File this one under D for Don’t let the door hit you on your way out. Outgoing President* Trump blew a lot of hot air about saving coal jobs, but he leaves office with the US coal industry in tatters. Domestic oil and gas producers are also looking at a not-so-bright future, and part of the reason is the President’s failure to rein in the many renewable energy fans who populate his own administration. For example, the US Department of Energy has just announced a new all-hands-on-deck effort aimed at busting through walls to welcome the hydrogen economy of the future, with a strong focus on green hydrogen.
A Man, No Plan, Green Hydrogen
Trump made coal jobs a centerpiece of his 2016 campaign, but he dropped the whole idea just two years after taking office, so apparently there was no job-saving coal plan after all. Oh well, it’s all water under the bridge now.
The Energy Department’s new Hydrogen Program Plan builds on a raft of new and longstanding R&D projects and partnerships across multiple in-house offices, including Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, Fossil Energy, Nuclear Energy, Electricity, Science, and the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy.
If you caught that thing about the Fossil and Nuclear offices being involved in the new plan, that’s not such great news for green hydrogen fans. Nevertheless, the Hydrogen Plan is source neutral, so fossils get their share of attention.
On the bright side, momentum is already building for sped-up climate action during President-Elect Joe Biden’s term in office. That puts fossil hydrogen stakeholders at a huge disadvantage when the rubber hits the marketing road, and they will keep falling behind as the cost of producing green hydrogen keeps dropping.
Nuclear stakeholders may be able to make a better case for their piece of the future hydrogen pie, but that remains to be seen (more on that in a second).
Fossil Hydrogen Vs. Green Hydrogen
For those of you new to the green hydrogen topic, think of hydrogen as the grease that lubes the wheels of an industrialized economy. Hydrogen has recently emerged as a fuel for fuel cell electric vehicles, including forklifts, watercraft, aircraft, locomotives, and drones, in addition to its longstanding use as rocket fuel. Stationary hydrogen fuel cells are also coming into vogue as a substitute for diesel generators.
Fuel cells are just the tip of the hydrogen market iceberg. Hydrogen is widely used in all sorts of applications, including agriculture, food production, and toiletries, in addition to refinery operations, metal work, and other heavy industries.
What did people do before hydrogen? Who knows! Today’s world runs on hydrogen, and almost all of that hydrogen is produced from coal and gas. Here in the US gas has a particularly strong grip, accounting for about 95% of domestic hydrogen production.
Fortunately, green hydrogen alternatives are beginning to emerge. The new Hydrogen Plan covers biogas and biomass feedstocks for hydrogen, which is interesting because stakeholders in that area can draw on the skill set and supply chain of conventional hydrogen production.
The plan also covers water as a source for green hydrogen, one main pathway being to “split” water with an electrical current. Heat-based water-to-hydrogen processes are also emerging, and another variation is to produce hydrogen from water through a photoelectrochemical reaction.
What Is This Water-Splitting Of Which You Speak?
Let’s zero in on that water angle, since that seems to be the most exotic approach from a clean tech perspective. Also, water-sourced hydrogen doesn’t make any sense if the energy to produce it comes from fossil fuels, but the advent of low cost wind and solar power has changed the game.
The Hydrogen Plan waxes enthusiastic over electrolysis, foreseeing “near-term commercial viability” for widespread commercial application.
The plan also suggests how a network of electrolysis facilities could play right into the Energy Department’s focus on promoting distributed energy resources and reducing the cost of renewable energy, including wind as well as solar.
“These electrolyzers can be coupled to the electric grid, or integrated directly with distributed-generation assets to produce hydrogen for various end uses,” the Energy Department enthuses, noting that the “cost of hydrogen produced from low-temperature electrolysis depends strongly on the electricity cost: it currently ranges from $5–$6/kg-H2 for electricity pricing in the $0.05–$0.07/kWh range.”
“The availability of lower-cost electricity — for example, in the $0.02–$0.03/kWh range from emerging wind and solar assets — coupled with ongoing advancements in electrolyzer technologies offers a pathway to cost-competitive hydrogen, at less than $2/kg,” the Energy Department adds.
The Hydrogen Plan offers a tantalizing list of cutting edge technologies to embrace in the R&D fold, including high-temperature electrolyzers, and reversible fuel cells as well as various heat-based chemical processes and our new favorite subject (well, not so new), light-driven photoelectrochemical processes.
So, What’s All This About Energy Storage?
The Hydrogen Plan is a soup-to-nuts document that covers transportation and storage as well as production, and with that in mind, let’s take a closer look at two angles that are not very close to the hearts of renewable energy advocates: nuclear energy and carbon capture.
The basic idea is that hydrogen could compete with pumped hydro as a long duration, high bulk form of energy storage, which is something that the Energy Department has been pursuing as a substitute for building new gas power plants.
The advantage is that hydrogen is transportable by road, rail, pipeline, and waterway. In contrast, pumped hydro is tied to existing electricity infrastructure, or it requires the construction of new transmission lines.
So, for example, a nuclear power plant could produce hydrogen at night when electricity demand is low, and that hydrogen could go to various markets including industrial uses as well as fuel and electricity generation.
The same idea is in play for coal power plants, as a companion piece to carbon capture technology.
Nuclear and coal stakeholders may not want to uncork the bubbly just yet, though. Piggybacking hydrogen production onto existing nuclear power plants may provide a financial boost over the short term, but the prospects for a crop of new nuclear power plants to spring up in the US are growing dimmer by the hour.
Maybe nuclear fans can count on markets overseas, so we’ll see what happens there.
Fossil Hydrogen Down, Green Hydrogen Up
As for carbon capture at coal power plants, that’s not fooling anybody. The global economy is swinging towards sustainability, and not just because a handful of high profile environmental advocates are hammering away at the topic of climate change. Leading global corporations are responding to widespread consumer demand for sustainable products. They are leaning on their supply chains to clean up their acts, and that provides the market for green hydrogen with a practically unbeatable advantage in the years ahead.
It seems that the Energy Department has already thrown in the fossil towel. In the weeks leading up to the release of the new Hydrogen Plan, the agency formed a new hydrogen collaboration with the Netherlands, leveraging offshore wind resources.
To the extent that pumped storage hydro could come into play for green hydrogen, the Energy Department’s chairing of an international conference on pumped storage hydro is also of interest. In a curious twist of timing, the virtual conference took place right on Election Day.
Then there’s the green hydrogen and fuel cell truck plan pitched by the Energy Department in October. That’s just the recent news. Trump’s final year in office was marked by a flurry of hydrogen news from the Energy Department, beginning with a major new energy storage initiative that launched in January.
Look for plenty more where that came from, even before the soon-to-be-former President slinks out of the White House — hey watch that door!
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Image (screenshot): Hydrogen Plan via US Department of Energy.