Fossil energy stakeholders who thought they voted a pal into the White House back in 2016 are not quite getting what they thought they were getting. The execs at the top of the heap are making out okay, as one does, but everyone else is looking down a long, deep tub of despair as the global economy decarbonizes. That’s tub, as in no light at the end of the tunnel. To twist the knife one last time before a new President takes the helm, the US Department of Energy has just earmarked $128 million for sustainable transportation R&D, including $33 million for green hydrogen and other fossil-killing hydrogen projects.
$33 Million For Hydrogen — Make That Green Hydrogen
Let’s focus in on that green hydrogen angle. Activity in that area is heating up fast on a global level, and it looks like the Energy Department is aiming to vault the US into contention regardless of what the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has promised to whom.
Hydrogen is a zero emission fuel, a transportable energy storage medium, and a widely used molecule in industry and agriculture all together at once. That seems nice, but the accelerating demand for hydrogen fuel cells is pushing up the demand for hydrogen, which is bad news for the climate because almost all of the world’s hydrogen comes from natural gas and other fossil sources.
That’s beginning to change. Whether it can change fast enough to help stave off catastrophic global warming is an open question, but the Energy Department and its private sector partners have been pursuing green hydrogen from renewable resources all throughout the Trump* administration.
The $33 million will go to a suite of projects aimed at supporting DOE’s ongoing H2@Scale initiative, which covers pretty much the whole hydrogen economy in addition to transportation.
“H2@Scale is a concept that explores the potential for wide-scale hydrogen production and utilization in the United States to enable resiliency of the power generation and transmission sectors, while also aligning diverse multibillion dollar domestic industries, domestic competitiveness, and job creation,” enthuses DOE’s Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technologies.
Green Hydrogen Gets The Heat Treatment
It seems all that talk about about “US energy dominance” left out the part where fossil energy workers would get a fair shake, but that’s water under the bridge. The new round of $33 million in funding will partner hydrogen and fuel cell stakeholders with DOE’s sprawling network of national laboratories and academic collaborators.
They’ll be working with two major, newly minted hydrogen and fuel cell consortia under the DOE umbrella, one for heavy-duty fuel cell trucks and the other for green hydrogen through electrolysis.
For those of you new to the topic, electrolysis refers to splitting hydrogen from water with electricity. CleanTechnica started covering the idea back in 2015 under the moniker of power-to-gas, back when renewable energy was more expensive than it is today. Now that wind and solar power have been walloping fossil energy on the bottom line, the water-splitting angle has taken off like a rocket. However, it seems that ordinary electrolysis is not the be-all and end-all for DOE.
The new round of funding will aim partly at something called high-temperature electrolysis, which drifted over the CleanTechnica radar back in 2018. The idea behind high-T is to leverage other technology, such as concentrating solar power, to ramp up the scale of green hydrogen production.
Taking a closer look at the funding opportunity announcement, we see that goal is to increase “the production volume of advanced components, stacks, sub-systems, and systems for multi-MW-scale high-temperature electrolyzers to lower hydrogen production costs.”
There are some significant technology and materials hurdles to overcome in the high-T area, mainly on account of the heat. However, it seems that DOE is banking that much of the heavy lifting has already been done. Now the focus is on lowering the cost of manufacturing high-T electrolyzers.
“Applicants are encouraged to focus on existing commercial manufacturing techniques rather than entirely novel approaches,” DOE explains. “Applicants are expected to leverage innovations/approaches including reduced part count, increased automation, in-line diagnostics, improved materials deposition processes, and reduced high temperature firing steps.”
Putting The Squeeze On Fossil Energy
If you’re guessing that the energy input for high-T electrolysis is source neutral, that’s a good guess. Back in 2014, a DOE analysis included nuclear and fossil-powered processes.
Nuclear energy still has a chance to make the cut, but it looks like DOE is really giving the bum’s rush to fossil energy.
Take a look at the infographic that illustrates the H2@Scale webpage. Just a few years ago it included an icon for fossil energy input along with one icon to cover all renewables. Now it’s hedging with “fossil with CCUS,” meaning fossil power with carbon capture, which nobody is taking seriously any more, at least not in the US.
The Energy Department’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory also uses another version of the same infographic. This one cuts fossil inputs completely out of the picture and bumps up the status of renewable energy, by giving separate icons each to wind, solar panels, concentrating solar power, and geothermal.
Speaking of concentrating solar power, that area has come in for its share of criticism due to relatively high costs for electricity production. The high-T hydrogen production angle could help justify the extra cost, so stay tuned for more on that.
Here Comes The Hydrogen Economy
All this is by way of saying that the transition to a hydrogen economy would have been a lifeline for fossil energy stakeholders just a few years ago, only now it’s not, because the sparking green hydrogen economy of the future will not necessarily rely on fossil inputs.
Improving the performance of high-T systems is just one element in the new funding round. Some of the funding will also go to improve processes for producing green hydrogen from biomass and waste, with a focus on the area of microbial systems, fermentation, and other next-generation processes.
Heavy-duty hydrogen fuel cells will also get attention. Truck manufacturers seem to be making a pivot out of diesel and into hydrogen.
In support of the truck area, some of the funds will go to develop low-cost fueling stations that enable truckers to fuel up rapidly. The aim is to create a network of high-volume, quick-throughput hydrogen fuel stations, with the hydrogen sourced domestically, if not locally or even hyper-locally with on site hydrogen production.
The transportation angle really is just for starters. The umbrella round of $128 million is billed as a “Sustainable Transportation Research” initiative, but there seems to be quite a bit of leeway in there.
The Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technologies Office has set a piece of its $33 million funding pie aside for techno-economic analysis, with a particular focus on grid resiliency (presumeably including energy storage), data centers, and steelmaking in addition to heavy-duty transportation.
The US is a little late to the green hydrogen table compared to other nations, but keep an eye on offshore wind power hotspots like Maine and Louisiana (yes, Louisiana) for a preview of the sea change in store after President-Elect Joe Biden takes office.
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