by 2050.”
DOE describes hydrogen hubs as a network of clean-hydrogen producers, consumers, and “connective infrastructure in close proximity.” The 79 concept papers from states and their partners submitted to DOE flow from the $7 billion funding opportunity the agency issued in September 2022. The concept papers requested nearly $60 billion total, eight to nine times the amount of the funding solicitation, and proposed almost $150 billion in private capital for projects with many different technologies and in every region of the country. DOE said it sought the best hydrogen-based solutions possible and the concept paper solicitation was aimed at getting a better understanding of what final funding applications might look like. The concept papers were judged based on a series of criteria, including qualifications, experience, and capabilities of the applicant; expected contributions toward a national hydrogen network; plans to develop production, end-use, and connective facilities; and community benefits.
One of the concept papers that received an encouragement letter from DOE is the Western Interstate Hydrogen Hub, a project between the states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. The four states are keen on developing hydrogen as a safe, clean, and sustainable energy resource.
“This strategy will help to meet the region’s diverse energy needs and policy goals, including reducing greenhouse gas emissions, using a broad range of feedstock to develop hydrogen, ensuring economic competitiveness, and supporting communities on the front lines of the energy transition,” the four-state coalition said in a December press release. According to DOE, an “encouragement” letter does not mean a project will be selected, and those that received “discouragement” notices are still free to apply. The encouragement letters mean the applicant is “on the right path” to submitting a full application, and the agency said there will be heavy competition for the funding, even among entities that received encouragement letters.
Other hydrogen hub projects selected by DOE for letters of encouragement include efforts in the Northwest, one by Obsidian Renewables and another by the governments of Washington and Oregon; the Halo Hub, a partnership between Arkansas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma; the Appalachian Regional Clean Hydrogen Hub in West Virginia, supported by that state, Kentucky, Ohio, and Maryland; the HyVelocity Hub in Texas; and others.
Hydrogen is also being explored for electricity generation with several projects underway to convert former natural gas-burning plants to burn hydrogen. One is the 485-MW Long Ridge Energy Generation Project in Ohio, which will run on a 95-percent natural gas, 5-percent hydrogen blend in a gas turbine with plans to burn pure hydrogen eventually. Intermountain Power Agency in Utah also plans to convert to hydrogen from coal, and there is a plan to convert the 830-MW Scattergood Generating Station in Los Angeles to hydrogen from natural gas. The Los Angeles City Council on Feb. 8 in a 12-0 vote approved allowing the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power (“LADWP”) to move forward with a competitive bidding process for the project, but also approved a separate resolution requiring LADWP to closely communicate with the council on its progress.
However, hydrogen is not popular with most environmental groups—Food & Water Watch (“F&WW”) has indicated its opposition to the hydrogen hubs program. Environmental groups say it is an effort by the fossil fuel industry to support natural gas, which is used to produce “blue hydrogen.” Separately, “green hydrogen” is hydrogen produced from renewable resources. According to French utility company Engie, the most common way to create green hydrogen is electrolysis using water and electricity produced from non-carbon-emitting resources, or using another technique known as pyro-gasification in which heat is applied to biomass such as wood or agricultural waste to produce a complex gas from which hydrogen is extracted.
F&WW, which also opposes the Scattergood repowering, says corporations are pushing hydrogen to keep fossil-fuel facilities alive and that burning hydrogen produces smog through the production of nitrogen oxides. Turbine manufacturer Mitsubishi says its hydrogen turbines that burn 70 percent hydrogen and 30 percent natural gas produce about the same carbon dioxide emissions as burning straight natural gas.
Hydrogen fuel cells, which are already being used in commercially available vehicles, generate electricity by combining hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity, water, and heat in a process similar to that of a battery. Fuel cells, depending on size, are used for a range of applications, from consumer products such as laptop computers and cellphones to power grids, backup generation, and microgrid applications.
At the end of October 2021, there were about 166 operating fuel cell electric power generations at 113 facilities making up about 260 MW of generation capacity. The largest such facility is the 16-MW Bridgeport Fuel Cell in Connecticut, followed by the Red Lion Energy Center in Delaware, which has five fuel cells totaling 25 MW.
On the transportation side, hydrogen is not only being explored for ground-based vehicles, but also airplanes. ZeroAvia, founded in 2018, is focused on repowering existing aircraft with electric motors, fuel cells, and hydrogen. It has signed memoranda of understanding with several aircraft manufacturers to attain help in certifying the technology. ZeroAvia hopes to develop a 600-kilowatt powertrain by 2025 for an aircraft with 19 seats able to fly up to 300 nautical miles. In 2027, it hopes to launch a modular 2- to 5-megawatt drivetrain, able to retrofit aircraft with up to 80 seats for flights up to 700 miles, and higher-output drivetrains in later years.
Hydrogen vehicles utilize electric motors powered by hydrogen fuel cells. Toyota has been a leader in this area, with several models publicly available. However, unlike electric vehicles, hydrogen vehicles still have a relatively high fuel cost per gallon of hydrogen, and a higher up-front purchase price, and the hydrogen-station network needed to support these vehicles is still in its nascent stages.
According to DOE, transporting hydrogen requires either a pipeline network of cryogenic liquid tanker trucks or gaseous tube trailers. Development of pipelines must be in areas with substantial, stable hydrogen demand in the area of hundreds of tons per day. Liquification plants, tankers, and trailers are deployed in areas where demand is at a smaller scale or emerging. Additional infrastructure is needed at the point of hydrogen use, including compression, storage, dispensing, metering, and contaminant detection and purification technologies.
Several companies are capable of delivering bulk hydrogen today, DOE said, and some infrastructure is in place because of its usage in industrial applications, but more research and development, expansion of the supply chain, and new deployments will be needed before it is in widespread application. Some of the biggest challenges are in the areas of reducing cost, increasing its efficiency, maintaining hydrogen purity, and minimizing leakage from infrastructure, the agency said. The necessary infrastructure will depend on the region and the type of market—urban, interstate, or rural—but these options will also evolve as demand grows and technology improves. If all the various pieces fall into place, hydrogen might enjoy a long future as a vital power source in the U.S. energy mix.
All views expressed by the author are solely the author’s current views and do not reflect the views of Concentric Energy Advisors, Inc., its affiliates, subsidiaries, or related companies. The author’s views are based upon information the author considers reliable at the time of publication. However, neither Concentric Energy Advisors, Inc., nor its affiliates, subsidiaries, and related companies warrant the information’s completeness or accuracy, and it should not be relied upon as such.