This article is the result of a partnership between Inside Climate News and The Seattle Times.
EAST WENATCHEE, Washington—On warm spring days, when the Columbia River is swollen with snowmelt, hydropower generation soars at times when demand may be weak. Markets tank, and sending water through dam turbines can be a money-losing proposition.
In a quest to end these red-ink power sales, the Douglas County Public Utility District is making a $20 million investment in a new, clean energy business.
In an old apple orchard now cleared of trees, a small portion of the electricity from the district’s Wells Dam will be harnessed to make hydrogen fuel from well water.
“This can solve a lot of problems for us,” said Gary Ivory, the utility district’s general manager at a March groundbreaking for the project. “If it works, we can scale it up.”
The pilot project will put this small rural utility, about 150 miles east of Seattle, on the leading edge of a global push to produce hydrogen, a colorless, flammable gas that when combusted does not emit carbon or other greenhouse gases. Vast quantities are present in the water that covers most of the planet. But massive amounts of electricity would be required to make clean hydrogen a building block of the 21st century low-carbon economy that is envisioned by the international Paris Agreement, signed by more than 190 nations.
This hydrogen could help purge fossil fuels from the cement and steel industries or be used to power long-haul trucks, trains, vessels, aircraft and combusted to generate electricity. It can be carried by pipelines to heat homes and businesses, a use now touted by natural gas utility officials in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere as they try to forge new roles for their companies in a future with fewer carbon emissions.
The European Union and international investors—in places as far-flung as Saudi Arabia and Brazil—are committing billions of dollars to hydrogen development. In the U.S., President Joe Biden included funding for 15 hydrogen projects in his $2 trillion infrastructure plan released last month.
Interest among energy companies has become intense, said Mike Peters, an engineer at the U.S. government’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado who is leading a hydrogen research project involving six national laboratories and more than 20 industry and academic partners.
“This is a space where they all have to figure out where they are going to play,” Peters said.
In Washington state, hydrogen’s potential to boost public utility districts east of the Cascades has drawn strong bipartisan support. In 2019, a bill that authorized the Douglas County utility district to sell hydrogen passed House and the Senate without a single vote of dissent.
“We have a long and proud history of being leaders in clean energy. Now we’re going to be able to use our hydropower to do this other cool thing,” said state Sen. Brad Hawkins, a Republican from East Wenatchee and former policy analyst for Douglas County Utility District who sponsored the legislation.
A Hydrogen Future?
To pry apart the hydrogen molecules locked in H2O, the Douglas County utility district will turn to an “electrolyzer,” which uses power to accomplish the separation from oxygen.
The equipment, made by the engine manufacturer Cummins, is compact. It measures 28 feet long and 12 feet tall, and will be able to produce more than two tons per day of what is called “green hydrogen” because it comes from a renewable source of electricity.
The 5 megawatts of power needed to operate the electrolyzer will be drawn from the turbines installed at the Wells Dam, which was built in the ’60s and stretches across the Columbia River in a sparsely populated region where thousands of acres of fruit orchards grow in the arid, irrigated lowlands
The dam’s 10 turbines have the ability to produce up to 840 megawatts of electricity, enough for more than 640,000 homes. But the dam can only store a small amount of water. So, for the most part, the river must be sent through the turbines, or spilled downstream in volumes limited to protect young migrating salmon from too high of concentrations of dissolved gas in the water by the dam.
The ability to direct electricity to hydrogen production will help to even out generation, reducing wear and tear and costly maintenance on the turbines, according to Ivory, the general manager.
The project site is strategic, close by a major Bonneville Power Administration transmission line that could enable the utility district to tap into far-flung, renewable electricity and over the long term expand hydrogen production by up to 20-fold. Electricity could be purchased from northwest wind farms in the spring season, when markets often are glutted, or California solar power at midday, when production peaks and there may be scant demand.
Ivory says that district officials can constantly scan the markets and decide when price of power is cheap enough to profitably produce hydrogen.
“This an hour-to-hour, minute-to-minute thing for us,” Ivory said.
In the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere, the amounts of surplus power to make hydrogen are expected to greatly expand along with the installations of new solar and wind farms.
So far, though, green hydrogen production, has barely gotten off the ground and has generally cost more than twice that of hydrogen made from fossil fuels.
That price is forecast to fall, and be on par with fossil fuel hydrogen in nine years, according to IHS Markit, a global information and data company. For that to happen, a lot of large-scale production would have to come online.
Some are on the way. They include a $5 billion solar and wind farm producing green hydrogen in Saudi Arabia and tens of millions of investments in green hydrogen that NextEra Energy subsidiaries are planning in Florida.
But it is still uncertain whether enough green hydrogen eventually will be available to play a big role in reducing global carbon emissions.
It would require a formidable scale of production.
An industrial market already exists for hydrogen, much of it used by refineries to pull sulfur, a serious air pollutant, out of fuels and to produce fertilizers.
Currently, this demand is generally met by making something called gray hydrogen. The feedstock is natural gas, and the reforming process releases significant carbon pollution and will continue to do so unless a cost-efficient way is found to capture and store these emissions.
In the United States, some 10 million metric tons of green hydrogen would be needed to replace the current industrial consumption of gray hydrogen, according to information provided by Amgad Elgowainy, a senior scientist at Argonne National Laboratory.
Producing this low-carbon hydrogen would be a big undertaking. It would require 57,000 megawatts of dedicated electricity generation, which is roughly equal to dedicating all of the nation’s current wind and solar and geothermal installations to that task.
If hydrogen was put to new uses, then the demand for power would climb much higher.
“There are a ton of questions. This is still an early market,” said Peters, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory project manager.
Hydrogen Already In Use
Many companies looking for a path to a low-carbon future are undaunted by questions about future supplies of hydrogen.
They are developing a wide range of uses for hydrogen that can help push low-carbon energy into new places.
Some involve fuel cells, which essentially use hydrogen to produce electricity that then provides power.
Kirkland-based Kenworth Truck Company is already building all-electric trucks, but they require heavy battery packs five to seven times the size of those installed in all-electric cars, according to Kyle Quinn, chief technology officer for Paccar, the parent company of Kenworth.
More recently, the company contracted to produce 10 semi-trucks that operate with hydrogen fuel cells as part of a $41 million research project with Toyota funded by the California Air Resources Board. These trucks have a range of more than 300 miles that could eventually make them a good fit for long-haul drivers.
“Hydrogen is pretty light … and you can refuel the vehicle more quickly than you could charge a battery,” Quinn said. “Those things are very attractive. And they’re the main reasons we’re pursuing hydrogen fuel cell as a zero-emission vehicle.”
Some of these trucks already are being tested at the Port of Los Angeles, which received the grant, and more are on the way.
Though the cost of such new technology may be an obstacle, hydrogen-fuel-cell-powered semis may eventually help with short-distance hauls around other ports, including the Port of Seattle, which earlier this month announced a goal of bringing carbon emissions of all types to net zero by 2050.
Indiana-based Cummins, renowned for its diesel engines, also sees hydrogen fuel cells as part of its future for land-based and maritime propulsion systems, according to Amy Adams, a company vice president.
In Europe, the company has developed a hydrogen-powered passenger train, and in the Pacific Northwest, it has provided the fuel-cell propulsion system for a 70-foot long high-speed ferry, which will be able to carry up to 84 passengers that is almost finished being constructed at Bellingham-based All American Marine and will be owned by SWITCH Maritime.
The ferry will operate in the San Francisco area and is the first of what Ron Willie, All American’s president, hopes will be a new generation of vessels built by the company to run with hydrogen fuel cell technology. All American, like Kenworth, also is producing all-electric propulsion, but Willie says that the weight of batteries may be a big drawback when trying to build a boat that goes fast and can carry a full load.
The new ferry—called Sea Change—will use compressed hydrogen to operate the fuel cell that creates the electricity for the motor.
In the future, there also could be liquid hydrogen fuel, which requires chilling but would be a much denser fuel that could enable bigger vessels, such as tug boats—or oceangoing cargo ships—to travel long distances.
Hydrogen in Pipelines
Natural gas utilities are embracing hydrogen as they face increasing pressure to reduce carbon emissions from methane now carried in their pipelines.
Some hydrogen could be mixed with methane gas in utility pipelines in concentrations up to 30 percent. Some, in pure form, could be delivered in specially designed polyethylene lines to industrial or other customers that opt to switch to hydrogen.
Portland-based NW Natural has been on the frontiers of this movement. The company has experimented with blends of hydrogen in pipelines, cooktops, water heaters and appliances.
Then last October, the utility announced a partnership with Eugene Water & Electric Board to operate a 5-megawatt electrolyzer that will produce green hydrogen. Some of it then will be combined with carbon dioxide in a thermal process to create the chemical equivalent of natural gas.
“We’re focused on getting as much low-cost renewable gas to our customers as possible,” said Chris Kroeker, emerging technology manager at NW Natural. “And we’re preparing for that future.”
If the natural gas utilities do turn to hydrogen, they could soak up a lot of this fuel.
To substitute hydrogen for a fifth of the U.S. gas now delivered to residents, businesses and industry would require 30 million tons of hydrogen. If that hydrogen was to be produced by electrolyzers, it would require a generating capacity equivalent to nearly 16 percent of the entire U.S. power industry output, according to an analysis of U.S. Energy Information Administration statistics.
The gas industry’s vision for hydrogen is getting pushback from some environmentalists who advocate for the development of green hydrogen but caution against proposals that could cost consumers a lot of money and fail to meet an urgent agenda of reducing global greenhouse gases.
“It (hydrogen) can do all these things. But is it the best solution for all of them? Absolutely not,” said Rachel Fakhry, a policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We don’t want to see hydrogen being forced into all these applications where it doesn’t make sense.”
Some researchers also are skeptical. They argue that hydrogen should be reserved for the “last mile” of carbon reduction, or in ways that electricity and batteries fall short.
“Technically, yes, you could burn it (hydrogen) in your house. The question is, whether we should?” said Peters, the National Renewables Energy Laboratory project manager.
Douglas County Readies Plant
This month in East Wenatchee, earthmovers are now preparing the utility’s district site for the arrival of the Cummins electrolyzer. Sometime toward the end of the year, the first tons of hydrogen are expected to be pulled from well water, and the gas then will be transferred into tanker trucks to be hauled away.
Some is contracted to be sold at a new hydrogen fuel station that will be set up in Western Washington. Some will go to power forklifts. The rest will go to other buyers.
At least for the next year, Douglas County is likely to be the only producer of green hydrogen in Washington. But other public utility districts also operate dams. If things go well, they may join the scramble to hydrogen.
“I’d like to think our neighbors are closely watching us,” said Aaron Viebrock, a Douglas County utility district commissioner.