If it seems like the whole world has gone crazy over hydrogen, it’s no accident. The US Department of Energy is offering a new $8 billion funding pool to create regional clean hydrogen centers across the country. The emphasis is on cleanliness, not on the green that covers a large part of the territory. This could give states in the US Northeast a huge advantage, and they seem determined to make the most of it.
Prospects for clean hydrogen in the US Northeast: It’s complicated
The US Northeast is broadly defined as a region that includes 11 states—Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania—along with Washington, DC.
It would appear that the Northeast is in the running to become a regional center for clean hydrogen. It has all the basics including road, rail, river and pipeline transport networks, population centers and the overseas export potential of ports along the Atlantic coast.
The Northeast also has plenty of natural gas, especially in Pennsylvania. This is important because the primary source of global hydrogen supply today is natural gas.
But not so fast. Pennsylvania has already broken away from the Northeast to propose a gas-based hydrogen hub connecting the western part of the state with Ohio and West Virginia. Carbon capture systems can handle the “clean” part of the picture (if you have any thoughts on this, let us know in the comments).
Given the Department of Energy’s recent focus on green H2 from renewable sources, it may seem odd that Pennsylvania is switching to gas. However, the agency’s $8 billion hydrogen center shopping spree is being funded through the 2021 Infrastructure Act, and earmarking at least one gas-based hydrogen center is written into the bill.
The advantage of pure hydrogen: Offshore wind
With Pennsylvania out of the picture, other Northeastern states have zero potential for establishing their own clean gas-based hydrogen center. Stakeholders in the gas fracking boom of the early 2000s tried to gain a foothold in New York, Maryland and elsewhere in the Northeast, but were rebuffed by voters and policymakers.
The hydrogen market is also partially reliant on coal, but there are no coal mines in the Northeast outside of Pennsylvania either.
However, earlier this year New York and New Jersey joined Connecticut and Massachusetts to fight for a share of the Energy Department’s clean H2 pot, and last week the coastal states of Maine and Rhode Island also joined.
One of the game-changers, of course, is the abundant offshore wind energy resources available to the Atlantic coast states. With a new multi-gigawatt, zero-emissions electricity source in hand, the Northeastern states have a good opportunity to jump-start a regional green H2 industry based on electrolysis, in which an electric current is deployed to push hydrogen out of water.
To date, there are barely a handful of offshore wind turbines operating along the Atlantic coast, but New York and New Jersey have hundreds more planned. The rival nations also formed a partnership last January to coordinate their offshore industries.
Among other states in new hydrogen hub partnerships, Massachusetts stands out as the first to lead a new offshore wind farm through a new streamlined permitting process for federal offshore leases. Connecticut is also on track for a generous share of offshore wind power.
Rhode Island is claiming significant success in building and operating the very first commercial offshore wind farm in the US, and there’s a lot more where that came from.
Maine is somewhat troubled by technical difficulties regarding its offshore waters, but new floating wind turbine technology could unlock wind resources in Maine as well.
New life for old nukes
Generally speaking, the pure hydrogen scenario is not necessarily sustainable. Fossil energy stakeholders have pushed for the inclusion of fossil sources – with carbon sequestration – in the category of clean sources. The recovery of hydrogen from plastics, industrial waste gases and other fossil waste also accumulates in the clean lane.
Nuclear power is also in the mix, and that’s where things get interesting. Here in the US, the prospect of building a whole new fleet of nuclear power plants is slim. However, as older units are phased out, the remaining fleet continues to modernize. As a result, the nation’s nuclear capacity has remained relatively stable in recent years.
These upgrades include new technology that gives nuclear reactors more flexibility during start-up and decommissioning. This improved flexibility gives existing nuclear plants more room to continue operating under a grid scenario that includes more intermittent sources, including solar and wind.
The new flexibility could also allow nuclear plants to contribute more significantly to hydrogen production.
Nuclear power and the Northeast
With all that in mind, let’s take a look at what the New York State Energy Research and Development Agency had to say last week when it welcomed Maine and Rhode Island to join the new Clean Hydrogen Partnership.
“The coalition will continue to focus on integrating renewables – such as onshore and offshore wind, hydro and solar PV – and nuclear power into clean hydrogen production and the evaluation of clean hydrogen for transportation applications, including medium and heavy. – utility vehicles, heavy industry and power generation applications or other appropriate uses consistent with decarbonization efforts,” NYSERDA said.
The Regional Clean Hydrogen Center funding program stipulates that at least one node must include nuclear power, meaning the new Northeast Coalition could fulfill two hydrogen center mandates at once.
Nuclear advocates say the new, flexible technology allows for a more strategic deployment of nuclear power to balance the grid. This would help accelerate the integration of more wind and solar power into the grid. Electrolytic systems could also fit into the grid balancing picture. If all goes according to plan, the end result would be to push more natural gas and coal out of the electricity generation picture more quickly and out of the hydrogen supply chain.
Given the security risks highlighted by Russia’s murderous attack on Ukraine, it might not be a bad idea to sprinkle the US Northeast with new nuclear power plants. However, with existing reactors set to continue operating for the foreseeable future, the Northeast Hydrogen Coalition is not letting the opportunity slip through its fingers.
They are already off to a good start. Last year, Exelon Generation received a grant from the Department of Energy to install an electrolyzer at its home Nine Mile Point Nuclear Power Station in Oswego, NY. Project partners include Nel Hydrogen, Argonne National Laboratory, Idaho National Laboratory and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to demonstrate integrated generation, storage and routine use on the station.
Apparently, the colorists at the global energy salon decided that pink struck the right note to describe the hydrogen produced by on-site electrolysis at nuclear power plants. The Nine Mile Point project is expected to go live later this year, so stay tuned for more pink hydrogen news (and don’t forget to check out our green H2 coverage, too).
Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.
Image courtesy of the US Department of Energy.
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