No sooner did developer Long Ridge Energy start work in 2019 on a natural gas-fired powerplant at a closed metals factory in the southern Ohio town of Hannibal set to serve a data center and business hub, than things went awry, remembers firm President Robert Wholey.

Customers made it clear there would be “no fossil fuels,” he says, forcing the company into the uncharted domain of delivering carbon-free power.

The 485-MW combined-cycle plant, finished late last year, will start life fueled by natural gas, but in April will begin blending 5% hydrogen—the first full-scale U.S. power plant built solely to use it in the fuel mix.

A nearby chlorine plant’s hydrogen by-product will be the initial supply, but eventually the $500-million Long Ridge Energy Center—built by Kiewit Corp. and including a special General Electric turbine—will transition to 100% “green” hydrogen from renewable sources.

Wholey says the plant will benefit from its Ohio River location for ready water supply, and is set to include hydrogen storage caverns and green hydrogen pilot projects. “When we started down this path, no one was even talking about hydrogen,” he says. 

The plant is the first worldwide to blend hydrogen into a GE H-class gas turbine, Long Ridge has said, able to burn up to a 50% mix, with adjustments that can enable it to reach 100% by 2030.

Wholey notes hydrogen’s higher cost as the “bottleneck,” but says the on-site pilots will reduce it. “We wanted to be the first, and over time the cost will go down and it will still be a good investment,” he says. 

Known as “Bo,” Wholey himself appears to have the right blend of executive qualities to propel the project to its full potential—combining the regional sensibilities of a Pittsburgh native with financial and risk-taking chops of a former Wall Street investment banker and infrastructure private equity investor.

Since joining Long Ridge in 2017, now part of developer New Fortress Energy, he has pushed efforts to raise nearly $600 million of plant project finance and locked up key long-term, fixed-price power sales.

“The impact of Bo Wholey’s leadership on Long Ridge and the influence this project is having on an evolving energy sector is undeniable,” says Jason Rowell, associate vice president of new energy solutions for Black & Veatch, which handled plant engineering, including its hydrogen integration. “The innovation taking place at the Long Ridge Energy Center and the lessons learned will inform decarbonization efforts across the global power sector. Harnessing hydrogen’s potential and unlocking its economics across production, storage, distribution and application is this generation’s moonshot."

With technology giants and others seeking more carbon-free power, Wholey is confident the plant will spur development of a hydrogen hub to reinvigorate its economically hard-hit region. “That’s what investors look for in planning plant sites,” he says, not fazed by financial or environmental skeptics.

In a 2020 report, financial analyst Moody’s noted hydrogen’s “high production costs and efficiency losses,” but also stressed its “enormous potential in power and heating applications.” The report said, in the next decade, "hydrogen is likely to play an important role in US efforts to eliminate carbon emissions from the power sector."  

The new infrastructure funding program includes $7.5 billion for plants like Long Ridge, said U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who voted for the legislation. “It’s pretty exciting that here in Ohio we can be at the center of what’s going on in terms of the new technology,“ he said at a Dec. 10 plant tour.

Wholey has identified sites for his firm to develop new hydrogen-fired power plants but won’t disclose details. “It’s all evolving very quickly,” he says.