With Coal Dead, Department Of Energy Lobs Green Hydrogen Brick At Natural Gas

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With the US coal industry collapsing, we now turn our attention to natural gas. Yesterday the Department of Energy announced a major new green hydrogen initiative with The Netherlands, which builds on a raft of other international collaborations aimed at squeezing natural gas out of the H2 market. Wait — why the Netherlands?

green hydrogen USA Netherlands
In a deal that spells doom for natural gas, the US and The Netherlands have launched a new green hydrogen partnership (image via US DOE).

Green Hydrogen & The Netherlands

For the record, CleanTechnica was there first. Shortly after Trump took office in 2017, we noticed a strange disconnect — okay, so a yawning chasm — between President* Trump’s enthusiasm for saving coal jobs and the flurry of renewable energy activity undertaken by the Energy Department. The agency has been pursuing clean power and energy storage all the way through Trump’s stay in the Oval Office, right on up to yesterday’s green hydrogen announcement.

Initially, the main force driving coal out of the US power generation market was low cost natural gas, but Trump’s ham-handed attempts to influence the market early in his administration did not work out as planned for coal.

However, the cost of renewable energy is now down to the point where every household in the nation will have access to affordable solar power by 2025. Hey, don’t look at us — that’s the Energy Department talking.

As for the Netherlands, that’s easy — and it should send a shiver up the spine of natural gas stakeholders. The Netherlands is a case in point for the use of green hydrogen as an energy storage and transportation medium. In addition to generating electricity in a fuel cell, hydrogen can be moved over long distances in bulk by ship, truck, or pipeline.

The Netherlands has far more offshore wind potential than its can use onshore, and green hydrogen would enable it to offload all those clean kilowatts without having to engage in the expense of building major new transmission lines.

Green Hydrogen & The US

Wait, doesn’t the US also have more offshore wind resources than it can use? Maybe, maybe not, but building major new transmission lines in the US is easier said than done, so the challenge is how to move those offshore kilowatts over to onshore markets. For that matter, the US midsection has plenty of onshore wind power on its own and is already beginning to roll sustainable hydrogen into the mix.

Add in the potential for small scale, distributed wind projects to crank out green hydrogen all over the US to accommodate the domestic market, and we’re thinking that the Energy Department is thinking that green hydrogen could be the next big US energy export.

Just saying! Anyways, that’s what the Netherlands is thinking, and come to think of it, Australia is also eyeballing the green hydrogen market as a nifty way to export its vast wind and solar resources.

Collaborating On The COVID-19 Recovery, Hydrogen Style

For those of you new to the topic, all this should give nightmares to natural gas stakeholders because, right now, natural gas (aka fossil gas) is the primary source of hydrogen for fuel. Hydrogen also plays a huge role in the global agriculture and food processing sectors among other applications.

Growth in the global hydrogen market would be a lifeline for natural gas stakeholders now that the power generation market is beginning to slip from their grasp, except not if the sustainable hydrogen trend catches hold.

Nailing down a more sustainable source for hydrogen would be a big plus for renewable energy investors while creating many new green jobs, just in time for the green COVID-19 recovery to gather momentum.

Renewable hydrogen can be produced from landfill gas and other bio-based sources, but much of the R&D has focused on punching hydrogen out of plain old water, by applying an electrical current.

The technical word for that is electrolysis. From a sustainability perspective, electrolysis makes no sense if your electricity is coming from the local coal or gas power plant. With the advent of low-cost renewable energy, the pieces fall into place.

For those of you keeping score at home, photoelectrochemical devices and thermochemistry are also in the water-splitting mix, but it appears that the the new US-Netherlands hydrogen collaboration is focusing like a thousand points of light on electrolysis.

The two newly minted partners announced a statement of intent yesterday that ropes in the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy’s Directorate General for Climate and Energy with the Energy Department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and its Office of Technology Transitions.

“EERE and DOE’s Office of Technology Transitions (OTT) will leverage technical expertise and state-of-the-art equipment and facilities at DOE’s National Labs to validate the performance and durability of electrolyzers, which produce renewable hydrogen using water and electricity,” enthused the Energy Department.

The partners will also work towards synchronizing safety measures and other codes and standards, including hydrogen and natural gas blending.

Wait, What Is The Office Of Technology Transitions?

If you never heard about the Office of Technology Transitions before, join the club. CleanTechnica has spilled plenty of ink over the goings-on at EERE, but OTT has pretty much sailed under the radar.

Well, we’re going to have to sit up and pay attention to this obscure office that could play a big role in the sparkling green future of tomorrow.

OTT launched in 2015 during the Obama administration and it looks like somebody forgot to tell it to quit pulling the rug out from under fossil fuels.

“The Mission of the Office of Technology Transitions is to expand the commercial impact of the Department of Energy’s research and development portfolio to advance the economic, energy, and national security interests of the Nation,” explains OTT, adding that “OTT is the front door to DOE’s products, facilities and expertise. The office integrates ‘market pull’ into its planning to ensure the greatest return on investment from DOE’s R&D activities to the taxpayer.”

To be clear, OTT is not exclusively focused on clean tech. However, in 2018 — yes, during the Trump administration — the Energy Department shifted an EERE technology-to-market office into OTT.

Coal Down, Sustainable Hydrogen Up

Circling back around to the new US–Netherlands announcement, it is interesting to note that EERE Assistant Secretary Daniel R. Simmons was tasked with explaining things to the public.

“This partnership will help address key hydrogen R&D areas, pave the way for at-scale hydrogen demonstrations, and foster new national, regional, and worldwide hydrogen value chains,” he said. “As EERE-supported hydrogen and fuel cell technologies continue to gather momentum, we, as well as DOE’s Office of Technology Transitions, are pleased to be spearheading this collaboration.”

If you caught that thing about “worldwide,” run right out and buy yourself a cigar. Simmons climbed aboard the EERE wagon in 2017, fresh from a stint fighting against renewable energy at the fossil fuel think tank Institute for Energy Research.

Now here he is touting global domination for green hydrogen, and the Netherlands is just the tip of the green iceberg. The partners will coordinate their activities with other ongoing international collaborations, including the International Partnership for Hydrogen and Fuel Cells in the Economy, the International Energy Agency, the global Mission Innovation initiative, the Clean Energy Ministerial, and the Hydrogen Energy Ministerial.

Simmons isn’t the only one following the money. With the notable exception of Exxon, leading global oil and gas companies are pivoting to renewables with varying degrees of speed.

For that matter, the Commander-in-Chief himself quickly dropped the whole idea of saving coal jobs like a hot potato soon after moving into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. He caused a minor uproar by failing to mention the US coal industry in his 2019 State of the Union address, and it’s been cricket chirps ever since.

By the way, here’s a link to a New York Times coal story everyone is talking about. If you can find any angles not previously covered by CleanTechnica, drop us a note in the comment thread.

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*Developing story.

Image: Hydrogen network via US DOE.

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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.

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