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Hydrogen’s decarbonization potential discussed at EWEB Board meeting

June 19, 2023 Aaron Orlowski, EWEB Communications

The simplest, lightest, most abundant element in the universe – hydrogen – could play a key role in decarbonizing society.

Michelle Detwiler, the executive director of the Renewable Hydrogen Alliance, a Portland-based trade group for the renewable hydrogen industry, spoke about hydrogen’s decarbonizing potential at the June meeting of EWEB’s Board of Commissioners

Hydrogen’s potential is bound up in its ability to act as an energy carrier. Essentially, energy can be used to create hydrogen, and then hydrogen can create energy. The phases of that transformation can be used to strip the carbon content out of energy, or to increase the density of energy, or to store energy for long periods of time. 

Hydrogen can be produced in various ways, then used in various ways. Today, 95% of hydrogen is produced via steam methane reformation, which transforms natural gas into hydrogen, and can lead to carbon emissions. The most promising future production method is electrolysis, which uses electricity to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. Electrolysis powered by green electricity can produce hydrogen without carbon emissions.

Today, hydrogen is commonly used for fertilizer and in some industrial processes, including petroleum processing. Creating that hydrogen in a carbon-free way will reduce emissions from those sectors. In the future, energy sector leaders envision using hydrogen for many additional tasks, from heavy-duty transportation to long-duration energy storage.

“Hydrogen is a molecule that is always attached to something,” Detwiler told the Board. “The only thing that is changing is how we get that molecule and how we use it.”

The U.S. government is showing its support for hydrogen through a variety of programs, including a production tax credit that offers up to $3 per kilogram of hydrogen produced using renewable electricity. Recently, the U.S. Department of Energy published a national clean hydrogen strategy and roadmap, which calls for:

  • Targeting strategic, high-impact uses for clean hydrogen, which will ensure that clean hydrogen will be utilized in the highest benefit applications, where limited alternatives exist (such as the industrial sector, heavy-duty transportation, and long-duration energy storage to enable a clean grid); 
  • Reducing the cost of clean hydrogen by catalyzing innovation and scale, stimulating private sector investments, and developing the clean hydrogen supply chain; and 
  • Focusing on regional networks with large-scale clean hydrogen production and end-use in close proximity, enabling maximum benefit from infrastructure investment, driving scale, and facilitating market liftoff while leveraging place-based opportunities for equity, inclusion, and environmental justice. 

“We have a climate emergency on our hands, and we need as many tools to decarbonize economy-wide as we can possibly get our hands on. And hydrogen is a very promising pathway for that,” Detwiler told the Board.

EWEB’s interest in hydrogen focuses on its long-term potential, and centers around four key elements, EWEB General Manager Frank Lawson told the Board.

Hydrogen can provide a secondary market for renewables. The Northwest is adding more intermittent renewable resources such as wind and solar to the grid, but sometimes these resources produce more energy than needed at the moment. If that excess energy is funneled into creating hydrogen, then utilities can extract maximum value from those resources, making investment in them more economical.

Hydrogen can provide a bridge to decarbonization. Using hydrogen as an energy source in hard-to-decarbonize sectors such as industrial applications and other arenas and can help the community decarbonize.

Hydrogen can provide local grid support. Excess or low-cost renewable electricity can be used to create hydrogen, and that hydrogen can later be used to create electricity. This would allow EWEB to shift electricity supply to match demand. In essence, hydrogen enables energy storage in the medium-term – longer than a few hours, but shorter than a few months.

Hydrogen can provide grid resiliency. As a distributed, carbon-free resource, hydrogen could be used as a backup fuel for essential services in case of disaster or grid blackouts.

“As we add more renewables to the system, getting value out of those rather than curtailment makes a lot of sense to the industry, including potentially EWEB’s procurement of resources,” Lawson said.

EWEB will continue studying hydrogen's potential as part of our Integrated Resource Planning process.