This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.
In the arid West, does it make sense to create fuel from water?
That is the underlying question behind the Utah Legislature’s request for a study of the water required to produce electricity from hydrogen, fossil fuels or renewable sources like wind and solar.
The question is prompted by longterm plans by the Intermountain Power Agency to convert its massive coal-fired IPP power plant near Delta to run on “green” hydrogen produced from renewable sources. To create the hydrogen, they will be splitting water molecules.
The University of Utah’s Energy and Geoscience Institute presented its preliminary findings to the Legislature’s Public Utilities, Energy and Technology Interim Committee this week. The researchers were not asked and did not attempt to choose among the energy technologies, but they did present figures that largely confirmed what IPA has been saying: Converting to hydrogen will save considerable water vs. the current coal plant. The U. group plans to present a final report during the legislative session in February.
The study found that it will take 369 gallons of water to produce one megawatt-hour of electricity from hydrogen. (One megawatt-hour is roughly the amount of energy consumed by 650 Utah households for one hour.) That includes 123 gallons of water that is separated into hydrogen and oxygen by electrolysis. The rest of the water largely goes to driving steam turbines and cooling the hydrogen-fueled power plant much like coal and natural gas plants are operated.
“Cooling is a very common way of loss,” said Julia K. Sieving, a research associate in the U. Chemical Engineering department and one of the report’s authors.
By comparison, that same megawatt-hour produced from coal requires 587 gallons of water. That extra water is used to control emissions and to manage coal ash and other wastes.
The study also looked at the water required for natural gas, solar and wind generation. Natural gas requires 219 gallons per megawatt-hour. Wind and solar had minimal water requirements.
The study also looked at what the water consumption would be for coal and natural gas if the technology is added to capture the carbon dioxide emissions that are warming the planet. In that case, coal climbs to almost 1,000 gallons per megawatt-hour, and natural gas rises above hydrogen in terms of water consumption. Such carbon-capture technologies are also projected to be hugely expensive, which is why no current Utah coal plants have plans to add carbon capture.
It’s hydrogen that has legislators’ attention. The decision by IPA to stop burning coal after more than 40 years hasn’t sat well with coal-country legislators, and they have wondered if the change would affect Utah’s water supply. While a small amount of IPA’s electricity is used by Utah cities, the vast majority goes to Los Angeles.
IPP’s conversion is motivated by California law that requires its electricity to be carbon neutral by 2045. The plant will first convert to burning a combination of 70% natural gas and 30% hydrogen, but the eventual plan is to be 100% “green” hydrogen, meaning the hydrogen is produced by renewable sources. IPA plans to use solar and wind energy to produce the hydrogen.
IPA has held more water rights than it has needed since its inception in 1979. Original plans called for more coal-fired power, and IPA bought the water for that. Instead, the agency has leased to farmers for agriculture near the power plant. With coal going offline in 2025, the hydrogen project should have more than enough water rights available.
“The results [from the U.] are right in line with a similar white paper IPA commissioned from Utah State University and presented to the legislature last year,” said IPA spokesman John Ward when reached for comment.
Earlier this year, the IPA hydrogen project received a $504 million loan from the U.S. Department of Energy. Plans call for the hydrogen to be stored in salt caverns located below the power plant. Clearing out space in those caverns will require millions of gallons of water, but only for two years, according to IPA.
Legislators were grateful for the U. analysis, but some still struggled with the idea of splitting Utah’s water molecules to power southern California, even if the overall water use is less than the current coal plant, which also powers southern California.
“That water is lost to our region,” said Rep. Steven Lund, R-Manti.
Legislators also want the same analysis regarding nuclear energy. The study is required by a legislative act in the last general session, but that was before PacifiCorp announced it was considering a nuclear power plant near the company’s existing coal plants in Emery County. Sieving said nuclear will be included in the final report.
PacifiCorp has already committed to building out a “fast-sodium” nuclear reactor in Kemmerer, Wyo., and it is looking at Emery County and other sites for the “Natrium” reactors from a Bill Gates-owned company called TerraPower. According to TerraPower’s website, the plant will require roughly the same amount of water as a similarly sized natural gas plant.
The IPP project is often mentioned in the context of a four-state effort to establish a federally funded “hydrogen hub” in the West. Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming have formed the Western Inter-States Hydrogen Hub (WISHH) to chase a portion of $8 billion in federal dollars to build out a clean hydrogen infrastructure.
Tim Fitzpatrick is The Salt Lake Tribune’s renewable energy reporter, a position funded by a grant from Rocky Mountain Power. The Tribune retains all control over editorial decisions independent of Rocky Mountain Power.