DOE-backed hydrogen pilot to tap Texas wind

Source: By David Iaconangelo, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, September 16, 2020

A Texas-based pilot project with backing from the Department of Energy is looking at how to drive down the cost of producing hydrogen fuel by making use of excess wind and solar power.

The first-of-a-kind pilot, backed by $10.8 million in startup funding, aims to speed up development of a hydrogen fuel that’s both low-carbon and low-cost. Project leaders hope to deploy a “dual-pathway” to the fuel by combining electrolysis, in which wind or solar power is used to split hydrogen from water molecules, with a production process that involves capturing landfill methane emissions.

The Texas-based pilot broke ground in July but wasn’t made public until yesterday by the nonprofit Gas Technology Institute and its for-profit engineering subsidiary Frontier Energy Inc. The project is based on the campus of the University of Texas, Austin.

Half of the project funding comes from DOE. Other partners include Shell and the utility Southern California Gas Co. Both have taken an interest in developing carbon-free alternatives to natural gas. Hydrogen producers like Air Liquide and OneH2, carmaker Toyota, and a Mitsubishi-owned wind farm are also involved in the project.

Their hope is to use excess renewable energy produced in Texas to create a more reliable, cost-effective hydrogen fuel, while turning to landfills’ methane as a substitute feedstock during periods of low solar and wind.

“I would love to see Texas compete in this area and show that it could be done in an effective way outside of California, and for low costs to be a driver, rather than it being motivated by regulation only,” said Nico Bouwkamp, a manager of the project from Frontier Energy.

A 2019 study by professors at Stanford University and the Technical University of Munich theorized about how the dual-pathway technique could be used, but the pilot will be the first real-world demonstration.

Bouwkamp said Texas was proposed as the site of the project because of its hydrogen pipeline infrastructure and the frequency with which its wind power operators have to curtail output.

The state also tends to rely less on regulation to introduce clean energy technologies than California or other states, he added.

But important parts of the pilot will be simulated, he noted.

Rather than using a direct stream of on-site wind power to make hydrogen, data from Mitsubishi’s wind farm will be used to model how that would transpire. And the “renewable natural gas” produced at an off-site landfill won’t be piped in for direct use, but will be accounted for as a kind of offset.

The actual hydrogen used in the three-year pilot will be generated at UT Austin via two methane reformers and an electrolyzer powered by solar, said Bouwkamp. The hydrogen will run an advanced computing research center as well as a fleet of fuel-cell-powered Toyota Mirai sedans.

Part of the $10.8 million will also fund a feasibility study into scaling up low-carbon hydrogen production in the Port of Houston, where existing pipelines already ship the element to Gulf Coast refineries. Industry partners will use the policies, regulations and economic cases outlined in the study to draw up a strategic action plan for policymakers.

“We can pull all this together and say, ‘Can we make this work from a financial perspective, without regulation forcing us to do so?'” Bouwkamp said. “That’s the exciting part for me.”