Is Green Hydrogen the Answer?

By Peter Galuszka

Utilities, including Dominion Energy, are increasingly exploring the use of now-costly hydrogen technology to produce electricity with little or no carbon.

One of the most promising uses involves using excess renewable electricity from solar farms or wind turbines to power electrolyzer devices that strip hydrogen away from oxygen in water. The hydrogen is then used to power special batteries.

The result? Carbon free power that is available at just about any time when winds are blowing or the sun isn’t shining.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Dominion plans on experimenting with hydrogen for another use. It will try to blend hydrogen into its natural gas distribution system to reduce carbon and methane emissions. It will be testing a 5% hydrogen blend in some natural gas shipments next year, the Journal reports.

Eventually, it may go the route of electrolyzers and use solar and wind power to produce hydrogen. It appears that Dominion’s experiments may take place in the Far West where it owns power generation and distribution systems in Utah.

Another firm that has plans for hydrogen is NextEra Energy Inc., based in Florida. It plans on using hydrogen and natural gas to run a power plant in California. “What makes us really excited about hydrogen is that it has the potential to supplement significant deployment of renewables,” the Journal quotes NextEra CFO Rebecca Kujawa as saying.

The biggest problem with using the electrolyzer approach is cost. Only about 1% of hydrogen produced is so-called “green” hydrogen. Much of it comes from burning coal or natural gas.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy:

The greatest challenge for hydrogen production, particularly from renewable resources, is providing hydrogen at lower cost. For transportation fuel cells, hydrogen must be cost-competitive with conventional fuels and technologies on a per-mile basis. This means that the cost of hydrogen—regardless of the production technology—must be less than $4/ gallon gasoline equivalent. To reduce overall hydrogen cost, research is focused on improving the efficiency and lifetime of hydrogen production technologies as well as reducing the cost of capital equipment, operations, and maintenance.

According to Craig Wagstaff, Dominion’s senior vice president for Western gas distribution, “The costs are going to go in one direction and that is down,” the Journal reports. The question, he adds, is how low?

Using hydrogen has excited researchers for years. One such use is fusion reactors that use hydrogen to release great amounts of power. Commercial applications have been tried for years, without much commercial success.

In the 1980s, for example, the Russians had experimental “tokamawks” or plasma fusion devices that look like small flying saucers. They use magnetic fields and great amounts of power to start controlled fusion reactions.

One is at the Kurchatov Institute, a high security nuclear research facility in northwest Moscow. One problem was that when they started the reaction, the lights in many homes in the city went dim.

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17 responses to “Is Green Hydrogen the Answer?

  1. Good article Peter!

    If – and perhaps not if but when – we can use power from wind/solar to produce hydrogen – it will effectively end all coal and gas generation and shut down criticism of wind/solar as “not reliable”.

    You won’t even have to transport it – just put a hydrogen-fueled power plant in the middle of a solar farm… store the hydrogen during the day and run the power plant at night.

    don’t believe it can be done?

    “Solar and Wind Power Could Ignite a Hydrogen Energy Comeback
    Hydrogen, produced from water by surplus electricity, could power industry and the grid”

    I predict in the years after this is done the former critics will be saying ” well, I was in favor of wind/solar all along”! Betcha!

  2. As Virginia’s electric grid hurtles toward a 100% renewable future, it is imperative to find economical means of storing energy. Batteries are one possibility, pump-storage facilities are another, and green H2 is yet another. We need to be testing all of these alternatives as their respective technologies evolve to see which are the most cost-effective.

    Meanwhile, there’s another interesting development: The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has approved the first small modular nuclear reactor. Small reactors can produce about 60 megawatts of energy, enough to power about 50,000 homes. The advantage over conventional nuclear reactors is that they can be used to phase in base-load power incrementally rather than in huge blocks. That significantly reduces the economic risks.

  3. You will be pleased to learn, Peter, that the natural gas facilities planned for Charles City that you loathe so deeply will also be able to use hydrogen, but not at 100%. I understand they can use about 30% hydrogen, reducing their use of natural gas.

    I was digging around last week looking for some math. How much energy does it take to split water into hydrogen, store and transport it? Neither storage nor transportation is easy. So do you gain energy in the process (as with splitting uranium), or merely move it around? The “dream” is to use wind and solar to produce the hydrogen, but aren’t we already planning billions of dollars of investment in those to feed the regular grid, instead? You want MORE wind and solar to help us produce energy for when wind and solar fail? Show me what I’ve gained. I know what the Dominion stockholders gain.

    Call me skeptical, but interested.

    Of course, if you accept the alarmist premise that CO2 is the worst, most deadly poison ever (despite the fact your lungs are full of it now), then this is a great idea. As you know, I do not.

  4. ” Hydrogen is flowing in pipes under the streets in Cappelle-la-Grande, helping to energize 100 homes in this northern France village. On a short side road adjacent to the town center, a new electrolyzer machine inside a small metal shed zaps water with electricity from wind and solar farms to create “renewable” hydrogen that is fed into the natural gas stream already flowing in the pipes. By displacing some of that fossil fuel, the hydrogen trims carbon emissions from the community’s furnaces, hot-water heaters and stove tops by up to 7 percent.

    Cappelle-la-Grande’s system is a living laboratory created by Paris-based energy firm Engie. The company foresees a big scale-up of hydrogen energy as the cost of electrolyzers, as well as of renewable electricity, continues to fall. If Engie is right, blending hydrogen into local gas grids could accelerate a transition from fossil to clean energy.”

  5. What do the gas merchant plants in the Chickahominey area have to do with this?

    • Sadly, Peter, hydrogen is an escape gas. Turn an atom of hydrogen free, and it rises to the moon, literally. As a result, the “cheapest” method to obtain hydrogen is cracking hydrocarbons, producing hydroge, and you guessed it, carbon. But, at least, it’s the black stuff, and not the gaseous combos. Well, not all of it.

      Now, you can get it from electrolysis from water, but you can’t get to the pertual generation machine. OTOH, using both methods could be “optimized” to get to a somewhat less than sustainable. Then, throw in solar, cracking, electrolysis, wind,…

      My favorite hydrogen energy source was the highly touted GOP solution of the 1990s — mining H3 on the moon. They believed the scientists that said there was tons og H3 in the moon, but not the scientists that were measuring rises in CO2 on the Earth.

    • Peter, you mentioned Dominion was considering mixing 5% hydrogen into natural gas to cut emissions, and at least one of those plants can use a 30-70 mix. When the wild dreams die down, the reality will probably be that blended approach which does significantly cut CO2 from those plants….

      Nancy, you must understand that progress is not a goal, they want perfection, they want that perpetual motion energy machine. Using a wind turbine to crack HO2 so you can burn hydrogen when the wind dies down doesn’t make sense on its face, unless you suddenly gain energy density.

  6. Everything, EVERYTHING, starts as a far fetched idea. Consider Jules Verne’s Nautalis. 100 years is all it took to take a science fiction novel to Kirk Douglas singing a song. Whodathunk? Wait, is that where I was going?

    Nevertheless, right now, there is a bunch of dudes and dudettes circling the Earth in a juice can powered by solar panels, hydrogen fuel cells, batteries, and maybe a small nuclear reactor, or two.

    Apparently, the devices needed to get hydrogen from natural gas could sit right next to your gas furnace in your garage. So, GW’s hydrogen powered car is doable. Can you play a ukulele?

  7. The Russians love the fusion idea. They dragged me out twice to look at their reactor. Odd since the institute is where they do a lot of nuke weapons research

  8. Oh, as a last word on energy and what can happen. Just 50 years ago, OPEC hung our chestnuts in the fire.

    That’s all it took for some guy in Iowa or Kansas to take his crop of corn, turn it into alcohol and mix it with gasoline. Idiot!! Tastes like crap.

  9. Hydrogen has good potential for fuel cell vehicles, trucks, etc. I believe Toyota is coming out with its Gen2 Mirai H2 car, which is quite impressive efficiency. Japan and other countries may go that direction, of course, H2 can be made cost-effectively from nat gas and coal, and re: coal that would be an example expensive but clean coal (gasification) technology. California has some H2 fill-up stations, for Toyota Mirai, but the green electrolytic H2 is expensive, and the electric vehicle advocates are very angry and very anti-H2. They feel H2 fuel cells cars will slow down the electric car revolution that they feel needs to be declared the USA winner. So H2 seems to be on the political outs here, as far as cars.

    Energy cost is low at the moment. Here is a recent WSJ video article on how energy got so cheap…I do not necessarily agree with everything but some good perspectives.

    • Pretty good WSJ video article , thanks.

      what is more efficient – H2 to make electricity to power cars or H2 to power cars directly?

      or H2 at the car which means different cars with H2 tanks as well as the filling stations and fuel trucks.

      If solar will ever be able to make electricity by cracking H20 – it’s a game changer – then we just have solar everywhere and power plants sitting near them to produce electricity and put into the grid.

      By the way – a good number of LNG tankers use the Panama Canal.

      Think about that. They transport the gas thousands of miles and the tankers have to dead-head back to get get more – and they apparently make a profit doing it.

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