Utah’s first steps to ‘clean’ hydrogen will rely on not-so-clean greenhouse gas

Projects in “hub” proposal include making hydrogen from methane and mixing hydrogen with methane.

(Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune) Many of the pines in the Lake Country of the western Uinta Mountains, pictured in 2016, are standing dead thanks to beetle infestation. One of Utah's hydrogen hub proposals aims to create methane from beetle kills and other forest waste and then produce hydrogen from the methane.

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Utah’s projects for a federal “hydrogen hub” are as much about methane as they are about hydrogen.

Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming joined to submit a proposal in April to tap some of the $8 billion the U.S. Department of Energy has set aside to develop a handful of “hydrogen hubs.” The hubs are intended to develop sources and infrastructure for hydrogen, which can generate power without climate-harming emissions.

The states must wait until the fall to find out if the Western Interstate Hydrogen Hub proposal gets funded, but WISHH was one of 33 original applicants (out of 79) that DOE encouraged to submit a detailed proposal.

The states came up with eight projects, including two in Utah. The Utah projects are relatively small, and they rely heavily on methane, the energy-producing component in natural gas that is itself a climate-damaging greenhouse gas.

Greg Todd, director of the Utah Office of Energy Development, said the four states relied heavily on a consultant, Atkins, to choose the projects because the firm had extensive experience with DOE. “Atkins knew what they were doing. They worked pretty hard with the vetting process.”

Hydrogen has drawn attention as a clean fuel in recent years, but it’s been more theory than practice. There are no natural sources of hydrogen. It has to be created from other sources, and currently the vast majority of hydrogen is made from methane and used by the oil industry in processes that release greenhouse gases. There is little demand for hydrogen in Utah outside of the gasoline refineries, which make their own hydrogen from methane and use it to “crack” petroleum.

Only California has anything close to a network of hydrogen fueling stations. At the end of 2022, there were only two hydrogen-fueled vehicles even registered in Utah, and neither one was a large truck. And while there once was a plan to build a hydrogen refueling station in the Inland Port area on Salt Lake City’s west side, the “Project Beehive” plan has been scrapped as the Utah Inland Port Authority will conduct a new public outreach process before formulating a new plan for the area, said UIPA Executive Director Ben Hart.

Hydrogen from dead trees

One of the Utah projects involves a company called AFV Energy, which operates a subsidiary, Juniper Fuels. According to CEO Jimmy Seear, the company is making “renewable natural gas” (methane) in Utah from the forest waste created when trees are thinned. The company has equipment that heats the waste without burning it, producing methane that can be captured.

“The process and technology we use operates at a higher temperature which does produce a very clean and large volume of gas,” Seear said.

Drought and beetle infestations have brought forest waste management to the forefront. All Western states and the U.S. Forest Service are trying to reduce forest fuels to reduce wildfires, which in addition to damaging life and property also contribute to climate change. Even leaving the wood to rot releases carbon dioxide.

Because the trees were absorbing carbon dioxide while they were growing, the captured methane is considered to have low- or negative carbon. If it is burned for energy or converted to hydrogen, it will emit carbon dioxide, but it is said to be “offset” by the carbon dioxide captured during the trees’ growth.

Kevin Whitty, a University of Utah chemical engineering professor who has done extensive research on biomass as a source of methane and hydrogen, said the AVF project would likely need a big federal subsidy to overcome the complications.

“There are so many steps and associated inefficiencies and high costs that their project won’t make economic sense. But these days, things like that don’t seem to matter,” Whitty said.

Seear said his company is partnering with another firm called Bayotech to produce hydrogen from the gas and capture the carbon produced to make it more climate friendly, but that is still in the planning stages. There is no hydrogen currently being produced from AVF’s forest waste projects, just methane.

Clean, but not ‘green’

Hydrogen from methane, even when the carbon is captured (so-called “blue” hydrogen), is not carbon-free, and that’s because of leakage, according to the Rocky Mountain Institute. “At average US methane leakage rates, producing hydrogen from natural gas via steam methane reforming (SMR) will have cradle-to-gate emissions above 2.5 kg CO2 equivalent (CO2e) per kg of hydrogen, even if producers are somehow able to capture 100 percent of carbon dioxide emitted during production.”

There is another way to make hydrogen, and that is by splitting water molecules in electrolysis. If the energy for that comes from carbon-free sources, the hydrogen is considered “green,” meaning no greenhouse gases were released in producing it or consuming it. But electrolysis is expensive.

Another project in the four-state proposal comes from XCel Energy, XCel is Colorado’s largest supplier of both electricity and natural gas. Its contribution to the hydrogen hub will be making green hydrogen using wind, solar or nuclear.

“Our hydrogen hub projects propose to produce hydrogen using carbon-free nuclear or renewable energy and offer new opportunities for storing and producing electricity and reducing carbon emissions across all sectors of the economy,” said Greg Chamberlain, vice president of clean fuels for XCel.

And a New Mexico project in the proposal would retrofit the retired Escalante coal-fired power plant to run on natural gas and hydrogen.

That is similar to the most ambitious hydrogen project in Utah. The Intermountain Power Project is shutting down its coal-fired power plant and replacing it with a gas power plant that will first mix hydrogen and natural gas with plans to go to full hydrogen produced from solar and wind farms near the Millard County facility. The plant is located above massive salt domes where months’ worth of hydrogen can be stored, making it a potential source of steady, baseload power.

Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune The Intermountain Power Plant near Delta, Utah Friday April 12, 2013. The plant is in the process of converting from coal to a combination of natural gas and hydrogen.

The IPP project isn’t included in the Western states hub proposal, but it is part of another hub proposal – California’s. Los Angeles gets the vast majority of IPP’s power. But Todd, of the Utah Office of Energy Development, said the IPP project is still closely watched in Utah. “We want them to have success, for sure. That little corner of the world where there are those salt domes is amazing.”

A little in the pipes

The other Utah project in the hydrogen hub proposal is Dominion Energy’s blending small amounts of hydrogen into the natural gas that customers in Delta, Utah, area receive. Dominion, which serves natural gas to about 80% of Utah households, began blending in 5% hydrogen to gas customers in the Delta area last month.

That followed an earlier test at Dominion’s Utah testing facility. “The tests found that a 5% hydrogen blend was safe and effective in reducing emissions from natural gas appliances,” Dominion reported.

About 1,800 customers in Delta and nearby towns of Oasis, Hinckley and Deseret are now receiving the blend, which is low enough in hydrogen that it works with regular gas appliances and furnaces. The hydrogen currently is not produced from an emissions-free source, but Dominion “anticipates an upgrade to green hydrogen created using an electrolyzer will occur later this year.”

Dominion, which is No. 242 on the Fortune 500 and has customers across the country, is also testing hydrogen blends in North Carolina and Virginia. The company also operates electrical utilities and has a 2050 target to be carbon neutral, although it hasn’t detailed how it will get there.

A knock from the docs

Hydrogen blending has drawn opposition from the country’s largest organization of doctors. The American Medical Association last year passed a resolution opposing hydrogen blending. The resolution noted that most of the hydrogen currently produced is made from fossil fuels. But the AMA also opposed blending because it says hydrogen has a greater risk of explosion and it produces more NOx emissions when burned than natural gas alone.

Dominion disputes that. “Extensive internal testing for a year at our Salt Lake City Training Academy, which replicates the various appliance equipment/configurations/vintages utilized across our gas footprint, confirms external research that demonstrates that premixed burners, which are the industry standard for residential and commercial U.S. gas appliances, do not produce additional NOx when burning hydrogen blends of up to 5%.”

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