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Louisiana and Texas are poised to leap from zero to hero in the US offshore wind industry (image credit: US BOEM).

Clean Power

Fossil Fuel Industry Plans To Hijack Offshore Wind In Gulf Of Mexico

As the Biden administration gets ready to push offshore wind in the Gulf of Mexico, fossil fuel companies wonder what’s in it for them.

The Gulf of Mexico has a a large number of offshore oil and gas wells connected to the mainland by a welter of pipelines. The Biden administration, through the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, plans to issue leases in two areas of the Gulf of Mexico for offshore wind development next summer. One is about 91 miles off Lake Charles, Louisiana and the second is 29 miles off the coast of Galveston, Texas. Lake Charles is home to many oil refineries, petrochemical plants, and fertilizer factories, which have made it one of the most polluted cities in the US and a major contributor to carbon emissions.

Fossil Fuels & Offshore Wind

The fossil fuel industry has heard about offshore wind. In fact, many of the techniques used to drill for oil and gas at sea can be also be used to build offshore wind installations. It has also heard that there are plans afoot around the world to co-locate electrolyzers on those offshore wind platforms to make hydrogen from the electricity they produce. And hey, you know what? That hydrogen can be piped ashore using the existing pipeline network, where it can be used in many of the industrial processes that already exist along the shore of the Gulf to help reduce harmful emissions.

70% of the Louisiana’s greenhouse gas emissions come from the industrial sector. The state is already the nation’s largest per capita user of industrial hydrogen, which burns hotter than natural gas but produces no carbon dioxide. At the present time, most industrial hydrogen is created using natural gas, methane, or coal.

Allison DeJong, a planner with the Water Institute of the Gulf, tells The Guardian that green hydrogen could be a viable solution for the fossil fuel industry to decarbonize. According to the International Energy Agency, it has the potential to reduce the state’s carbon emissions by as much as 68%. Louisiana state representative Joseph Orgeron, a maritime specialist, says the vast majority of developers he’s talked to are proposing mixing hydrogen with natural gas to ship it to shore. “It could be injected in the existing natural gas pipelines along with other natural gas coming to shore and then extracted on the other end,” he tells The Guardian.

Such a move would make the cost of producing hydrogen less expensive. Without the use of existing pipelines, a study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory says development of offshore hydrogen would be cost prohibitive because new pipelines would have to be built.

About 10 companies have expressed an interest in establishing offshore wind farms in the Gulf of Mexico, Shell New Energies is one of them. It told BOEM in a letter submitted to the agency it wants to build a “lower carbon power business” by producing green hydrogen.

Greenwashing On A Massive Scale

Not everyone is convinced using renewable energy to make hydrogen and transport it through existing pipelines is such a swell idea. The Sierra Club is one of them. In a position paper published last January, it said:

The fossil fuel industry is hyping hydrogen of all kinds as a low carbon replacement for all sorts of uses of fossil fuels — from powering vehicles and heavy industry to heating buildings. In reality, many hydrogen projects will only lock us in to continued fossil fuel use and additional investments in fossil fuel infrastructure.

The Sierra Club only supports the use of green hydrogen—hydrogen made through electrolysis that is powered by renewable energy. Even in the case of green hydrogen, other conditions must be met for its use to be a good idea:

1. Green hydrogen is a promising solution only for uses that cannot otherwise directly rely on clean electricity, which is much more efficient.

2. Green hydrogen should not be used to justify a build out of facilities that otherwise increase pollution or fossil fuel use.

3. If green hydrogen is being used, the goal should be to switch to 100 percent green hydrogen once the technology is available. We should not support projects that label themselves as “sustainable” because their fuel source includes a small fraction of hydrogen when the lion’s share of it is fracked gas.

The World Economic Forum claims that using offshore wind to produce green hydrogen is less efficient than supplying that electricity directly to the power grid because up to 40% of the wind energy gets lost in the process of converting it into green hydrogen. “To produce all of today’s dedicated hydrogen output (69 metric tons) using renewable energy would require more electricity than the annual amount generated by the European Union. Considering that in 2020, 38% of EU’s electricity came from renewables, it is clear that renewable energy capacity needs to be increased vastly to produce enough energy to meet both the world’s growing electric needs and to convert water into hydrogen to power industrial (and eventually domestic) applications.”

“If you have a turbine producing electricity, the cheapest and best use of that electricity is going to be using it directly for things electricity is already used for as opposed to converting it to hydrogen,” Warren Leon, executive director for Clean Energy States Alliance, tells The Guardian.

Offshore Wind & Excess Energy?

Part of the rationale for using electricity from offshore wind platforms to make hydrogen is that there will be so much of the stuff, a lot of it will go to waste, so it is better to put it to productive use despite the losses incurred in the conversion process. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory says the Gulf of Mexico could potentially generate nearly 510,000 megawatts of offshore wind energy annually — twice the current energy needs of the five states (Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida) that make up the Gulf coast region.

David Dismukes, executive director and a professor at the Center for Energy Studies, Louisiana State University, tells The Guardian that offshore wind to generate electricity will be a tough sell for investors because of the way electricity markets are structured in his state. “It’s not cost competitive,” he said in a recent Gulf Coast Energy Outlook webinar. Oh, well, then. Rather than fix the antiquated, idiotic rules that govern the energy market in Louisiana, let’s just keep limping along with the rules we have, If they were good enough for Louisiana in 1950, they should be good enough for today, right?

Nevertheless, Entergy, Louisiana’s largest utility, has indicated an interest in offshore wind. In September, it signed a memorandum of understanding with Diamond Offshore Wind to explore the possibilities. The company has plans to cease the use of coal by the end of 2030 and to build at least 11,000 megawatts of renewable energy to replace it.

The Takeaway

There are two competing ideas at work here. One is that offshore wind could supply abundant, zero emissions electricity to most of the states that border the Gulf of Mexico. The other is that it could supply green hydrogen to the many industrial areas that stretch along the coast of Louisiana and Texas and help lower the amount of pollutants they spew into the air and water that surround them, making those communities virtual cesspools.

One thing CleanTechnica readers will agree on is that when the fossil fuel industry starts touting its interest in cleaning up the environment, hold onto your wallet and check to see that your bullshit detector is in good working order. Greenwashing is real. Just as the fossil fuel industry would like to use carbon capture and geoengineering as licenses to continue drilling and pumping oil and natural gas, the quest for green hydrogen could be just another smokescreen for continuing their nefarious, climate killing activities.

 
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Written By

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. 3000 years ago, Socrates said, "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." Perhaps it's time we listened?

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