Hydrogen, which has been regarded as a potential clean energy solution for decades, may finally be ready for the spotlight. Hydrogen gas burns cleanly, producing just heat and water as byproducts, and can be used in power plants like natural gas, or in fuel cells to power vehicles or buildings. Hydrogen’s declining production costs and its ability to produce power that’s free of carbon emissions are driving interest in a “hydrogen economy” in which the gas could take the place of traditional fuels such as oil and natural gas, providing a clean fuel for transportation and heating.
The rapid growth of increasingly inexpensive wind and solar energy combined with high state renewable energy targets—10 states have committed to using 100% clean electricity by mid-century—are helping to drive interest in hydrogen. Wind and solar power have traditionally relied on other energy resources, such as natural gas and coal power, to supplement them when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining. As the amount of electricity from renewable resources has increased, so too have periods when these resources produce more energy than the grid needs, which results in clean energy being wasted.
A Battery Alternative?
Batteries are playing a larger role in providing and storing power as needed to help the grid adapt to fluctuations in power generation and consumption, but they currently lack the ability to affordably address larger and longer power fluctuations, such as those caused by weather changes or seasonal variations. Although batteries can provide two to six hours of electricity, hydrogen storage could provide a much longer-term solution, in part by using surplus electricity to produce hydrogen through electrolysis, a process that extracts hydrogen from water. The hydrogen could be stored to produce electricity later or used for other purposes, such as powering fuel cell vehicles. Storing low-cost renewable energy in the form of hydrogen could create a nearly carbon-emissions-free energy system.
Storing low-cost renewable energy in the form of hydrogen could create a nearly carbon-emissions-free energy system.
The Intermountain Power Agency, a power-generating cooperative based in Utah, is conducting a project to see how well hydrogen can perform as a clean resource. The agency is replacing a coal facility with one that will initially be powered by a hydrogen-natural gas mix and ultimately by 100% renewable hydrogen. The agency plans to install a new gas turbine that will operate on a mix of 30% hydrogen and 70% natural gas by 2025, resulting in a 75% reduction in carbon emissions. The contract requires the system to run on 100% renewable hydrogen by 2045. The hydrogen will be produced using electricity from renewable sources, then stored in a salt cavern in central Utah. The Advanced Clean Energy Storage project, as the cavern facility is known, will be the largest of its kind in the world, providing 1,000 megawatts of 100% clean energy storage.
Nuclear energy is also being explored as a way to create clean hydrogen, with demonstration projects funded by the U.S. Department of Energy starting at three nuclear plants in 2020 and 2021. FirstEnergy Solutions, Xcel Energy and Arizona Public Service will be running the projects, which will use carbon-free nuclear electricity to create hydrogen through electrolysis. These first-of-a-kind projects offer nuclear power plants a way to produce a versatile clean fuel and improve their long-term economic competitiveness.
Many other projects are being planned around the globe, and according to IHS Markit, a global energy market analysis firm, declining hydrogen production costs means the gas could be meeting from 10% to 25% of the world’s energy needs by 2030.
States are just starting to explore hydrogen’s promise. The California Energy Commission, for example, is offering up to $2 million for the development of electrolytic hydrogen storage systems on the customer side of the meter. And Hawaii passed two hydrogen-related bills last year: HB 624, which creates a hydrogen investment seed fund to support research and development of hydrogen technologies, and SB 661, which requires the state and counties to give priority to purchasing hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.
As states move down the path toward cleaner and greener economies, hydrogen may be set to move from bit part to leading role.
Glen Andersen is the director of NCSL’s Energy Program.
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