Image: Two membrane-bound protein complexes work together with a synthetic catalyst to produce hydrogen from water by Olivia Johnson and Lisa Utschig via Argonne National Laboratory.
File this one under “W” for “When you’ve lost the heartland.” Something called the Midwest Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Coalition has just launched a mission to bring the renewable hydrogen revolution to a cluster of US states which, for reasons unknown, pop up whenever someone mentions America’s heartland, aka Real America. This is a significant development because until now, hydrogen fans have been dancing all around the perimeters of the Midwest without managing to grab a toehold.
Hydrogen is a zero-emission fuel, practically. When used in fuel cells, it produces nothing but purified water. The problem, though, is cleaning up the source of hydrogen. Currently, fossil natural gas is the primary source of hydrogen, which kind of clonks the zero emission thing in the head.
The good news is that renewable hydrogen technology is rapidly improving. One main pathway is to “split” hydrogen from water using an electrical current (aka electrolysis).
Until recent years electrolysis made no sense because coal and gas have dominated the US energy profile. The advent of low cost renewable energy has changed the game entirely.
In somewhat of an ironic twist, renewable energy critics used to complain that wind and solar were unreliable because they were intermittent. Now that very characteristic has created an opportunity for renewable hydrogen production. The basic idea is to use excess renewable energy to produce hydrogen, which then serves as a transportable energy storage medium.
Some US states have been cultivating the so-named “hydrogen economy” over the past several years, and they are already in a good position to transition from fossil-sourced hydrogen to renewables.
Leading the pack is California. The state’s ZEV (Zero Emission Vehicles) standards already call for a portion of renewable hydrogen in the mix. Eight other states — Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont — have adopted the California ZEV model. Additionally, Colorado, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Washington, and the District of Columbia are following California’s Low Emission Vehicle standards.
So far almost all of this activity is clustered in the coastal and Northeast US states. If all goes according to plan the new MHFCC initiative will bring the hydrogen word to 12 more states smack in the nation’s midsection: Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas.
US Department Of Energy Hearts Renewable Hydrogen
Spearheading MHFCC is the US Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, in partnership with the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. The idea is to use the school’s decades-long foundational hydrogen and fuel cell research to jumpstart an R&D program aimed at improving electrolysis technology.
The new initiative will also leverage the Midwest’s considerable renewable energy resources. As Argonne notes, the 12 Midwest states targeted by MHFCC account for 25% of the US population and consume 30% of all electricity generated in the US.
These 12 states also lay claim to 35% of US wind capacity. So far solar has made a dismal showing in the region, but Argonne points out that major new solar projects are finally in the pipeline.
What’s Driving The Midwest Renewable Energy Train
As previously noted by CleanTechnica, the low cost of renewable energy is finally breaking through political barriers in Nebraska and other Midwest states. Considering the region’s large agricultural sector, of particular interest is the emergence of agrivoltaics, in which raised solar panels share space with grazing lands, pollinator habitats, and certain crops.
Another key factor is the Midwest’s reliance on rural electric cooperatives. RECs are becoming more engaged with renewable energy as the cost benefit comes into sharper focus, partly with an assist from the US Department of Energy.
From Renewable Energy To Renewable Hydrogen
Fans of natural gas still have a lot to cheer about. Electrolysis is not quite ready for commercial prime time, and meanwhile the demand for hydrogen is growing.
However, if all goes according to plan renewables will squeeze natural gas out of they hydrogen market in the Midwest. In announcing the new initiative, Argonne specifically states that “…the Midwestern states have some of the highest levels of renewable energy on their grids, and that “hydrogen can be used as an effective storage medium to increase utilization of these renewable energy resources.”
Sorry – not sorry.
For that matter, Argonne and the University of Illinois’s Grainger College of Engineering have already ramped up their work on electrolysis over the past couple of years.
Also of interest is the Midwest’s relatively high nuclear energy profile. If a market for renewable hydrogen develops, nuclear power plants could continue pumping out zero emission electricity during off-peak hours and store it in the form of hydrogen.
That’s unlikely to motivate the construction of new nuclear power plants, but the use of excess nuclear energy for electrolysis could enable the region’s current fleet to operate more economically for a longer period of time (and that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms).
Interesting! CleanTechnica is reaching out to the University of Illinois to see what else is cooking in the Midwest renewable hydrogen field, so stay tuned for more on that.