Global conditions to harness the potential of hydrogen to fuel the developing clean energy transformation—particularly technology innovation, political investment and growing acceptance that climate change is a reality—finally appear to be lining up. While reports have noted hydrogen eyed as a fossil fuel replacement as far back as Jules Verne’s 1875 novel “The Mysterious Island,” with costs high and changemaking slow, it never captured the market many hoped for.
With economies hit by COVID-19 eyeing a catalyst for recovery—plus an energy marketplace that is shifting from carbon-emitting fuels to renewable sources—prospects are ramping up for green hydrogen use in power generation and other critical arenas.
“In the past 12 months, we’ve seen the world embrace decarbonization in a dramatic way, and we’re going through a rapid period of change,” says Paul Browning, CEO of Mitsubishi Power Americas.
Almost all current hydrogen is fossil fuel-based—the by-product of coal gasification, dubbed “brown hydrogen,” and a larger supply produced from methane in natural gas, called “grey,” both generating carbon dioxide emissions. Growing use of carbon-capture and storage technology has pushed more blue hydrogen with lower emissions, but not enough to meet greenhouse gas reduction goals established by the Paris climate agreement. Only by electrolyzing hydrogen from water using electricity generated from renewable sources can the fuel be made entirely green.
The International Energy Agency tracks about 320 green hydrogen production demonstration projects that have been announced worldwide—a total of about 200 MW of electrolyzer capacity—with new projects added almost weekly. Research firm Frost & Sullivan said in February that annual green hydrogen production will rise by 57% between 2019 and 2030, to 5.7 million tons from 40,000 tons.
“Could world-scale hydrogen production facilities become a reality, and help drive hydrogen as a game changer in energy markets?” asks Curt Graham, Fluor Corp. technology lead for its energy solutions group. “Yes, but it is still a little early to know which path the energy transition will take.”
S&P Global says the cost of producing green hydrogen from renewables needs to fall more than 50%, to $2.00-$2.50/kg by 2030, to make it a viable alternative to conventional fuels. Norwegian energy market analyst Rystad said in an analysis that green hydrogen from offshore wind would be about four times more expensive than grey hydrogen and “not economically viable at the current cost scheme,” although it points to falling costs for both wind energy and electrolyzers.
Infrastructure to burn and transport the fuel also need scaling up and improvement, with hydrogen tending to be corrosive in steel pipelines, said Patrick Rau, director of strategy and research for market tracker Natural Gas Intelligence, in a Feb. 12 comment.
“Historically there may have been hype around the hydrogen economy, but this is not currently the case,” says Simon Critten, senior vice president of Mott MacDonald. “There are significant hurdles to cross. But the focus, the opportunity and the industrial/political drive for this appear to be emerging.”
Mott MacDonald was selected to determine feasibility of the recently announced NortH2 project in Holland, which is set to produce 1 million tons per year of green hydrogen from offshore wind to generate 10 GW of power for heavy industry when fully completed in 2040. The venture is backed by energy giants Shell, Equinor, RWE and natural gas firm Gasunie, which supplies Germany and Holland. A feasibility study is set for completion this summer.
As such, client interest is growing.
“For the past six months to a year, the interest has been extremely high,” says Justin Schnegelberger, energy group manager of development engineering at Burns & McDonnell. Brian McCarthy, a vice president at engineer Wood, says the firm is fielding client queries on blue hydrogen strategies as well, noting that owners must “find uses or appropriate storage of CO2, which isn’t a trivial challenge itself and will be driven by regional nuances.”
Government actions related to carbon reduction will further accelerate needed action. About 30 countries had national hydrogen strategies in place by early 2021, pledging some $70 billion in support projects.
Projects Scale Up
Australia’s 2019 strategy includes committing $370 million to start supporting projects. The largest on the country’s radar appears to be the Asian Renewable Energy Hub in the western Pilbara region, with construction of 26 GW of renewable power capacity planned to supply 14 GW of green hydrogen production.
It now has federal government “major project status,” which will help with fast-track permitting. Australia also said it will create a national hydrogen technology network in its states and territories. Energy Networks Australia, the country’s group of power and gas distributors, now seeks to build demand for clean hydrogen, it says.
U.S.-based industrial gas firm Air Products and Chemicals, with partners, announced last year a $7-billion investment in a green hydrogen plant and infrastructure in the planned Saudi Arabia future city Neom. When online in 2025, it will produce 650 tons of green hydrogen per day for global export.
Eric Guter, Air Products’ senior vice president, says the project will target the global transportation market. The firm is making the speculative investment to increase the supply that it hopes will trigger demand, he says. In September, the country’s state-run Aramco oil firm made the world’s first blue hydrogen shipment, from Saudi Arabia to Japan, for use in power generation, although an official predicted it would not scale up its hydrogen production until at least 2030, said an S&P report.
More oil and gas sector firms are embracing clean hydrogen ventures while coming to terms with the changing marketplace, and aiming to profit from it, say some market observers.
Trade group the Hydrogen Council sees 228 large-scale projects proposed that would be worth $300 billion in investment through 2030 if all are built. Its outlook, co-authored with management firm McKinsey, includes $80 billion in facilities that are in advanced planning, with a final investment decision, or are under construction or commissioned. The consortium, which began in 2017 with 11 members, now has about 109 energy sector and industrial players with combined revenue of $22 trillion, it says. They include Air Liquide, BMW, BP, Chevron, Microsoft, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Shell, Total and Petronas.
Black & Veatch joined in January “to be in the discussion as it brings solutions to the market,” says Jim Doull, executive vice president.
While Canada issued a strategy at the end of 2020 that targets by 2050 hydrogen delivering up to 30% of Canada’s end-use energy, “we wait for further detail on the U.S. administration’s energy plan and if we will see a similar policy focus,” says Wood’s McCarthy.
Ramping Up US Hydrogen Use
Hydrogen and fuel cells are among the technologies emphasized in President Joe Biden’s Jan. 20 directive to tie climate change to economic growth. “By connecting management of climate risk with economy development and job creation, support for hydrogen development appears to be strong,” says Mott MacDonald’s Critten. Observers say the administration has offered few strategy specifics, but Energy Secretary-designate Jennifer Granholm noted in her Jan. 28 confirmation hearing potential links between the agency and the energy industry in scaling up blue hydrogen technology in such areas as LNG exports.
Morry Markowitz, president of the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association, last month pointed to Biden’s “bully pulpit” to help propel the sector. The coalition of 20 major hydrogen, oil, gas, power, automotive and fuel cell companies issued a 96-page "road map" earlier this year to lay out how the U.S. could scale up a “hydrogen economy” (see diagram, above). “It’s transformational over the next five to 20 years,” he says. “It takes time, but we will get there.”
California is leading the way for the U.S. as it did for other renewables, says Doull. While Europe has the most advanced hydrogen program, the U.S. wants and needs to lead, he adds. The California Hydrogen Building Council includes Black & Veatch, Kiewit and Parsons Corp. among its members.
BTU Analytics says it is tracking 11 U.S. power plants that have announced plans to use a blend of hydrogen and natural gas or pure hydrogen by the end of this decade, with more expected.
Among the risk takers is New Fortress Energy, which aims to be a world leader in providing carbon-free power by replacing fossil fuels with affordable green hydrogen. “It is a market that doesn’t exist, but we’re pursuing it,” a company manager told ENR.
New Fortress is partnering with General Electric Corp. and Long Ridge Energy to build the first power plant in the U.S. built solely to use hydrogen in the fuel mix. The 485-MW combined-cycle plant in Ohio, being built by Kiewit Power and set to open in November, will burn up to 15% hydrogen.
A nearby chlorine plant’s hydrogen by-product will be the initial supply, but eventually the new plant will transition to 100% green hydrogen. “Demand is increasing and we want to be ahead of the curve,” says the New Fortress manager. Adds Long Ridge President Bo Wholey: “We wanted to be the first. Over time the cost will go down and it will still be a good investment.”
The project, 80% complete, will help New Fortress understand details of blending logistics, transmission, storage and technology. “We’re looking at everything,” says the company manager.
New Fortress is in advanced discussions with customers for the offtake. It also will team with H2Pro, an Israeli hydrogen production technology firm, to build an electrolysis pilot project on the Ohio River using solar or wind energy to make green hydrogen. Another company plans to build hydrogen storage caverns in the salt dome below the plant site.
Long Ridge purchased a hydrogen skid from GE in mid-February to blend the element with natural gas to feed into a turbine capable of burning the mixed fuel. Hydrogen can easily leak out of regular seals and can defuse into metal at high pressure and change steel’s physical property, says Jeffrey Goldmeer, emerging technologies director at GE Gas Power. It is also more flammable, with upper and lower boundaries. GE has a technical pathway to get to 50% hydrogen, but at 100%, the Long Ridge plant combustion system will require changes, he adds.
Utility Florida Power & Light bought GE’s first hydrogen-ready turbine sold in the U.S., where it will use solar power from the Okeechobee Clean Energy Center in part to generate hydrogen through electrolysis, with regulatory approval. The hydrogen will then be blended with natural gas to feed into the center’s combustion turbines, a utility spokesman told ENR. “With minor modifications, the existing combustion turbine units will operate on a fuel blend of up to 5% hydrogen and 95% natural gas,” he said. With strong commercial interest in GE’s hydrogen-ready turbines, the firm hopes to sign more contracts in the coming months.
Elsewhere in Florida, Burns & McDonnell is working with the Orlando Utilities Commission, providing integration support for a green hydrogen pilot project that will draw from an on-site solar farm. It will include an electrolyzer for production, a hydrogen compressor skid, tube trailers for hydrogen storage and dispensing, a 600-kW fuel cell for electricity production and a 1,500-kVA transformer for power delivery.
“The versatility of the fuel really provides a lot of capability,” says Justin Kramer, supervisor of emerging technologies at the commission, a city-owned utility. Still in design, the concept developed when the utility studied hydrogen as a storage medium for excess solar power. “Hydrogen is like the Swiss army knife of storage,” says Kramer. The U.S. Energy Dept. provided a $9-million grant. Construction will start by year end, with the pilot operating for two years. Using hydrogen as storage and in other capacities is one way the commission can reach its goal of close to 100% renewable power by 2050, he says.
Getting to 100% Clean
The first planned baseload power plant in the U.S. to use hydrogen, now under development in Utah at the site of a 1,900-MW coal-fired plant, is driven by California’s goal of 100% clean energy by 2045 and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s accelerated transition for the city’s Dept. of Water and Power to clean power by 2030.
As a result, the agency and a group of state utilities could no longer purchase power from the Intermountain Power Agency coal plant. The department operates the plant and, with the other utilities, buys 99% of its power.
IPA is replacing the unit with an 840-MW gas fired plant guaranteed to burn 30% green hydrogen in its Mitsubishi Power turbine when on line in 2025. By 2050, the estimated $1.9-billion project should be capable of burning 100% hydrogen, says Jason Rowell, associate vice president of Black & Veatch, the project engineer.
Hydrogen is much less dense than natural gas, which requires a design for more volume. The hydrogen also could be made on site, says John Ward, an IPA spokesman. A multistage solicitation, beginning with a request for information, was published in mid-2020 and will lead to a contract to provide hydrogen. The project also will store hydrogen in underground salt caverns. The benefits of hydrogen were too good to pass up when looking for alternatives to replacing the coal-fired plant, Ward says. “We don’t feel like pioneers, we’re just taking advantage of existing technology.”
Mitsubishi sees hydrogen as “advanced clean energy storage” rather than as a fuel, says Browning. “We’re using renewable power to convert water to hydrogen and storing it in the salt dome. The important thing is electricity in and electricity out,” he says. With hydrogen not widely available, he says the company needs to give customers who purchase the hydrogen-ready turbines a total solution, which includes hydrogen generation and storage. The Hydaptive package includes an electrolyzer to convert water to power, which also can ramp up and down quickly to send or take power from the grid.
Power projects in Ohio, Virginia and New York also selected Mitsubishi Power’s hydrogen-capable natural gas turbines with standard packages for green hydrogen integration. They will be ready when the local grid has enough renewable energy to need energy storage, says Browning
Danskammer Energy in Newburgh, N.Y. is retiring its old natural gas-fired units and building a new 600-MW plant using the “robust and flexible Mitsubishi machine” that will burn hydrogen when it comes on line in 2025, increasing to 30% by 2027, says Bill Reed, president and CEO. The project is awaiting New York regulatory approval.
“We understand what’s happening in the world,” Reed told ENR, and with the development of a hydrogen economy the plant potentially has a long zero emissions life. “We know it works, it’s just a matter of scale and demand,” before the hydrogen economy develops, he said.
The company is in talks with Mitsubishi to contract for a package that includes a small hydrogen production plant and storage, dependent on the state approvals.
Southern California Gas, the largest natural gas distribution system in North America, is studying engineering questions related to the limits and impacts of hydrogen on its system, says Neil Navin, vice president of clean energy solutions. The company is committed to supporting California’s zero-carbon emissions goal by mid-century and has a demonstration program to blend green hydrogen into a small part of the system.
“In the past 12 months, we’ve seen the world embrace decarbonization in a dramatic way, and we’re going through a period of rapid change.”
– Paul Browning, President and CEO, Mitsubishi Power Americas
At its destination, the hydrogen will be extracted using a membrane technology and used as fuel for cars or fuel cells. The demonstration is currently blending 1% hydrogen but will ultimately blend 20% into the system. Navin says, however, that hydrogen-related changes needed in its separate high-pressure transmission system will take more study.
AirLiquide, a French industrial gas and services supplier, in January finished a large-scale low-carbon hydrogen production unit using renewable power from Hydro-Quebec. It produces eight tons per day of clean hydrogen using a 20-MW electrolyzer that can be liquefied and shipped to meet industrial hydrogen needs in the Northeast and Canada, says Dave Edwards, the firm’s hydrogen advocate. The project produces less expensive clean hydrogen by using hydropower, he adds.
In addition to Holland’s NortH2 project, a 30-member consortium that includes French contractor Vinci unveiled on Feb. 15 a plan to build 93 GW of solar power plants to produce 3.6 million tons of green hydrogen a year in Spain, France and Germany by 2030. Called HyDeal, the project will start work on the first Spanish facility next year. Backers say it can cut green hydrogen production costs to 1.5 euros per kg, including transmission and storage, the same as for grey.
Europe Firms Spend on Hydrogen
Europe also is seeing individual energy and industral firms adopt and install green and blue hydrogen strategies.
At its Rheinland oil refinery in Germany, Shell has committed to boost, by a factor of ten, green hydrogen production by 2030, with work set to complete this year on the first 10-MW electrolyzer hub. The oil giant also plans to replace crude oil processing there with more low-carbon energy and chemicals production.
Linde, which is building hydrogen refueling stations for the first German hydrogen-powered passenger trains, has plans to install a 24-MW electrolyzer module at its Leipzig site to blend green hydrogen production into its network.
Two blue hydrogen supply plants at the Essar oil refinery in northwest England are now planned, with total investment approaching $1 billion. Plans call for carbon to be stored in reservoirs under Liverpool Bay, with hydrogen to be used for heating, heavy transport and power generation.
The U.K.’s 10-point energy transition plan calls for 5 GW of hydrogen production by 2030. The European Union hydrogen plan includes support in contracts for the next decade, bridging price gaps between grey and green varieties with a target of 6 GW in green hydrogen capacities in the next four years and 40 GW by decade’s end.
“Hydrogen will play a role in the energy transition, but industry and governments must pick up the pace … to achieve ambitious targets,” says Martin Lambert, a senior research fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies. Wood’s McCarthy adds that while “it’s clear that the hydrogen sector is set for exceptional growth, finding the right production solution to achieve carbon reduction and energy demand is critical in realizing the potential.”