If it seems like the whole country has gone bonkers over hydrogen, that’s no accident. The US Department of Energy is offering up a new $8 billion pot of funding to create Regional Clean Hydrogen Hubs around the country. The emphasis is on clean, not green, which covers a lot of territory. That could give states in the northeastern US a huge advantage, and they seem determined to make the most of it.
Clean Hydrogen Prospects In The US Northeast: It’s Complicated
The northeast US is broadly defined as a region that includes 11 states — Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania — along with Washington, DC.
That would seem to put the northeast in play for a Regional Clean Hydrogen hub. It has all the basics including road, rail, river, and pipeline transportation networks, population centers, and the overseas export potential of ports along the Atlantic coast.
The northeast also has plenty of natural gas, primarily in Pennsylvania. That’s important because the primary source of the global hydrogen supply today is natural gas.
Not so fast, though. Pennsylvania has already peeled itself off from the northeast to propose a gas-based hydrogen hub linking the western part of the state with Ohio and West Virginia. Carbon capture systems will handle the “clean” part of the picture (if you have any thoughts about that, drop us a note in the comment thread).
Considering the Energy Department’s recent focus on green H2 from renewable resources, it may seem odd that Pennsylvania is going with gas. However, the agency’s $8 billion hydrogen hub shopping spree is funded through the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and a carve-out for at least one gas-based hydrogen hub is written into the law.
The Clean Hydrogen Advantage: Offshore Wind
With Pennsylvania out of the picture, the other northeast states have zero potential for setting up a gas-based clean hydrogen hub of their own. Stakeholders in the gas fracking boom of the early 2000’s tried to get a foothold in New York, Maryland, and elsewhere in the northeast, only to be rebuffed by voters and policy makers.
The hydrogen market also leans partly on coal, but there are no coal mines in the northeast outside of Pennsylvania, either.
Nevertheless, earlier this year New York and New Jersey hooked up with Connecticut and Massachusetts to battle for a share of the Energy Department’s clean H2 pot, and last week the coastal states of Maine and Rhode Island also joined in.
One game-changer, of course, is the rich offshore wind power resources accessible by Atlantic coast states. With a new multi-gigawatt source of zero emission electricity in hand, northeastern states have a good opportunity to kickstart a regional green H2 industry based on electrolysis, in which an electrical current is deployed to push hydrogen gas from water.
As of today, barely a handful of offshore wind turbines are at work on the Atlantic coast, but New York and New Jersey both have hundreds more in the pipeline. The rival states also formed a partnership last January to coordinate their offshore industries.
Among the other states in the new hydrogen hub partnerships, Massachusetts stands out because it is the first to shepherd a new offshore wind farm through a new streamlined permitting process for federal offshore leases. Connecticut is also on a pathway to chip in a generous share of offshore wind power.
Rhode Island claims the significant achievement of constructing and operating the very first commercial offshore wind farm in the US, and there is plenty more where that came from.
Maine is somewhat problematic due to technical difficulties involving its coastal waters, but new floating wind turbine technology could unlock wind resources in Maine as well.
New Life For Old Nukes
Broadly speaking, the clean hydrogen scenario is not necessarily a sustainable one. Fossil energy stakeholders pushed to include fossil resources — with carbon capture — in the clean category. Recovering hydrogen from plastics, industrial waste gasses and other fossil waste also gets lumped into the clean lane.
Also in the mix is nuclear energy, and that’s where things get interesting. Here in the US, the prospect of building a whole new fleet of nuclear power plants is a dim one. However, as older units are shutting down, the remaining fleet continues to upgrade. As a result, the nation’s nuclear generating capacity has remained fairly steady in recent years.
Those upgrades include new technology that provides nuclear reactors with more flexibility to ramp up and down. That improved flexibility provides more room for existing nuclear power plants to continue operating under a grid scenario that includes more intermittent sources, including solar as well as wind.
The new flexibility could also enable nuclear power plants to make a more significant contribution to hydrogen production.
Nuclear Energy & The Northeast
With all this in mind, let’s take a look at what the New York State Energy Research and Development Agency said last week, when it welcomed Maine and Rhode Island to join the new clean hydrogen hub partnership.
“The coalition will continue to focus on the integration of renewables — such as onshore and offshore wind, hydropower, and solar PV — and nuclear power into clean hydrogen production, and the evaluation of clean hydrogen for use in transportation, including for medium and heavy- duty vehicles, heavy industry, and power generation applications or other appropriate uses consistent with decarbonization efforts,” NYSERDA said.
The Regional Clean Hydrogen Hub funding program stipulates that at least one hub must include nuclear energy, which means that the new northeast coalition could fulfill two hydrogen hub mandates in one blow.
Nuclear advocates have been making the case that new, flexible technology enables nuclear energy to be deployed more strategically for grid balancing. That would help accelerate the integration of more wind and solar power into the grid. Electrolysis systems could also fit into the grid balancing picture. If all goes according to plan, the end result would be to push more natural gas and coal out of the power generation picture more quickly, and push them out of the hydrogen supply chain, too.
Considering the security risks highlighted by Russia’s murderous attack on Ukraine, it would probably be a bad idea to pepper the northeast US with new nuclear power plants. However, to the extent that existing reactors will continue to operate over the near term, the northeast hydrogen coalition is not letting the opportunity slip through its fingers.
They already have a running start. Last year, the firm Exelon Generation received an Energy Department grant to install an electrolyzer at its Nine Mile Point Nuclear Station in Oswego, NY. Partners in the project include Nel Hydrogen, Argonne National Laboratory, Idaho National Laboratory, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to demonstrate integrated production, storage and normal usage at the station.
Apparently the colorists over at the global energy salon have decided that pink strikes the right tone to describe hydrogen produced by on-site electrolysis systems at nuclear power plants. The Nine Mile Point project is expected to be up and running later this year, so stay tuned for more news about pink hydrogen (and be sure to check out our green H2 coverage, too).
Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.
Image courtesy of US Department of Energy.
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