More Green Hydrogen For The “Iron Bird” Of The Future

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If fossil gas stakeholders were pinning their hopes on fueling the hydrogen economy of the future, they might want to take a reality check. The US firm Plug Power, which bills itself as the biggest purveyor of mobility-oriented hydrogen fuel cells in the world, has committed itself to a green hydrogen transition. If all goes according to plan, Plug Power will also move beyond the humble fuel cell forklift for which it is known, and take to the skies.

green hydrogen fuel cell airplane Plug Power
Plug Power has a green hydrogen dream for flying fuel cells, coming sooner than you think (image courtesy of Plug Power).

From Bad Old Hydrogen To Good Green Hydrogen

That thing about green hydrogen is important because the main source of hydrogen today is natural gas, meaning fossil gas.

Green hydrogen can be sourced from water with renewable energy, among other sustainable pathways. The market is small now, but costs are nosediving rapidly, partly due to the falling cost of wind and solar energy. Don’t just take our word for it. Yesterday Goldman Sachs poked around and came up with an $11.7 trillion green H2 market by 2050 in Asia, the US, and Europe.

Plug Power has staked its business model on fossil gas, and the move to green hydrogen indicates that the company is positioning itself to take full advantage of low cost renewable energy while avoiding price volatility in the fossil fuel market.

That thing about climate change comes into play, as the global supply chain responds to consumer demand for products that can trace their sustainability back through the manufacturing line.

Green Hydrogen Fuels Renewable Energy Revolution In US

The main water pathway to green hydrogen involves electrolysis, in which an electrical current “splits” water molecules. Photoelectrochemistry is also beginning to emerge as another water-based pathway. That translates into new markets for wind and solar developers, including areas where electricity demand is relatively low part or all of the day/night cycle. Whenever excess wind or solar is at hand, it can go to work splitting water.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the big Plug Power move into green hydrogen.

Make that moves. Earlier today, Plug Power announced a formal Collaboration Agreement with the utility-scale renewable energy developer Apex Clean Energy. Under the new agreement, the partners plan to “accelerate the shift to clean energy and mutually promote the advancement of green hydrogen in the United States.”

The two companies plan on a network of green hydrogen projects, based on Apex’s renewable energy development.

“The relationship is expected to grow substantially over time, leveraging each other’s capabilities in hydrogen and renewable energy infrastructure development,” the company explained in a press release earlier today.

They also cite a McKinsey forecast of $2.5 trillion for the green hydrogen sector by 2050, so it looks like Goldman is rather optimistic. Or maybe McKinsey is too cautious.

Either way, Plug Power CEO Andy Marsh anticipates that the cost of green hydrogen will continue to fall alongside the declining cost of wind and solar energy, supporting the company’s aim of shifting to more than 50% green hydrogen within the next few years, by 2024.

“Green hydrogen represents a substantial growth opportunity for the broader renewable industry that accelerates decarbonizing the electric grid and producing clean hydrogen fuel to serve many industries,” Marsh explains.

More Good News For Green Hydrogen

Even earlier this morning, Plug Power also announced a new agreement with the firm Brookfield Renewable, which is part of a corporate network that bills itself as “one of the world’s largest publicly traded, pure-play renewable power platforms.”

Do tell! The agreement calls for Plug Power to source 100% renewable energy from Brookfield, which will go to power a planned electrolysis facility capable of producing 10 tons of liquid green hydrogen daily.

“Plug Power’s plant will be one of the first green hydrogen facilities in North America and is anticipated to be a part of a future network spanning across the continent,” Plug Power enthuses. “The green hydrogen generated by this network will support Plug Power’s mission to decarbonize the broader transportation and logistics industries, as well as to facilitate the anticipated rapid growth of the hydrogen economy.”

On its part, Brookfield sees a golden opportunity to pump additional value into its renewable energy portfolio.

Brookfield Renewable’s US CEO Chief Mitch Davidson put the partnership in a nationwide context, noting that his company lays claim to 7,300 megawatts worth of hydropower, wind, solar, and energy storage across in 34 states.

Sustainable Hydrogen Takes To The Skies

That’s quite a bit of good green news right there, but what really set the Intertubes humming yesterday was Plug Power’s announcement of a partnership Universal Hydrogen aimed at sending a hydrogen airplane into the skies (not to be confused with United Hydrogen, another Plug Power partner).

The idea of fuel cell aircraft has been around for a while, and Plug Power already offers a hydrogen fuel cell drone among its products. However, the new airplane plan is a different kettle of fish.

The partners will leverage Plug Power’s ProGen fuel cell technology “certify and fly the world’s first 2 megawatt hydrogen-electric aircraft powertrain.”

“The carbon-free propulsion system incorporates a lightweight Plug Power ProGen-based hydrogen fuel cell stack designed for aerospace applications and Universal Hydrogen’s modular hydrogen distribution and fuel delivery system,” Plug Power explained in a press release yesterday.

The idea is to convert a mid-sized regional turboprop aircraft like the Dash 8 or ATR42/72 and send it off on a range of up to 1,000 kilometers.

The 1,000 km mark is significant because it covers more than 90% of the routes traveled by air today.

According to Plug Power, 1,000 km is also much longer than the anticipated range for battery-powered flight.

This could all happen sooner rather than later. Universal has already paired up by the firm magniX for the aerospace end of things.

“As part of this program, Universal Hydrogen and Plug Power will integrate and test a full-scale, ground-based powertrain prototype — or iron bird,” Plug Power explains. “After a successful ground demonstration, the teams will retrofit the powertrain into the aircraft with flight test completion and regulatory approval under a supplemental type certificate (STC) expected by 2024.”

The upshot of all this is that the US could end up leading the globe into the green hydrogen economy of the future, despite the Commander-in-Chief’s cheerleading for the nation’s oil and gas stakeholders (coal not so much, in case you haven’t noticed).

What that means is more green jobs for a green COVID-19 recovery, regardless of the hot air blowing forth from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

A more supportive federal policy for green hydrogen and other renewables would make a difference, though the US Energy Department hasn’t been napping all this time either. Look for more sparks to fly — one way or the other — as the results of the November 3 elections come rolling in.

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Image: Hydrogen fuel cell mobility courtesy of Plug Power.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

Tina Casey has 3148 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey