Deep Red North Dakota Catches Green Hydrogen Bug

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Green hydrogen fever has gripped the US, juiced by billions in new federal funding from the US Department of Energy. Despite partisan posturing against renewable energy, legislators in some Republican-dominated statehouses have also been rooting for sustainable H2. An interesting example is North Dakota, where legislators are eager to leverage green hydrogen to support the state’s agriculture industry.

The Global Green Hydrogen Bug Is Catching

Hydrogen is ubiquitous throughout modern industrial economies. It is an essential input for the fertilizer industry as well as food processing, refining, metallurgy, medicines, personal care products, and other industries. In addition to these longstanding use cases, interest in hydrogen for fuel cells and internal combustion engines is skyrocketing as mobility stakeholders search for zero- and low-emission solutions.

So far, the primary source of hydrogen in the global market is natural gas, with coal coming in second. Green hydrogen is different. It is a relatively new product that deploys renewable energy to draw hydrogen from water, biogas, or other renewable resources. Nuclear energy is also being talked up as a source of zero-emission energy for producing hydrogen from renewable resources (see more coverage here).

Industry analysts are paying close attention to growth of the green hydrogen market. A new sustainable H2 accounting from Deloitte, for example, suggests that growth in the green hydrogen market will be especially beneficial for developing nations.

Under the title, “Green hydrogen: Energizing the path to net zero,” Deloitte anticipates that the global green hydrogen market could grow almost 50% from 2030 to 2050, reaching a value of $1.4 trillion annually.

In an interesting twist, Deloitte foresees that developing nations could account for almost 70% of global trade sparked by this growth. “In turn, this would support up to 2 million jobs globally per year between 2030 and 2050, of which 1.5 million per year could be supported in developing countries,” Deloitte explained in an email.

North Dakota Wind Power Sets The Stage For Green Hydrogen

There being no such thing as a free lunch, scientists and industry stakeholders caution that the risk of hydrogen leaks can rise, green or not, as global demand for hydrogen increases. In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, that could partly — or even fully — offset any gains to be made by switching from fossil-sourced hydrogen to green hydrogen.

That remains to be seen. On the plus side, pressure is already building on oil and gas stakeholders to fix their considerable methane leak problem. Recent advances in methane leak detection are making it more difficult for industry players to hide their responsibility for leaks. As public policy makers tighten the screws on greenhouse gas emissions, the green hydrogen industry will have to focus on leak prevention and detection, too.

Meanwhile, interest in green hydrogen continues to leap partisan boundaries, and North Dakota is a case in point. The state has set the stage for green hydrogen by nurturing its wind industry over the past two decades, regardless of partisan politics. North Dakota voters, for example, preferred former President Donald Trump for the Oval Office by margins of more than 30% in both the 2016 and 2020 elections. However, North Dakota policymakers have not been particularly influenced by Trump’s well known and oft-expressed hatred of wind turbines.

If any influence is in play, that would be the state’s powerful network of rural electric cooperatives, which launched the first two commercial wind turbines in North Dakota back in 2002. Renewable energy stakeholders in the state’s neighbor to the east, Minnesota, have also kept the wind power wheels humming in North Dakota.

Green Ammonia To Fix Transmission Bottleneck, STAT

According to the US Energy Information Agency, North Dakota more than doubled its wind power generation from 2015 to 2021. By 2021, wind was providing about 1/3 of overall electricity generation in the state, placing it up at the #6 mark on a state-by-state ranking.

As with other regions around the US, one factor holding back wind development in North Dakota is the availability of long distance transmission lines and interconnection slots.

That’s where the green hydrogen angle comes into play alongside the state’s agriculture industry. Hydrogen is the main ingredient in ammonia (NH3), which in turn is the main ingredient in ammonia fertilizer. Farmers in North Dakota currently import a substantial amount of fertilizer, leaving them vulnerable to price spikes and supply disruptions. Green hydrogen would open the door to local sourcing, with in-state wind power providing energy to run electrolyzer systems.

In a sustainability twofer, an in-state wind energy and green ammonia fertilizer production hub would sidestep the long-distance transmission bottleneck for new wind farms, and it would also help reduce the risk of leakage from long-distance hydrogen transportation.

That could explain a new piece of state legislation that supports the wind-hydrogen-ammonia chain. The Jamestown Sun has been following the action, with reporter Masaki Ova taking note when the leading US energy firm NextEra Energy Resources began scouting locations for a green hydrogen-plus-fertilizer facility, to be powered by a proposed wind farm in two North Dakota counties where substations are available.

As reported by Ova, the hydrogen project will require about 800 megawatts and the wind farm could total up to 285 turbines.

Green Hydrogen To Support US Farmers

Ova also notes that North Dakota State Senate Bill 2015, which recently made it out of the Appropriations Committee, carves out a generous and forgivable loan of $125 million to incentivize investment in a fertilizer plant within the state. Among other requirements for forgiveness, the loan stipulates the use of electrolysis for sustainable H2 production.

Stay tuned for more on that. The NextEra green hydrogen project and wind farm still have to wind their ways through the approval process, but NextEra has a strong track record in North Dakota and it is already looking to be up and running in 2026.

Meanwhile, if all goes according to plan, US farmers will not necessarily have to rely on a large scale, centralized green hydrogen operation to provide for a reliable supply of ammonia fertilizer. Electrolysis systems can be scaled down to use energy from small-scale wind and solar resources.

That could dovetail with an ongoing US Department of Energy program, aimed at encouraging farmers to install wind turbines for on-site use. Small scale, distributed wind projects have been a tough sell in the US, but the addition of an on-site fertilizer production system could help make them more cost-effective for use in agriculture.

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At least one startup, the Boston firm ReMo Energy, is already aiming to bring a decentralized green ammonia production system to individual farms.

On the down side, despite a torrent of recent activity in the sustainable H2 field, in the US and elsewhere, the share of green hydrogen in the global market is vanishingly small. Investment needs to ramp up significantly in the coming years. Deloitte estimates that the annual average for global investment needed to “unlock green hydrogen’s full potential in helping the world achieve net-zero emissions by 2050” would come to about $360 billion.

In that context, North Dakota’s $125 million loan would be just a tiny drop in a big bucket. However, that could be just a taste of things to come.

Last October, North Dakota announced that it is leading a consortium of states, including renewables-friendly Minnesota as well as Wisconsin and Montana, to apply for a slice of that Energy Department hydrogen funding pot.

Find me on Spoutible: @TinaMCasey or LinkedIn @TinaMCasey or Mastodon @Casey or Post: @tinamcasey

Image (screenshot): From “Deloitte’s 2023 global green hydrogen outlook, Green hydrogen: energizing the path to net zero,” download via email.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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