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Green renewable hydrogen needed urgently, leaders say, but industry faces challenges

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Green renewable hydrogen needed urgently, leaders say, but industry faces challenges

Sep 25, 2023 | 9:00 am ET
By Alex Baumhardt
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Green renewable hydrogen needed urgently, leaders say, but industry faces challenges
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Electrolyzers built by the company Sunfire are installed at a steel factory in Germany, where they create green hydrogen energy from water. (Sunfire/Flickr)

To meet emissions reduction targets and tackle climate change, Oregon will need to build a clean and renewable hydrogen industry as fast as possible, according to state leaders. But they face challenges that could take years to overcome.

That was one of the takeaways from an industry conference last week in Portland that was sponsored by the nonprofit trade association Renewable Hydrogen Alliance and brought together state officials and industry experts from the Northwest. They said development of hydrogen produced from water and renewable sources in the region is barreling forward, with nationwide competition for billions of dollars of investment from the federal government. But the industry needs to ensure it has access to enough water, builds needed infrastructure, attracts a large and well trained labor force and has community support. 

Experts see “green hydrogen” produced from water or “renewable hydrogen” produced from gas trapped and converted from other industries as crucial to help the state fully decarbonize the energy sector and reduce Oregon’s greenhouse gas emissions by 90% by 2050, a goal set by the Oregon Environmental Quality Commission in 2021.

What is “green hydrogen?”

Green hydrogen starts with water, which is made up of hydrogen and oxygen. Using a device called an electrolyzer, an electric current is passed through the water, causing a reaction that splits the hydrogen and oxygen from one another. The hydrogen is captured and stored. The production process requires a lot of electricity. But as long as that electricity comes from a renewable source, such as wind or solar power, the hydrogen is “green” and carbon neutral. Hydrogen emits no carbon dioxide or greenhouse gases, just water. 

Hydrogen is energy-intensive to make, but hydrogen power lasts twice as long as gasoline, takes up half as much space and is lighter than a lithium battery. Hydrogen fuel cells don’t require time-consuming charges and can withstand cold weather that can eat up electric battery power.  

“It’s not a silver bullet, it’s not even a Swiss army knife,” Janine Benner, director of the Oregon Department of Energy, said during the conference. She was on a panel discussing energy storage and transmission. 

She said the state energy department’s priority is to use renewable hydrogen to help power hard to electrify sectors, support energy grid reliability and to help store electricity produced from wind, sun and hydropower.

Sen. Kate Lieber, D-Beaverton and a member of the legislative energy and environment committee, was also on the panel. She said changing the energy sector will take time.

“This pie-in-the-sky that we’re gonna electrify everything tomorrow is not reality,” Lieber said. “It’s gonna take us being honest about our transmission and honest about what energy we do have and then honest about what it’s going to take for us to achieve climate goals that in Oregon are very lofty. And we’re not going to be able to do that unless we put hydrogen in the mix.”

Billions at stake

Oregon joined a public and private partnership in 2022 called the Pacific Northwest Hydrogen Association. It includes the director of Washington’s Department of Commerce, the chief operating officer of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, Amazon’s leading global hydrogen strategist, a government affairs official at oil company BP America, three labor unions and the Sierra Club.

The association aims to win billions of federal dollars to make the Northwest a hub of green hydrogen energy. It will find out in the next few weeks whether it will receive a portion of $7 billion in federal funding to develop the nascent renewable hydrogen industry here. What’s unclear is how much hydrogen production would be truly “green” and “clean,” produced from water or captured waste.

Most hydrogen produced globally and in the U.S. is a byproduct of the natural gas industry. Methane, a potent greenhouse gas that makes up 80% of natural gas, is put through a high temperature chemical steam process that creates hydrogen. Many environmentalists fear that natural gas executives will see federal investments in hydrogen production as something they can take advantage of to keep natural gas around for years to come, despite its high volume of climate-warming emissions.

Defining clean and renewable

Just four states including Oregon have come up with a definition for renewable hydrogen. The state energy department defines it as hydrogen that can be produced using renewable electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen using an electrolyzer – considered green or clean – or hydrogen produced from biomass or biogas feedstocks, such as methane captured from cow emissions at a large dairy operation, though this system is not always carbon free. 

The U.S. Department of Energy has defined clean hydrogen as low-carbon hydrogen produced by using renewable resources or from fossil-fuel resources paired with carbon capture. This, many fear, leaves the door open for the natural gas industry to produce more hydrogen, and to potentially get into the business of pumping natural gas mixed with hydrogen into homes, which is seen widely by scientists as an ineffective way to lower the carbon intensity of natural gas.

Meredith Connolly, Oregon director for the nonprofit environmental group Climate Solutions, said clean and renewable hydrogen projects included in the Pacific Northwest Hydrogen Association’s application for federal funding are still underwraps, so she‘s not sure to what extent all of them are carbon neutral. But she said she’s fairly certain they include mostly green hydrogen projects. 

Need for water

One of the biggest challenges for producing green hydrogen in the region is water, according to Jenna Mandel-Rice, a lawyer at the Seattle office of the energy and natural resources firm Van Ness Feldman and a panelist at the conference. 

“The bottom line is: To get water, it’s not going to be easy,” she said.

Obtaining water rights, making changes to existing water rights or getting water from a municipal supplier can take time, and siting such a facility additionally requires state and federal approval, Mandel-Rice said.

“In Washington, some of these processes take decades,” she said. 

Mandel-Rice mentioned concerns from some communities that green hydrogen projects could be developed in parts of Oregon and Washington with little available ground or surface water. 

Michelle Detwiler, executive director of the Renewable Hydrogen Alliance, said developers are not going to try and establish a water-based hydrogen project where they can’t get water permits. She also said much of the water used to make hydrogen is reusable. There’s even potential to use industrial wastewater, thus recycling it.

“To make a kilogram of hydrogen requires about 4 to 5 gallons of water, and that water is reusable or can be released back into the ground,” she said in an email. “The production of gasoline requires 7-9 gallons of water and that water is not reusable; it’s very toxic.” 

She said producing a kilogram of lithium to power an electric vehicle and other battery operations requires 90 gallons of toxic, non-recyclable water. 

“If we are replacing or displacing gasoline and diesel and using renewable hydrogen as a fuel instead, then that is a substantial savings of water,” Detwiler said.

Attracting workers and support

Attracting professionals to run new hydrogen production facilities will need to start now if Oregon is to become a regional hydrogen hub, Mike Alldritt, a representative and organizer of the Ironworkers local 29 union, said. Counting on companies that get funding for hydrogen production facilities to also train their future workforce will not be sustainable, he said.

He and his colleagues are teaming up with community colleges to develop two- and five-year apprenticeship programs to produce mechanics and technicians who can develop and service large hydrogen production facilities, he said. 

But perhaps the biggest challenge facing the industry is getting community buy-in from a public that knows little about the technology and is skeptical of hydrogen, experts said.

“They google hydrogen and they get Hindenburg stories,” Nicholas Mirra, a spokesperson at the Portland-based environmental engineering and consulting firm Maul Foster & Alongi, Inc., told the conference. The Hindenburg was a hydrogen-fueled, passenger-carrying airship shaped like a zeppelin that caught fire and exploded in 1937.

The first green hydrogen project in Oregon was shelved last year after public pushback over potential environmental and health impacts.

NW Natural, the state’s largest natural gas provider, proposed a plan to create green hydrogen to blend into its natural gas and to pump the blended gas to 2,500 customers in west Eugene.

But environmental and social justice groups objected, saying the project had little emissions-reduction benefit. They also said NW Natural hadn’t undertaken an analysis of health and safety risks to customers who would burn the fuel in their homes.