Power-to-gas technology has been floating around on the CleanTechnica radar for several years now, and it looks like the great state of Maine could be the first in the US to push it into the mainstream. That’s good news for fans of renewable hydrogen, because renewable hydrogen is what puts the gas in power-to-gas. The question is, why Maine?
Renewable Hydrogen: Why Now?
For those of you new to the topic, power-to-gas involves “splitting” hydrogen gas from water through a chemical reaction driven by an electrical current (or a photoelectrochemical reaction, as the case may be).
In other words, there you have renewable hydrogen.
It’s not quite that simple from a planet-saving perspective. If the electricity for water-splitting is generated from fossil fuels, then “renewable” hydrogen is dragging a long, dirty supply chain and deserves to have scary quotes-marks.
That was the case up until recently. Now that wind, solar, and other renewables have gone mainstream, renewable hydrogen production is a whole new ballgame.
Renewable hydrogen still isn’t out of the woods yet, though. Power-to-gas seems to be on the verge of going mainstream, but commercial water-splitting systems are barely dipping a toe into the market, and questions of cost and scale are yet to be settled.
Nevertheless, activity in the renewable hydrogen field is on the uptick, with projects under way around the globe. That includes here in the US, where the Department of Energy is actively promoting renewable hydrogen and fuel cell R&D through public-private partnerships.
Renewable Hydrogen: Why Maine?
That brings us to Maine. In several important ways, Maine illustrates how local and regional factors can provide the right mix of circumstances to support a utility-scale commitment to renewable hydrogen.
Maine’s emerging position in the US power-to-gas vanguard is the subject of a new article in The Portland Press Herald last Saturday, by staff writer Tux Turkel. Support local journalism and follow the link for all the details, but for those of you go the gist of it is location, location, location.
“The transmission lines connecting Maine’s far-flung renewable generators to the regional electric grid sometimes are too weak to carry all their power. When that happens, grid operators order generators to reduce output or even stop running, to prevent overloading and jeopardizing reliable service.”
By “renewable generators” Turkel means wind farms and solar arrays along with hydropower, biomass, and agricultural gas. The state is already awash in various forms of renewable energy and it hasn’t even begun to tap into its offshore wind resources yet.
In other words, there is a major renewable energy bottleneck in Maine.
Something has to give. The obvious solution would be to upgrade the transmission system to handle more renewable energy, but it appears that policy makers are shy of making that commitment due to its high cost.
Energy storage could be a more economical solution, and then the question is, what kind of energy storage. Lithium-ion batteries are one option, but they are primarily useful for relatively short periods of time, for example during peak demand periods.
That’s where water-splitting comes in. Think of hydrogen as a form of energy storage, and the picture comes into focus. Hydrogen can store energy in bulk from renewable resources for days, weeks, or longer (btw long duration energy storage is another focus of Energy Department activity).
One Step Beyond Renewable Hydrogen
A gas company operating in Maine called Summit Natural Gas is already considering the idea of generating renewable hydrogen with clean power and storing it in the state’s existing gas pipeline network.
That’s the approach emerging in Europe, one of the hotspots for power-to-gas R&D.
The basic idea is to conserve financial resources by using existing infrastructure where possible. Pipelines certainly fit the bill in the US, where gas transmission pipelines sprawl through every state on the continent.
Gas distribution companies and other stakeholders are casting around for ways to stay relevant as the economy decarbonizes, so that would certainly make them happy.
On the downside, it’s possible that the falling cost of power-to-gas (remember what happened to the cost of wind and solar!) could incentivize the construction of new pipelines.
In addition, Turkel notes the potential for producing methane gas by recombining renewable hydrogen with carbon. That could help monetize carbon capture, but it opens up a whole ‘nother can of worms from a planet-saving perspective.
Policy, Policy, Policy
Another factor working in Maine’s favor is the interest of state policy makers in promoting the sparkling green hydrogen economy of the future.
In 2016 the Department of Energy issued a “state of the states” report on hydrogen activity in the US. Maine did not make the top of the list (California gets the top H2 spot), but it is part of the “Northeast Electrochemical Energy Storage Cluster” along with Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont.
Among those seven states, hydrogen and fuel cell activity contributed almost $1.4 billion in revenue and investment to the regional economy in 2015, and more than 6,550 jobs (including indirect and induced jobs) with a labor income of approximately $620 million.
Adding to the economic pie, the 2015 tax revenues related to hydrogen and fuel cell activity among the seven states totaled more than $83 million.
As for offshore wind, that’s a difficult dance for Maine where tourism and the fishing industry compete for space in the water. Nevertheless, the state is looking into floating wind turbines that could be hitched in deep waters farther offshore, where the competition is less fierce.
The Electrochemical Energy Storage Cluster is administered by the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology and CleanTechnica is checking in with them for an update, so stay tuned for more on that.
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Infographic: via US Department of Energy.