If it seems like the whole country has gone crazy over hydrogen, it’s no coincidence. The US Department of Energy is offering $8 billion in new funding to create regional clean hydrogen centers across the country. The emphasis is on clean, not green, which covers a large territory. This could give the northeastern US states a huge advantage, and they seem determined to make the most of it.
Prospects for Clean Hydrogen in the Northeastern United States: It’s Complicated
The Northeastern United States is generally defined as a region that includes 11 states – Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania – as well as Washington, DC .
This would appear to put the northeast on the line for a regional clean hydrogen hub. It has all the basics, including road, rail, river and pipeline transportation networks, population centers and the overseas export potential of ports along the Atlantic coast.
The Northeast also has plenty of natural gas, primarily in Pennsylvania. This is important because the main source of the world’s hydrogen supply today is natural gas.
Not so fast, however. Pennsylvania has already broken away from the northeast to propose a gas-based hydrogen hub connecting the western part of the state to Ohio and West Virginia. Carbon capture systems will process the “clean” part of the image (if you have any thoughts on this, drop us a note in the comments thread).
Given the Department of Energy’s recent emphasis on green H2 from renewable resources, it might seem odd that Pennsylvania is going gas. However, the agency’s $8 billion hydrogen center buying spree is being funded by the bipartisan Infrastructure Act of 2021, and an exclusion for at least one gas-based hydrogen center is enshrined in law.
The advantage of clean hydrogen: offshore wind
With Pennsylvania excluded, other northeastern states have no potential to create their own gas-based clean hydrogen hub. Stakeholders of the gas fracking boom of the early 2000s attempted 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 partly based on coal, but there are no coal mines in the northeast either outside of Pennsylvania.
Nevertheless, earlier this year, New York and New Jersey teamed up with Connecticut and Massachusetts to fight for a share of the Department of Energy’s clean H2 pot, and last week the coastal states of Maine and Rhode Island also joined them.
A game-changer, of course, is the wealth of offshore wind resources accessible by Atlantic coast states. With a new multi-gigawatt source of zero-emissions electricity in hand, the northeastern states have a good opportunity to launch a regional green H2 industry based on electrolysis, in which an electric current is deployed to push the hydrogen gas from water.
To date, barely a handful of offshore wind turbines are at work on the Atlantic coast, but New York and New Jersey both have hundreds more in the works. The rival states also formed a partnership last January to coordinate their offshore industries.
Among the other states in new hydrogen center 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 to incorporate a generous share of offshore wind power.
Rhode Island claims the significant achievement of building and operating the first-ever commercial offshore wind farm in the United States, and there are many more where that came from.
Maine is somewhat problematic due to technical difficulties involving its coastal waters, but new floating wind turbine technology could also unlock wind resources in Maine.
New life for old nukes
Generally speaking, the clean hydrogen scenario is not necessarily sustainable. Fossil energy players have pushed to include fossil resources – with carbon capture – in the clean category. The recovery of hydrogen from plastics, industrial waste gases and other fossil wastes is also grouped under the clean path.
Nuclear power is also part of the mix, and this is where things get interesting. Here in the United States, the prospect of building a whole new fleet of nuclear power plants is dim. However, as older units close, the remaining fleet continues to upgrade. As a result, the country’s nuclear generation capacity has remained fairly stable in recent years.
These upgrades include new technology that gives nuclear reactors greater flexibility to scale up and down. This improved flexibility gives existing nuclear power plants more room to continue operating in a grid scenario that includes more intermittent sources, including solar and wind.
The new flexibility could also allow nuclear power plants to make a more significant contribution to hydrogen production.
Nuclear Power and the Northeast
With all of that in mind, let’s take a look at what the New York State Energy Research and Development Agency said last week when it invited Maine and Rhode Island to join the new clean hydrogen hub partnership.
“The coalition will continue to focus on the integration of renewable energies – such as onshore and offshore wind, hydroelectricity and solar photovoltaic – and nuclear energy in the production of clean hydrogen, and the assessment of clean hydrogen for use in transportation, including medium and heavy-duty transportation – commercial vehicles, heavy industry, and power generation applications or other appropriate uses consistent with decarbonization efforts,” said NYSERDA.
The Regional Clean Hydrogen Hub’s funding program stipulates that at least one hub must include nuclear power, meaning the new northeast coalition could fulfill two hydrogen hub terms in one fell swoop.
Nuclear proponents have argued that flexible new technology allows nuclear power to be deployed more strategically for grid balancing. This would help accelerate the integration of more wind and solar power into the grid. Electrolysis systems could also fit into the grid balancing picture. If all goes according to plan, the end result would be to phase out more natural gas and coal more quickly from power generation and eliminate them from the hydrogen supply chain as well.
Given the security risks highlighted by Russia’s deadly attack on Ukraine, it would probably be a bad idea to dot the northeastern United States with new nuclear power plants. However, as existing reactors will continue to operate in the near term, the Northeast Hydrogen Coalition is not letting the opportunity slip through its fingers.
They already have a good start. Last year, the firm Exelon Generation received a grant from the Department of Energy to install an electrolyser at its Nine Mile Point Nuclear Generating 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 normal use at the station.
Apparently, colorists at the World Energy Show decided that pink was the right tone to describe the hydrogen produced by onsite electrolysis systems at nuclear power plants. The Nine Mile Point project is expected to be operational later this year, so stay tuned for more information on pink hydrogen (and be sure to check out our green H2 coverage as well).
follow me on twitter @TinaMCasey.
Image courtesy of the US Department of Energy.
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