New US Fuel Cell Alliance Blows Dark Green Hydrogen Cloud Over Natural Gas
October 19th, 2020 by Tina Casey
A new manufacturing alliance has popped up in the US and it’s on a mission to replace diesel engines with fuel cells in trucks — and buses, aircraft, watercraft, off-road equipment, and locomotives, too. Since the main source of hydrogen is natural gas, that should send shivers of delight up the spines of fossil fuel fans, right? Maybe not! The stage is already set for renewable green hydrogen to take over. The main obstacle is cost, and an expanding fuel cell market would help build economies of scale and supply chain efficiencies into the green hydrogen field.
The Western State Hydrogen Alliance
The market for fuel cell vehicles in the US is mainly limited to California, where auto manufacturers are scrambling to meet emissions standards, so it’s only natural that the newly launched Western State Hydrogen Alliance has its sights set on the Golden State.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg, though. WSHA is aiming to promote fuel heavy duty fuel cell mobility throughout the west, covering not just one but 13 states from the Rocky Mountains all the way over to Hawaii (which is, despite some notions to the contrary, a US state).
The focus on replacing diesel is a key element. The car buying public has not been very kind to the idea of replacing gasmobiles with fuel cell cars, but interest in heavy duty fuel cell applications has been bubbling up among fleet owners.
Among the founding WSHA members are the legacy heavy hitters Ballard Power Systems, Hyundai, Capacity Trucks, and El Dorado National, joined by newcomers Golden Gate Zero Emission Marine, Plug Power, and The Protium Company.
They’re not fooling around. WSHA has recruited western legislators and other state officials to serve on its advisory board, including as Nevada State Senator Pat Spearman (D-North Las Vegas), Colorado State Senator Chris Hansen (D Denver), and Utah State Representative Melissa Ballard (R-Salt Lake City).
The organization’s Executive Director is Roxana Bekemohammadi, who points out that her childhood neighborhood near an industrial center of Los Angeles was a dirty place to grow up in, and it still ranks right down there in the 98th percentile for air pollution.
“I absolutely will not stop until zero-emission fuel cell electric vehicles have eliminated diesel pollution from our communities,” Bekemohammadi stated in a press release.
That sure doesn’t sound like someone who is a fan of natural gas, either.
Where Is The Green Hydrogen Angle?
To be clear, the launch announcement for WSHA focuses on the hydrogen fuel cell angle and zero tailpipe emissions, without mentioning where all the hydrogen will come from.
However, take a closer look at that member list and the seeds of a green revolution already appear to be sprouting.
For those of you new to the topic, green hydrogen refers to non-fossil sources. Much of the activity is focusing on electrolysis, in which an electrical current “splits” hydrogen from water. There are several other pathways to renewable hydrogen but electrolysis has emerged as the dominant technology, at least for now — preferably with renewable energy powering the process.
Ballard took a deep dive into the renewable energy angle last December, when it signed a green hydrogen agreement with the firm Hydrogene de France. HDF specializes in leveraging green hydrogen as an energy storage medium for wind and solar power. The partnership involves a mashup of Ballard’s fuel cells and HDF’s hydrogen generating system.
“HDF Energy’s Renewstable® power plant is a multi-MW baseload system enabling large-scale storage of intermittent renewable wind or solar energy in the form of hydrogen – through the process of electrolysis – as well as electricity generation using that hydrogen feedstock together with a fuel cell system,” explained Ballard. “This power plant can produce zero-emission power on a 24/7 basis from intermittent renewable energy, in order to support electrical grids.”
The partners have a global outlook. As described by Ballard CTO Kevin Colbow, the first phase of the partnership involves designing stationary fuel cell systems based on Ballard’s LCS fuel cell stack.
“Second, after HDF Energy incorporates these systems into their Renewstable® power plant in an initial project, we plan to proceed with a technology transfer program to enable HDF Energy to assemble these fuel cell systems for global market sales of their Renewstable® power plants,” he explained.
More Green Hydrogen Sprouting Up From Fossil Gas Ashes
The other WSHA members also have the potential to contribute to the green hydrogen trend. Hyundai has been dabbling in renewable H2, and Golden Gate launched its hydrogen fuel cell ferry with the goal of transitioning into green H2 where available.
Of particular interest is Plug Power, which launched its fuel cell business on a fossil gas platform. The company recently shifted onto the renewable H2 track with a focus on fuel cell flight, through partnerships with Apex Clean Energy and Brookfield Renewables.
The fossil-to-green transition is also being pushed along by a new gas turbine design trend. The new turbines are designed to handle a mix of green hydrogen and natural gas initially, then gradually switch to 100% green hydrogen over a period of years.
In that regard, take a look at this massive new hydrogen project taking shape over in Hannibal, Ohio, where the Long Ridge Energy Terminal is formulating plans for a 485-megawatt gas power plant slated to begin operating in November 2021 on a blend of 15-20% hydrogen.
For an initial test phase the hydrogen will come from waste gas produced at nearby industrial facilities, but once the plant is operational the plan is to draw water from the Ohio River to produce green hydrogen through electrolysis.
The project also involves a green hydrogen firm called Zero, which is a new division of the firm New Fortress Energy. New Fortress pitches itself as the go-to company for switching from oil to natural gas today, but it also proclaims that tomorrow it will be the “world’s largest provider of carbon-free power.”
That mission is tasked to Zero, which has the stated goal of transforming New Fortress into “one of the world’s leading providers of carbon-free power by replacing fossil fuels with renewable hydrogen.”
Rounding out the project are two other legacy firms transitioning out of the fossil business, GE for the turbines, and Black & Veatch for the hydrogen blending angle.
Another firm of interest is Mitsubishi, which introduced its new gas-to-hydrogen turbine on a trial basis in Utah. Now the firm is branching out with commercial-scale projects in Ohio, Virginia, and New York.
Here Comes The US Department Of Energy
Circling back around to WSHA, the group is poised to bring the case for zero emission mobility all the way over to the Atlantic coast, too.
That’s partly due to the influence of Ballard, which has signed on to the newly formed Zero Emission Trucks coalition. ZET argued the case for emission free trucks in an open letter to Congress last week, joined by a laundry list of other legacy engineering firms, truck manufacturers, startups, and environmental advocates.
Coincidentally or not, last week the US Department of Energy also launched a new 5-year, $100 million R&D initiative aimed at pushing down costs for fuel cells and green hydrogen.
That follows a newly announced hydrogen partnership between the US and The Netherlands, where policy makers are looking at green hydrogen as a means of developing the country’s considerable offshore wind resources.
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Image: Courtesy of Plug Power.
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