Calif. to host ‘game-changing’ renewable hydrogen plant

Source: By David Iaconangelo, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, May 20, 2020

A bioenergy company has reached a deal with a California city to build what it is calling the “world’s biggest green hydrogen production facility.”

Washington-based Solena Group Inc. says the facility will produce a form of renewable hydrogen — which can be used in vehicles and manufacturing — at the same cost as hydrogen produced from fossil fuels.

“This is game-changing technology,” said Rex Parris, the mayor of Lancaster, Calif., which is partnering with Solena.

Solena’s chief executive, Robert Do, says that the California plant will be able to produce 11,000 kilograms a day of synthetic gas, or the equivalent of fuel for about 2,200 fuel-cell cars.

Japan’s Fukushima Hydrogen Energy Research Field, which the country’s government described as the largest renewable hydrogen facility in the world when it began production in March, would produce 100 kilograms per hour, by comparison.

The Lancaster site — which will be about 70 miles north of Los Angeles — is expected to come online in the first quarter of 2023. It would churn out a hydrogen-rich synthetic gas using recycled mixed paper as a feedstock. That form of waste would normally end up in the city’s landfill, releasing greenhouse gases as it decomposes.

Instead, the company will turn the waste into the hydrogen syngas through a complex, ultra-high-temperature process that releases heat from the paper and combines it with heat applied from “plasma torches,” which were originally developed by NASA to simulate the stress experienced by space shuttles when they reenter the atmosphere. Once produced, the syngas will be trucked to hydrogen fuel-cell stations across the state, according to the company, which is in negotiations with station operators.

The method’s energy inputs involve some renewable electricity but not fossil fuels.

Overall, the emissions profile will qualify as renewable in California, said Do, meaning the company can collect low-carbon credits while selling its hydrogen to the operators of stations powering the state’s 10,000 or so fuel-cell cars.

Lancaster, meanwhile, will find a way to get rid of its waste paper and save on landfill costs as part of its goal of becoming the first city in the United States with net-zero carbon emissions.

Solena has had misfires in the past. In 2010, it signed a deal with British Airways to make a synthetic jet fuel using a version of its “plasma gasification” technology. That venture fell through when the price of oil collapsed, making the syngas less competitive with conventional jet fuel. A subsidiary of the company filed for bankruptcy protection in 2015.

This time, the company is counting on its years of experience at a Pennsylvania demonstration plant run by Westinghouse and Hitachi that uses the same technology planned in California, according to Do.

California’s climate goals, he added, will ensure demand for “renewable” hydrogen. By law, 33% of the hydrogen sold at the state’s growing network of fuel-cell stations has to come from renewable sources, and transit agencies in Los Angeles and elsewhere are investing in heavy-duty applications.

The company has its eye on selling its hydrogen to cement makers and natural gas companies, which could use it to heat homes.

“The hydrogen market is just getting started now, with people trying to decarbonize,” said Do. “This is the fuel of the future.”

Cutting costs

Many energy system researchers say that hydrogen will need to become nearly ubiquitous if the world is to transition off of fossil fuels, stepping in where batteries run up against physical limitations, like for long-haul trucking or heavy industry.

But the high price tag on electrolyzers — the machines that use wind or solar power to separate hydrogen from water molecules — means that the vast majority of hydrogen is produced with methods that involve natural gas or coal.

Even most hydrogen industry representatives say renewable varieties remain years away from being cost-competitive.

One study, published last year by economists at Stanford University and the Technical University of Munich, raised eyebrows when it projected that by 2030, renewable hydrogen would match the price of fossil fuel versions when produced at industrial scale (Energywire, Feb. 28, 2019).

A January report from the Hydrogen Council, an industry association, suggested that cost parity could come even sooner but would require about $20 billion in global investment and a seventyfold increase in electrolyzer deployment.

Solena, by contrast, says that it can hit cost parity — roughly $2 to $3 per kilogram of hydrogen — as soon as its plant comes online. It estimates that the plant’s cost will come to just $55 million.

“There’s no question that electrolysis is expensive. What we’re trying to do is complement it,” said Do.

Solena would create its own niche for hydrogen, he added. “We are the only company in the world delivering green hydrogen that is cost-competitive with the cheapest, dirtiest hydrogen made from coal and gas, and much less expensive than other green hydrogen.”