Opinion: Green hydrogen coming to the US, and NH

By KENT HOWARD and PETER SOMSSICH

Published: 09-25-2023 4:30 PM

Kent Howard is a community energy activist, author, and journalist. Peter Somssich is a former state representative who served on the Science, Technology & Energy Committee.

Both the recent pandemic and the Russian war against Ukraine have radically changed the energy expectations in many parts of the world. A recent article by staff at the Rocky Mountain Institute titled “From Deep Crisis, Profound Change” explains that both events have resulted in governments and businesses reconsidering the benefits of renewable energy sources.

These include the use of green hydrogen and green ammonia. While most concerns previously focused on climate change issues and prices, now many stakeholders have decided that energy security is a higher priority than global warming. But at the same time, prices for renewable energy including energy storage continue to drop, while fossil fuel prices have increased and remain volatile.

There has been criticism of President Biden’s support for Hydrogen Research Hubs. Critics focus on the federal government providing subsidies for hydrogen production regardless of the production method. At first, both fossil fuels and green renewable energy sourced hydrogen would be subsidized. The fossil fuel subsidies will be phased however over the first ten years. After that, only green hydrogen continues to receive subsidies.

An adequate supply must first be produced and made readily available for demand to increase. A hydrogen or ammonia-based economy is transformational and needs initial incentives to get off the ground. Currently, no better clean energy systems seem available to decarbonize areas of business such as shipping, airlines, heavy-duty trucks, cement plants, making steel, and heating.

The only state currently employing hydrogen in its energy mix is California. At least two carmakers, Toyota and Kia, have been operating fleets of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles in California for several years. These cars have a range of nearly 300 miles and are zero-emission needing only minutes to refuel. Because currently, the cheapest source of hydrogen is from fossil fuels, that is where the hydrogen will initially be coming from. California is working to change that. Many states face similar challenges, which is why the Biden hydrogen energy research hubs could have a big impact.

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Unfortunately, New Hampshire’s Governor Sununu has refused to participate with the five other New England states to investigate the potential of using hydrogen. New Hampshire is currently participating in the looming offshore wind industry. It will be interesting to see if that wind energy will produce electricity or compressed hydrogen gas as other countries are already doing.

There is also technological progress on the horizon. For example, one company believes that an electric cable material that they have developed could carry four times the energy of current electric grid cables. Here in New Hampshire, the blossoming of the community power movement offers new opportunities. Cities and towns are negotiating with suppliers for lower electricity prices, but in the future, they could leverage their coalition to negotiate and purchase other energy products and resources at substantial savings.

One of the big questions facing the new green economy is how can renewable energy be stored when it is generated, but not needed? Traditional energy storage techniques have included pumping water using electricity to a higher-level reservoir and releasing it to generate the electricity when that is needed. Other energy storage systems use batteries and even fly-wheel technology. Many of these options do not have enough energy storage capacity or cannot release enough energy quickly enough to meet the rapidly changing demand curves.

Hydrogen gas, on the other hand, can be converted into electricity when needed by using a fuel cell. Also, when traditional gas pipelines are used to carry hydrogen, they can also be used to store the hydrogen when there is a greater supply than demand. This is done by increasing or decreasing the pressure of the gas. A model for such an application is the Toshiba Fukushima Hydrogen Research Field in Japan.

For three years now, this site has been providing electricity on demand when needed by the grid using renewable energy including hydrogen. The field includes thousands of solar panels that convert sunlight into electricity. That electricity uses an electrolyzer to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen is compressed and stored on site. When the grid requires more electricity, the hydrogen is converted to electricity using fuel cells.

The process might seem inefficient; however, the sun’s energy is free and unlimited, and the energy can be stored as needed and converted to electricity when demand requires it.

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