Red State’s Blue Hydrogen Might not be Green

May 4, 2022

Senator Manchin’s idea of clean energy might not be.

WESA Pittsburgh:

At an industrial site on the banks of the Ohio River, Vance Powers pointed to a brand new building – a big blue box with pipes coming in and out of it.

Inside the building is a 485-megawatt electric generator owned by Long Ridge Energy Generation. Since opening two years ago, Long Ridge has run the plant on natural gas from the nearby Marcellus and Utica shale region.

But a few weeks ago, it began an experiment that its owners hope is the start of new, cleaner way to power the economy – on hydrogen.

In March, the plant, in Hannibal, Ohio, started feeding its combustion turbine with a small percentage of hydrogen, trucked in from a nearby chemical plant.

“We think that what we’re doing here today is ahead of the curve,” said Powersthe company’s chief financial officer. The company says it’s the first of its kind to blend hydrogen with natural gas to make commercial power.

Bo Wholey, Long Ridge’s CEO, said the company started exploring ways to lower its plant’s carbon footprint a few years ago, in response to what customers want — electricity that doesn’t produce carbon dioxide, the key driver in climate change, which the UN has called a “threat to human wellbeing and (the) health of the planet”. Without deep and rapid cuts to carbon pollution, the UN recently reported, the earth could see catastrophic warming by the end of the century.

Wholey said he was hoping to lure a data center to this stretch of the Ohio-West Virginia border by the promise of low-carbon energy.

“We’re really responding to what the market wants,” Wholey said. On top of that, investors are starting to demand lower carbon footprints, he said. “I think any new power plant project is going to have to have some pathway to decarbonize. I don’t know that financing would be possible without that in today’s market.”
Eventually, the company wants to run the plant completely on hydrogen. Right now, Long Ridge gets a few truckloads of hydrogen a month in big, white tubes from a nearby chemical plant. But it would need much more to run completely on hydrogen.

Most industrial hydrogen is made from natural gas, in a process called “steam methane reforming.” This method — known as “grey hydrogen,” creates CO2.

Long Ridge says it wants to capture that CO2 and store it underground, a method known as “blue” hydrogen.

Around the country, others are beating a path to hydrogen, which the federal government has been trying to support since the George W. Bush administration.

President Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure bill included $8 billion to create four “hydrogen hubs” around the country — where facilities create, store, and use hydrogen in industrial settings. A consortium of companies is hoping to land one in the Pennsylvania, West Virginia and southeast Ohio region. That has Wholey excited.

There is a problem.

Smithsonian:

Blue hydrogen is derived from methane in natural gas. It has previously been touted as a better alternative because the production emissions are captured and stored deep underground. However, new research indicates that this energy alternative could actually be worse than burning coal.

A peer-reviewed study published in Energy Science & Engineering, an open-source journal, concludes “the greenhouse gas footprint of blue hydrogen is more than 20 percent greater than burning natural gas or coal for heat and some 60 percent greater than burning diesel oil for heat,” according to the paper.

In addition, carbon dioxide is a byproduct of blue hydrogen production. While the plan is to capture and store the gas, the question remains as to what to do with that supply in the future. There is also concern about the long-term viability of holding it underground, reports Loz Blain of New Atlas.

Climate scientists Robert Howarth and Mark Jacobson, authors of the new study, point out this storage process is likely not as “clean” as previously thought. The Cornell and Stanford researchers, respectively, report that considerable amounts of methane escape into the atmosphere as natural gas is extracted from the Earth. Based on industry standards, they estimate the leakage rate at 3.5 percent of consumption for these “fugitive emissions,” or unintentionally leaked gases. 

In just 20 years, one ton of methane emissions can warm the air 86 times more than carbon dioxide, reports Tim De Chant of Ars Technica.

“Our analysis assumes that captured carbon dioxide can be stored indefinitely, an optimistic and unproven assumption,” the study authors write in the paper. “Even if true though, the use of blue hydrogen appears difficult to justify on climate grounds.”

Oil and gas companies are hoping to switch to hydrogen in the near future. However, producing hydrogen is expensive and will likely remain so for the next few decades.

The $1 trillion infrastructure package that was just approved in the United States Senate aims to make hydrogen a more accessible resource. The bill includes $8 billion to develop four regional “clean hydrogen” hubs to provide a low-emission source of fuel for transportation and home heating, reports Oliver Millman of the Guardian.

As a stop-gap measure, energy producers propose using “gray” hydrogen processes, which are less costly but produce more methane and carbon dioxide. This process involves exposing natural gas to high heat, pressure and steam, which releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, reports Ars Technica.

WESA again:

In the U.S., a hydrogen tax credit was part of several climate policies in last year’s failed Build Back Better Bill. That legislation was shot down by West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin. But Manchin has voiced support for hydrogen, especially hydrogen made from fossil fuels – and he’s hoping one of the hubs is built in West Virginia.

Confused on hydrogen colors? See here.

CNBC:

Green hydrogen is when the energy used to power electrolysis comes from renewable sources like wind, water or solar.

Blue hydrogen is hydrogen produced from natural gas with a process of steam methane reforming, where natural gas is mixed with very hot steam and a catalyst. A chemical reaction occurs creating hydrogen and carbon monoxide. Water is added to that mixture, turning the carbon monoxide into carbon dioxide and more hydrogen. If the carbon dioxide emissions are then captured and stored underground, the process is considered carbon-neutral, and the resulting hydrogen is called “blue hydrogen.”

Grey hydrogen is made from natural gas reforming like blue hydrogen, but without any efforts to capture carbon dioxide byproducts.

Pink hydrogen is hydrogen made with electrolysis powered by nuclear energy, which does not produce any carbon dioxide emissions. (Although nuclear energy creates radioactive wastewhich must be stored safely for thousands of years.)

Yellow hydrogen is hydrogen made with electrolysis from the energy grid. The carbon emissions vary greatly depending on the sources powering the grid.

Turquoise hydrogen is hydrogen produced from methane pyrolysis, or splitting methane into hydrogen and solid carbon with heat in reactors or blast furnaces. Turquoise hydrogen is still in its nascent stages of being commercialized, and its climate-conscious value depends on powering the pyrolysis with clean energy and storing the physical carbon.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: