If US President-Elect Joe Biden doesn’t do the fossil fuel industry any favors, he’ll only be following in the footsteps of outgoing President* Donald J. Trump. Intentionally or not, Trump has already overseen the demise of the domestic coal, oil, and natural gas industries. The latest development occurred right around Election Day, when a $7 billion, 20-year plan to export liquid natural gas from the US to France suddenly evaporated. That could have something to do with the launch of a new investor-driven green hydrogen R&D center in Europe, and Trump’s own Department of Energy is determined to mirror the hydrogen angle right here in the US.
What Is This Green Hydrogen Of Which You Speak?
President* Trump won the Oval Office in 2016 with a promise to save coal jobs, but it’s been downhill for coal, oil, and gas ever since. The writing was already on the wall during the Obama administration, as leading US and global businesses lined up in favor of wind and solar power. Private sector dollars have continued to energize the wind and solar industries all throughout Trump’s tenure, with a generous assist from the US Department of Energy, no less.
What few were talking about during the 2016 election cycle was the potential for green hydrogen to pull the rug out from under the US fossil fuel industry, especially in regards to shale gas.
Hydrogen has been a major force propping up the fossil gas industry, because hydrogen does not exist on its own. It has to be extracted from something, and for generations that something has been fossil gas.
They should have seen it coming. Hydrogen is a widely used industrial chemical, with applications in fuel, food processing, refining, metallurgy, fertilizer production, medicines, and personal care products to name a few. A whole lot of sustainability-curious companies would be very interested in the idea of cleaning up their supply chains by ditching fossil-sourced hydrogen.
CleanTechnica caught a whisper of a hint of a sustainability makeover for hydrogen back in August of 2015 during a visit to Switzerland, where researchers were zeroing in on something called power-to-gas.
Power-to-gas refers to electrolysis systems, which deploy electricity to split hydrogen gas from water. That’s a sustainability no-go if the electricity comes from a fossil power plant, but the advent of low-cost wind and solar power is changing the game, in more ways than one.
Wind and solar are intermittent resources, so they also unlock the energy storage and transportation value in hydrogen. As an energy carrier, hydrogen can store renewable energy in bulk, for long periods of time. Hydrogen can also be transported by pipeline, truck, ship, or rail, which means that it can be deployed to overcome gaps or transmission bottlenecks in electricity infrastructure.
Sure enough, in November of 2015 the US Department of Energy included green power-to-gas in a group of six “transformational” energy projects to be funded through its ARPA-E office.
Green hydrogen is good news for fans of fuel cell passenger cars, but that’s just one small aspect of the market potential. Fuel cell activity is picking up in long-haul trucking, maritime operations, and aircraft, and green. Steel makers and cement makers are also among the high carbon industries with an interest in transitioning to hydrogen-powered operations.
Green Hydrogen Up, Fossil Gas Down
That brings us right up to the 2020 General Election. In October, just four weeks before Election Day, the Energy Department decided it would be a good idea to announce a new clean power R&D partnership with the Netherlands, a nation that is all over green hydrogen like white on rice due to its rich offshore wind resources, which the US also happens to have in abundance.
Also in October, the Energy Department announced the formation of a new R&D consortium aimed squarely at green hydrogen for the fuel cell industry, which builds on its other sustainable hydrogen initiative launched in June.
As if those flags weren’t red enough for US gas stakeholders, in October the government of France put the stinkeye on a proposed liquid natural gas deal that would bring shale-sourced LNG from the US to France. The deal was to have been brokered by the global firm Engie on behalf of the US gas firm NextDecade.
This is all in a shaky past tense, because last week, Engie let word slip that the plan was all but dead. Perhaps NextDecade can find some other deal maker, but according to our friends over at SP Global, the firm has already delayed the start of construction on its planned Rio Grande LNG facility more than once.
Somewhat ironically, Trump’s own environmental policies may have helped quash the deal. Environmental advocates have pointed out that US shale gas does not comply with France’s climate action goals due Trump’s relaxation of methane emission rules.
If shale gas stakeholders are looking to the US petrochemical industry for salvation, they may want to guess again. Plans for a network of five new petrochemical plants in Pennsylvania and Ohio have been falling apart over the past several years, and a massive new $9 billion petrochemical facility in Louisiana ran into a roadblock last week, when the US Army Corps of Engineers suspended its permit.
Nuclear Energy Not Looking So Hot These Days, Either
It’s not just the Netherlands. The whole EU has been showcasing green hydrogen for a while now, and the activity is picking up as part of EU green recovery planning.
That’s where this new green hydrogen R&D enterprise comes in, and that’s where things get interesting for nuclear energy stakeholders.
Of all the publicity events surrounding the signing of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, one particular attention-getter was the new Breakthrough Energy Coalition and its Breakthrough Energy investor group, co-founded by leading clean power fan Bill Gates.
At the time, Gates was including nuclear energy in the clean power slot under a firm called TerraPower, but as far as Breakthrough goes, those plans appear to be slow-walking as the green hydrogen trend picks up steam.
Last week, Breakthrough announced that it is supporting a new green hydrogen R&D venture under the banner of the leading sustainable energy center EIT InnoEnergy.
Dubbed the European Green Hydrogen Acceleration Center, the new project is eyeballing “the development of an annual €100 billion green hydrogen economy by 2025 that could create half a million direct and indirect jobs across the green hydrogen value chain,” through the “substantial displacement of hydrocarbons in energy intensive industrial applications (i.e. steel, cement, chemicals), heavy transport (i.e. maritime and heavy duty) and fertilisers.”
“Green hydrogen can also be used to store energy, which makes it a key enabler for the expansion of volatile renewable sources, in particular wind and solar energy,” EIT InnoEnergy also points out.
Also lending its firepower to the energy storage angle is the European Battery Alliance.
As for the green recovery angle, according to Breakthrough Energy senior director Ann Mettler the EU’s plans for a green recovery make it “the perfect launching pad for the European Green Hydrogen Acceleration Center.”
“Building on the political momentum, the Center will use green hydrogen as a driver for the deep decarbonisation of European industry,” Mettler enthuses. “Against this backdrop, it will create a pipeline of pioneering large-scale projects, launch a new generation of public-private partnerships and accelerate the speed of delivery from mega- to gigawatts.”
If that doesn’t sound like good new for fossil gas, it isn’t. It could also spell trouble for the nuclear industry as well.
Once upon a time, nuclear fans had an idea that nuclear power plants could piggyback on green hydrogen production, but that idea is losing its luster as the cost of wind and solar power continues to fall, alongside the growth of companion technologies like floating solar panels, distributed wind turbines, and pumped storage hydropower.
A quick look over at the US demonstrates that trouble is a-brewing among the very few new conventional nuclear power plants to sprout up, way behind schedule and way over budget.
The US nuclear industry has been pinning its hopes on a new approach that involves assembling small scale, modular nuclear power plants in a factory, and then shipping them out for installation.
Unfortunately for nuclear fans, the idea appears to have hit a brick wall.
A company called NuScale was set to install 12 modular nuclear power plants on the grounds of the Energy Department’s Idaho National Laboratory, and the arrangement got a shot of adrenaline in October, in the form of a $1 billion grant from the Energy Department.
Nevertheless, 8 of the 36 utilities that signed on to the plan turned tail and ran in recent weeks. As reported by our friends over at Science magazine, the bailouts followed a dire announcement by the plant’s intended buyer, Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, which projected a 3-year delay and an additional $1.9 billion in cost, pushing the completion date back to 2030 at a total cost of $6.1 billion.
Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that Idaho National Laboratory has a longstanding hydrogen research program under its belt, and it is also one of the Energy Department labs spearheading that new sustainable hydrogen consortium.
Also, Utah is the scene of a major new energy project that will transition a coal power plant into an initial mix of fossil gas and green hydrogen, deploying new Mitsubishi turbines that are designed to handle 100% hydrogen whenever available.
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Photo: “Dr. Dong Ding (right) and his GEM fellow student, Joshua Gomez (Left) are checking a house-made solid oxide electrolysis cell, which will be used for hydrogen production through high temperature steam electrolysis” (credit: Idaho National Laboratory via Eurekalert).