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US DOE takes an “Energy Earthshot” on clean hydrogen

08 June 2021 Amena Saiyid

The US Department of Energy (DOE) is challenging companies to help slash the costs of "clean hydrogen" produced from renewable sources, nuclear energy, and fossil fuel plants equipped with carbon capture to $1/kg in the coming decade.

Under the "Energy Earthshots" initiative unveiled 7 June, Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm issued a call for "all hands-on-deck innovation, collaboration, and acceleration" for scaling up production, storage, delivery, and end-use of clean hydrogen in the US to make it affordable.

Calling clean hydrogen "a game changer," Granholm said "it will help decarbonize high-polluting heavy-duty and industrial sectors, while delivering good-paying clean energy jobs and realizing a net-zero economy by 2050."

Specifically, DOE's Request for Information seeks input on "viable hydrogen demonstration and deployment projects that enable clean hydrogen production, infrastructure, and end-use."

The initiative comes less than a fortnight after President Joe Biden released the federal government's fiscal year 2022 spending request, which included a line in DOE's budget about this initiative and funds to boost research, development, deployment, and demonstration for hydrogen, among other clean energy technologies.

Fifty-plus years ago, the Apollo 11 mission relied on a hydrogen-powered fuel cell system, which supplied electricity and water for the mission, and on liquid hydrogen as fuel to propel the rockets, according to the Roadmap to a US Hydrogen Economy, which a coalition of major oil, natural gas, power, automotive, fuel cell, and hydrogen companies developed in 2019.

In 2021, the Biden-Harris administration is following this blueprint as it looks to foster the fuel's use on earth as one approach for reducing GHG emissions, and for staving off the impending climate crisis.

According to IHS Markit estimates, the cost of producing green hydrogen from splitting water molecules by electrolysis that is powered by renewable electricity is $4-$5/kg. In comparison, the cost of producing "blue" hydrogen from fossil fuels equipped with carbon capture or from renewable natural gas captured from landfills is estimated at $1.50/kg-$2/kg.

"Getting the price down is great, but what would really be a game changer is if Secretary Granholm can harness the DOE expertise to reduce the intermittency, or 'firm' the production of green hydrogen supply to the industries that need it 24-7," said Alexander Klaessig, research director for IHS Markit's Hydrogen and Renewable Gas Forum.

If DOE can develop, demonstrate, and deploy technologies that bring down the costs of compressing and storing hydrogen in locations with intermittent renewable power, it would make a huge difference in the overall cost of clean hydrogen, he added.

To make clean hydrogen readily available, whether it be blue or green, companies need tax credits to help lower the costs of production, adoption of technology in consumer products that use this fuel, and a distribution network.

Tax credits

Companies committed to net-zero goals and engaged in finding clean energy solutions, such as Air Liquide USA or Albany-based Plug Power, support the goals of the Biden-Harris administration, as do members of Congress, notably Senator Thomas Carper, Democrat-Delaware, who are looking to boost production of clean hydrogen through production and investment tax credits.

Earlier this year, Carper, who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee (EPW), authored a bill creating investment and production tax credits for clean hydrogen. Carper's bill was folded into the Clean Energy for America Act that the Senate Finance Committee approved 26 May for full US Senate consideration.

In a 26 May unanimous vote, Carper also was instrumental in ushering a bill to reauthorize surface transportation projects across the US through the EPW committee. This bill not only authorizes funds for building roads, bridges, and highways, but also sets up a $2.5-billion competitive grant program to build hydrogen fueling and electric vehicle charging stations along the National Highway System.

On 4 June, the top officials of Air Liquide, Bloom Energy, Plug Power, and Chemours joined Carper at Air Liquide's innovation hub, a research facility in Newark, Delaware, to voice support for tax credits for clean hydrogen production and to test-drive hydrogen fuel cell vehicles provided by Toyota and Hyundai that already have been introduced in California.

Buying down cost of investments

Both pieces of legislation would be critical in "buying down the cost of investing in clean hydrogen," Carper said, after he drove around the Delaware site with Air Liquide Executive Vice President Mike Graff in a hydrogen-fueled Toyota Mirai.

After the test-ride, Graff noted that Carper's legislation will help catalyze the use and production of clean hydrogen across all sectors, including transportation, industry, and energy storage.

Air Liquide, which is developing technologies up and down the hydrogen supply chain, would benefit because it would create jobs and lower CO2 emissions, he said.

At the Delaware campus, one of five Air Liquide innovation hubs, researchers are investigating the optimization of electrolysis, development of safety protocols to fuel marine vessels with hydrogen, and membrane technology to upgrade biogas, or landfill gas, to sequester methane for use as a feedstock in producing hydrogen.

"With hydrogen technologies provided by Air Liquide, the [University of Delaware] operated the first hydrogen fuel cell bus some 15 years ago right here on the local campus," said Graff, who also supervises the company's Americas and Asia Pacific hubs.

Increase viability of hydrogen

Air Liquide supports investment and production tax credits for clean hydrogen production, believing they will provide "a bridge" as hydrogen projects are scaled up and costs come down during the energy transition, David Edwards, Air Liquide director and advocate for hydrogen energy, told IHS Markit 8 June in a telephone interview.

The company has already started operations at a $200-million liquid hydrogen plant in Las Vegas that will use renewable natural gas as a feedstock to supply about 30 mt a day to fueling stations across California. Currently, Air Liquide operates the world's largest current electrolyzer facility in Bécancour, Quebec, which is powered by 99% renewable energy from Hydro-Québec. The electrolyzer generates about 20 MW of power from splitting water molecules, while producing 8.2 mt a day to meet Canadian and US East Coast market needs. The facility's output is enough to fuel more than 2,000 cars, 16,000 forklifts, 275 buses, or 230 large trucks.

The Bécancour site also includes a test bed for the next generation of electrolyzers under development and is now a satellite of Air Liquide's Campus Innovation site in Delaware.

"While the goal to bring costs down is needed, we also must encourage market demand for low-carbon hydrogen in the transportation and energy sectors," Edwards said.

To make clean hydrogen affordable and readily available though, the cost of hydrogen to the end-user needs to be considered. This includes not just the cost of producing the gas, but also the cost of transporting the product via pipeline or other forms, such as road delivery of gas or liquid, the cost of adopting the technology in vehicles to use this fuel, and the cost of supplying this fuel to the end-user by setting up fueling stations.

Lack of availability

A lack of available clean hydrogen fuel remains the key obstacle to its widespread use, Plug Power CEO Andrew Marsh told IHS Markit on 4 June.

"My two biggest customers are Walmart and Amazon, and they want to move to hydrogen for many applications, but they can't until green hydrogen is readily available," Marsh said.

Plug Power is making strides in that direction. In February, Plug Power announced it would construct a green hydrogen production facility in Latham in western New York state that would have the ability to produce 45 mt a day of green liquid hydrogen using electrolyzers fueled by hydropower.

Combined with the green hydrogen that Plug Power's Tennessee plant already produces, the company aims to produce 500 mt per day of green power by 2025, which Marsh said is the equivalent of 1,000 mt of gasoline, "which is a lot."

"By making hydrogen available you accelerate the applications for hydrogen," Marsh added.

Posted 08 June 2021 by Amena Saiyid, Senior Climate & Energy Research Analyst, IHS Markit

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