The 6-3 conservative majority on the US Supreme Court pulled the rug out from under the Environmental Protection Agency last month, when they limited EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. In terms of, they who laugh last laugh best, and the best laughs are going to play-makers in the green hydrogen field.
The Clean Power Plan Was Never The Point
For those of you new to the topic, West Virginia v. EPA was a challenge to the Clean Power Plan, which was an EPA proposal during the Obama administration. The aim was to nudge the power generating sector into a low carbon profile.
The Clean Power Plan exceeded its carbon-cutting goal by a wide margin, but not because it ever went into effect. Natural gas knocked coal out of the picture, in a trend that gathered momentum from the Obama administration on through to the Trump administration.
The Clean Power Plan never went into effect because the state of West Virginia and other fossil energy stakeholders took it to court. It was then rescinded during the Trump administration. The Trump EPA tried — and failed — to replace the Clean Power Plan with a relatively toothless version. The Biden administration has yet to come up with a plan of its own, leaving one to wonder why the highest court of the land decided to take up the case at all, let alone decide in favor of West Virginia.
If you have any thoughts about that, drop us a note in the comment thread. Bonus points if you mention the Federalist Society, which vetted and approved all six Justices in the conservative majority. Double bonus if you conclude that West Virginia v. EPA was not really about the EPA at all. It was a test case and a precedent-setter. Court watchers surmise that the ultimate goal is to prevent any federal agency from promulgating “big question” rules without explicit direction from Congress, which opens up the potential for freezing federal government in its tracks.
Nobody Expects Green Hydrogen
Well, that’s water under the bridge now. While challenges to the Clean Power Plan were winding their way through the courts, the green hydrogen revolution was beginning to take shape, first as a trickle and then a flood. By the time President Joe Biden took office last year, sustainable H2 was front and center in the Energy Department’s new “Energy Earthshots” initiative, which launched the “Hydrogen Shot” as its very first program in June of 2021.
Hydrogen Shot launched as a source-agnostic program. Hydrogen sourced from natural gas and other non-renewable resources is also on the table. However, the program requires carbon capture to meet its net zero goal for hydrogen from non-renewables, and that gives the advantage to green hydrogen.
It’s no accident, for example, that the agency’s Loans Program Office (yes, that office) has tapped a green hydrogen project in Utah for its first loan guarantee in 10 years.
“The facility in Delta, Utah, will combine 220 megawatts of alkaline electrolysis with two massive 4.5 million barrel salt caverns to store clean hydrogen,” the Energy Department Explains. “Advanced Clean Energy Storage will capture excess renewable energy when it is most abundant, store it as hydrogen, then deploy it as fuel.”
The plan is to feed the green hydrogen into a gas turbine power plant run by the Intermountain Power Agency. The facility is outfitted with new turbines that are designed to run on an initial mix of green hydrogen and natural gas, then gradually switch to 100% green hydrogen as the supply chain matures.
The Green Hydrogen Revolution Is Just Beginning
Of all the green hydrogen activity around the world, a proposal taking shape in Ukraine is probably the most interesting from a geopolitical standpoint. The nation aims to leverage its considerable wind and solar resources to develop a domestic green hydrogen industry. The idea is to boost its case for admission to the European Union, not as an economy in need of rescue but as one that can export energy to the EU, making a significant contribution to the sustainable, de-Russified European energy market of the future .
As a hint that things are moving in that direction, last week the Energy Department patted itself on the back for helping Ukraine to begin exporting electricity to the EU through Romania.
“As they increase in volume, power exports from Ukraine will diversify Europe’s energy supply in the midst of Russia’s aggression, support energy security throughout the region, strengthen their trade relations with Western allies, and provide a much-needed source of revenue to Ukraine’s embattled energy sector,” the Energy Department explained.
The Distributed Wind Angle
Over here in the US, proposals for new green hydrogen hubs are popping up in likely places like California, as well as likely places like Texas and Missouri. One especially ambitious hub wraps the whole tri-state area of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut into one collaborative bundle.
Meanwhile out in the Midwest, a race is taking shape between green hydrogen fans and other energy stakeholders. Fossil and bioenergy interests are proposing a whole new web of pipelines to shuttle carbon from power plants to underground sequestration facilities.
The new pipelines are already facing opposition from local land owners and environmental groups. To be fair, new clean energy transmission lines can face similar obstacles. However, green hydrogen has a couple of secret weapons up its sleeve. It can be produced at or near the point where electricity from renewable sources is generated, and it can also be used locally. It doesn’t necessarily need major new transmission lines or, for that matter, new pipelines.
One especially interesting development in that regard is a plan to introduce small scale, sustainable H2 production at farms in the US. Farmers could use the hydrogen to produce sustainable ammonia fertilizer, deploy it as an energy storage medium, or sell it.
The plan dovetails with the Energy Department’s promotion of distributed wind energy, which refers to turbines of any size that generate electricity for on-site use or local distribution.
Until recent years, distributed wind was a tough sell. Despite the Energy Department’s enthusiasm, the financial benefits have been difficult to pin down. The green hydrogen angle provides an opportunity for farmers and other distributed wind owners to generate value-added products in addition to generating electricity.
That’s not even counting the electrofuel movement, which is also beginning to gather steam on the heels of green hydrogen.
Game on. Under the Hydrogen Shot initiative, the Energy Department has set a goal of producing net-zero hydrogen at $2.00 per kilogram by 2025 and $1.00 per kilogram by 2030, which is just around the corner.
It’s difficult to see how natural gas with carbon capture gets there in time, but there you have it. Carbon capture fans have been struggling here in the US ever since the FutureGen CCS project bit the dust and they appear to have their hands full just dealing with emissions from existing power plants.
Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.
Image courtesy of US Department of Energy.
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