11-state alliance launches to push CO2-free hydrogen

Source: By Miranda Willson, E&E News reporter • Posted: Sunday, November 22, 2020

A public-private partnership covering 11 Western states and two Canadian provinces launched this week to accelerate deployment of “green” hydrogen projects and related infrastructure in the West.

The Western Green Hydrogen Initiative (WGHI) — a partnership among the National Association of State Energy Officials, the Western Interstate Energy Board and the nonprofit Green Hydrogen Coalition — aims to act as the steering committee to help create a regional green hydrogen strategy in the West Coast, the Southwest, the Mountain West and western Canada.

While the group has identified a broad range of priorities, including addressing barriers facing green — or carbon-free — hydrogen production, an initial focus will be the potential for green hydrogen as an energy storage vessel. The initiative has early funding from Mitsubishi Power, a Tokyo-based company that plans to convert a coal-fired power plant in Utah to a green hydrogen plant to supply power to Utah and California communities (Energywire, March 11).

Unlike solar and wind energy, carbon-free hydrogen produced by water electrolysis can be stored and used to provide backup power during periods of intermittency.

“It enhances the diversity of our energy system in the West, because it can be stored as feedstock that could be available to assure that we’ve got greater resilience and energy security across the West, for all applications,” said Laura Nelson, executive director of the Green Hydrogen Coalition and former executive director of the Utah Office of Energy Development.

WGHI hopes to develop a policy road map for green hydrogen across the West, one that could act as a template for other regions, said Nelson.

“This is an initiative that can be replicated across the U.S. and globally,” she added.

Worldwide, announced green hydrogen projects have been on the rise, industry representatives say, and Morgan Stanley estimated in July that producing hydrogen using renewable power could be cost-competitive with hydrogen made using fossil fuels in the next two to three years (Energywire, Aug. 5). Some clean energy analysts and advocates, however, say the buzz is premature: Renewable hydrogen currently represents less than 1% of all hydrogen produced worldwide, according to Wood Mackenzie.

Despite the current high costs of green hydrogen, regulators and policymakers in the West are interested in finding ways to use green hydrogen to improve grid reliability and resilience, she said. Home to fast-growing states such as Idaho and Nevada, the West could see energy capacity shortfalls in “as near as two years,” according to Nelson.

In California, a small percentage of the renewable energy generated gets wasted every year because it cannot be used immediately or stored. WGHI’s interest in making use of that excessive solar and wind power to produce green hydrogen could therefore be beneficial for the Golden State and the region, said Bill Zobel, executive director of the California Hydrogen Business Council.

“It should be one of many tools to help balance out the renewable power on the grid,” Zobel said.

While California is currently the only state with a sizable hydrogen economy, WGHI intends to be a resource for all states in the region interested in green hydrogen. In the coming months and years, the group may look to help advance pipeline projects to transport hydrogen across state borders, which Mitsubishi has expressed interest in developing, Nelson said.

The group’s aim to help boost green hydrogen production could be beneficial for California, particularly as the state looks to ramp up fuel-cell electric vehicle deployment to achieve its goal of phasing out gasoline cars by 2035, said Bill Elrick, executive director of the California Fuel Cell Partnership.

“[WGHI] is going to take a piece of this puzzle, focus on it and help us develop this, which is an urgent need,” Elrick said.

DOE and California

WGHI’s launch came a week after the Department of Energy released a plan on its latest hydrogen research and development efforts, with the aim of lowering the cost of hydrogen production. It also coincided with the release of a report in California that said the state’s fuel-cell electric vehicle charging network could be self-sufficient within the decade if the state boosts funding for it.

The report, released this week by the California Air Resources Board (CARB), marks a shift for California’s fuel-cell vehicle industry, Elrick said. Unlike EV charging stations, fuel-cell charging generally isn’t feasible in home garages, so ample public stations are crucial for fuel-cell vehicle owners.

“This is the first time a state is saying not only can this be a self-sustaining market, but that we can do it in a decade. That’s huge,” Elrick said.

According to the CARB report, developing a self-sufficient fuel-cell vehicle network will come at a steep cost: The state will “most likely” need to allocate an additional $100 million to $400 million — on top of the $20 million allotted annually through a 2013 law — for the network of fueling stations to become sustainable and no longer require public subsidies, the report said.

It’s not clear where that funding will come from, but the fact that CARB assigned a number to the funding gap is a positive development for the future of hydrogen cars in California, Elrick said. While $100 million to $400 million might seem like a large expenditure, that type of investment will be necessary as California seeks to phase out gas cars, said David Reichmuth, a senior engineer in the Union of Concerned Scientists’ clean transportation program.

“If we want to achieve the goals the governor laid out in September, 100% zero-emissions vehicle sales by 2035 for passenger vehicles, we need to make the investments in infrastructure for plug-in and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles,” Reichmuth said.

The report, which is the culmination of a five-year research and evaluation initiative, also projects that state funding will represent a small portion of the money supporting the charging network. About 90% of investment in the network over the next 10 years is expected to come from private industry, the report said.

“This is the first time a state is saying not only can this be a self-sustaining market, but that we can do it in a decade. That’s huge,” Elrick said.