At the beginning of the last decade, renewable energy remained an industry-polarizing topic. Legacy energy companies held that fossil fuels would maintain their grip on the industry for generations to come, largely relegating emerging technologies such as solar to the realm of startups.
In 2020, these legacy companies, such as GE and Siemens view hydrogen as a second chance, according to participants in an American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE) webinar.
"I'm doing three to five calls a week with all flavor of industrial companies, gas companies, utilities, chemical companies and investors," Skip Grow, a managing director at Morgan Stanley, told ACORE last Tuesday. "For a lot of those companies, especially those that feel they missed the renewable opportunity, they seem to take the view that they're not going to miss hydrogen if and when it emerges."
Grow said interest from investors is likely to spur a "massive spending wave" brought on by a growing belief that 100% carbon-free power and transportation is now inevitable.
"We've got corporates and investors who are now saying, I'm no longer investing in fossil fuels, period. It doesn't matter who is in office."
Vice President of Renewable Fuels, Mitsubishi Power
Panelists from ACORE's Tuesday discussion generally agreed that hydrogen's potential flexibility and its ability to build on existing infrastructure to scale rapidly have implications for a host of industries. Industry leaders believe the power sector will play a critical role in helping hydrogen achieve scale, eventually making it more accessible to other industries.
In fact, the transformation has already begun, according to Sean Ebnet, vice president of business development for Ørsted, an offshore wind company with headquarters in Denmark. Ebnet told ACORE members that many European nations have established goals to replace natural with 20% green hydrogen, and that Germany is aiming for as much as 60% replacement. Blending hydrogen with natural gas, he said, makes the transition to 100% renewable energy more cost effective because it allows industries to take advantage of existing infrastructure.
Regulation, flexibility benefits will drive hydrogen growth
U.S. utilities have also begun to jump on the hydrogen bandwagon. In early October, San Diego Gas & Electric announced that it plans to bring two long-duration green hydrogen storage projects online by 2022, although the details of the operation are not yet public. A few days later, Ohio's Long Ridge Energy Terminal announced plans to convert a 485 MW combined-cycle gas power plant, which is currently under construction, to run, eventually, on 100% green hydrogen, which is produced using zero-emisson electricity.
For 60 years, the site of the gas plant included one of the nation's largest aluminum smelters, and when Long Ridge purchased the site, they didn't really have a defined business plan for the property, according to Long Ridge President Bo Wholey.
"The infrastructure situation was good," Wholey said. "We thought, this will be a good place to have a power plant, given that the transmission lines are already in place."
Long Ridge began building the gas-fired power plant at the site last year, he explained, but shortly after construction began learned that the plant's GE gas turbine could also burn up to 20% hydrogen without modification.
"The second thing we learned," he said, "was that a lot of potential customers, like data centers, wanted green energy." So Long Ridge began to explore what it would take to transition to 100% hydrogen over a period of 10 years, and eventually arrived at a partnership with GE and New Fortress Energy to execute their plan. "It's what the customer base is asking for," Wholey said.
State legislative requirements that expect utilities to decarbonize faster than other industrial sectors will drive early adoption of hydrogen in power generation, according to Michael Ducker, vice president of renewable fuels for Mitsubishi Power. Ducker believes the power industry will lead the way with respect to hydrogen adoption. Ducker said the industry, like Long Ridge, has significant financial incentive to implement hydrogen as well.
"We've got corporates and investors who are now saying, I'm no longer investing in fossil fuels, period. It doesn't matter who is in office," Ducker said.
"Gas can be deployed quickly and at scale, while existing and future gas power plants can be decarbonized and avoid CO2 lock-in by using hydrogen as a fuel or deploying carbon capture and sequestration."
Emergent Technologies Director for Decarbonization, GE
Flexibility, according to Ebnet, is another key reason why the power sector may move toward hydrogen. At low concentrations, hydrogen can be blended into existing natural gas infrastructure with minimal consequences. Over time, as the availability of hydrogen fuel increases, governments can build out new infrastructure when the switch makes sense.
This is also true at Long Ridge, Wholey said. While the conversion to 100% hydrogen-fueled energy will require some capital investment — including modifications to the gas turbine itself and the installation of new gas combusters — making these changes won't require a disruption in electric service from the existing gas plant.
"We're highly confident it's doable," Wholey said. "We will swap out the parts over the next few years when the plant goes down for normal maintenance."
This potential flexibility has convinced Jeff Goldmeer, GE's emergent technologies director for decarbonization, that natural gas and eventually hydrogen will enable the power sector to bridge the gap between fossil fuels, especially coal, and 100% renewable energy.
"Gas can be deployed quickly and at scale, while existing and future gas power plants can be decarbonized and avoid CO2 lock-in by using hydrogen as a fuel or deploying carbon capture and sequestration," Goldmeer said. "We believe gas will contribute to decarbonization efforts both by reducing emissions from coal-to-gas switching, but also by enabling greater renewable energy penetration."
'We have every confidence cost will continue to decline'
While fueling gas turbines with hydrogen does require some modification and upgrading, Goldmeer said some of GE's advanced turbines now have configurations that can operate on fuel blends containing up to 50-60% hydrogen. In fact, GE turbines already utilize hydrogen as a fuel at more than 75 sites, Goldmeer said, and the development of turbines designed for blended fuels will allow utilities to immediately deploy new generation assets that will remain viable into the future as hydrogen fuel becomes more readily available.
Fuel availability may be among the final barriers to large-scale hydrogen adoption, said Ethan Zindler, BloombergNEF's head of Americas, told members of ACORE, adding that hydrogen currently struggles to compete with fossil fuels in terms of cost. But China is already producing electrolyzers for the production of green hydrogen for significantly less than the the rest of the world, suggesting the ability to produce cost-effective, emission-free hydrogen does exist, Zindler noted.
"We have every confidence cost will continue to decline," Zindler said, estimating that hydrogen could be cost competitive by 2035.
Once the cost comes down, storage and transportation remain key barriers to the widespread adoption of hydrogen. At Long Ridge, Wholey plans to eliminate this barrier by generating green hydrogen on site.
"Out of the gate, there's some existing byproduct hydrogen next door which I think we can start burning and blending next year," he said. "But to me, the exciting thing and the main thing is to make green hydrogen onsite, which we would do using water from the Ohio river and solar, wind and electrolyzers onsite."
Long Ridge is currently looking for customers interested in purchasing hydrogen-generated electricity. But long-term, it may sell raw hydrogen as well.
Curtailment, Ducker said, gives utilities with high renewable portfolios yet another reason to adopt hydrogen. California, for example, is already averaging 100-150 hours of curtailed renewable energy per year that currently goes to waste, Ducker said. Hydrogen could enable utilities to make use of excess renewable energy, which could be stored long-term for seasonal use or sold to other industries to generate new streams of revenue.
In time, Ducker believes the sale of hydrogen fuel generated with energy that would otherwise end up curtailed, as well as the hydrogen research and development utilities will likely spearhead in the years to come, will help make hydrogen a cost-competitive solution for decarbonizing transportation, manufacturing and even residential heating.