Alex Baumhardt/Oregon Capital Chronicle

Oregon and Washington have teamed up to go after billions of federal dollars to make the Northwest a hub of green hydrogen energy.

Hydrogen is an element found naturally in the environment. It can fuel large vessels and manufacturing processes that cannot be easily electrified. The region currently produces some hydrogen, but almost none of it is considered “green.” Much of it is a byproduct of the natural gas industry rather than being produced from water, which makes it green.

Electricity is also green when produced with renewable energy sources. But national and state goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions up to 90% during the next three decades cannot be met solely by switching to electricity produced by solar, wind, wave and other renewable energy sources, according to the director of the Oregon Department of Energy, Janine Benner.

“Getting to 80, 90% decarbonization of the grid is feasible,” she said. “If you want to get that last 10 or 15 or 20%, you need options that include hydrogen.”

Under Brenner’s leadership, Oregon joined a public and private partnership this summer 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, among others.

Together, they are working on a plan they’ll pitch to the U.S. Department of Energy outlining a strategy to make the region a hub of green hydrogen production, distribution and consumption. In doing so, the group hopes to collect a portion of $8 billion from the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act aimed specifically at boosting hydrogen production nationwide. The department expects to select at least four “hydrogen hubs” later this year for funding during the next four years.

While environmentalists, scientists and big energy companies agree that hydrogen will play a role in getting global economies as close to zero emissions as possible as fast as possible, they disagree on the extent of that role. Environmentalists are also concerned that not all the hydrogen that will be produced in the region will be green, and that it will prolong the lifespan of the natural gas industry, a major source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Why hydrogen?

Hydrogen is already used widely in industrial applications. It’s used in refining oil into gasoline, making ammonia fertilizer and in many processed foods. Hydrogen is added to vegetable oils to turn them from a liquid to solid form. These are called hydrogenated oils.

As a fuel source, hydrogen can power large vessels along with trains and buses. NASA has used it to power rockets for 50 years. It’s also expected to fuel airplanes one day.

Today, energy experts expect it to be an essential part of meeting future, everyday energy demands with zero greenhouse gas emissions.

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.

Green hydrogen

Green hydrogen is created when electricity, powered by a renewable source like the sun or wind, is run through water, creating a reaction that splits hydrogen from oxygen in water. The hydrogen is trapped and stored for use as fuel. The process, called electrolysis, is more than 200 years old, said Michelle Detwiler, executive director of the Portland-based Renewable Hydrogen Alliance, a nonprofit trade association.

Produced this way, it could be a carbon-neutral energy source for heavy transportation and manufacturing that requires a lot of energy. Hydrogen power gives off no emissions; instead it creates water.

“For every mile of travel you get in a passenger fuel cell vehicle, you generally get a cup of water, and that water is clean enough to drink,” Detwiler said. “It falls onto the streets, and it goes into the groundwater or stream alongside the road, and it’s completely harmless.”

But the technology is expensive and few places in the U.S. are producing it using electricity powered by renewable energy.

Oregon Department of Energy’s expert on hydrogen, Rebecca Smith, described green hydrogen as a chicken and egg situation.

“You don’t have a lot of people producing it, there’s not a lot of people using it, cause no one is producing it,” Smith said.

The billions in federal money could change that dynamic.

“We have an opportunity to just immediately smash that chicken and egg dichotomy,” she said.

Why the Northwest?

To make green hydrogen, you need plenty of water and cheap electricity from renewable energy sources.

“That electricity alone can be 40 to 60% of the cost of hydrogen,” Benner said.

Oregon and Washington are well positioned to be a green hydrogen hub: Nearly 70% of Oregon’s electricity already comes from renewable sources, giving the area a competitive edge.

“We have vast amounts of wind and solar on the horizon, literally,” Benner said. “We have an advantage for generating hydropower.”

Because of the abundance of renewable energy sources, power rates in Oregon are fairly low compared with the rest of the country.

Benner said this will be an important part of the Northwest Hydrogen Association’s pitch to the federal energy department.

“Part of what DOE is looking at is costs, and how sustainable those costs will be for states once the hub funding is gone,” Benner said.

Oregon and Washington have abundant sources of fresh water, and salt water is proving to be an increasingly viable option, too. The growing potential for electricity generated by deep ocean wave energy is also a selling point, Brenner said.

Dirty hydrogen

Most of the hydrogen used in the U.S. today is a byproduct of the natural gas industry and is not considered green. Natural gas is 80% methane, a potent greenhouse gas that captures up to 25 times the heat of carbon dioxide. Hydrogen is produced as a byproduct of putting methane through a high temperature chemical steam process. It requires a lot of energy to make, typically from fossil fuels. Environmentalists fear that natural gas executives will see the growth of hydrogen power as something they can take advantage of to stay relevant in a green energy future.

Nora Apter, climate program director of the nonprofit Oregon Environmental Council, said when she heard about the Pacific Northwest Hydrogen Association, she was skeptical.

“The million dollar question is: What kind of hydrogen are we talking about?” she asked.

“We need to make sure that when we’re talking about expanded hydrogen development of any kind – and especially when we’re thinking about efforts to create a Pacific Northwest hydrogen hub – it must be limited to the development of green hydrogen. That’s key as a starting point.”

Apter is concerned that natural gas companies will try to incorporate hydrogen into natural gas pipelines. That would technically lower the carbon intensity of the fuel they are delivering and help them to meet the state’s greenhouse gas emissions targets. It would allow natural gas to have a longer future than many environmentalists think it should, and could get in the way of electrifying sectors that could be easily transitioned to electricity generated by solar and wind power.

“We have fossil gas utilities saying, ‘This is the energy of the future.’ Yes, green hydrogen is very exciting. It is also very limited. You need to make sure that this limited, alternative fuel is prioritized for niche, hard to electrify sectors,” Apter said.

She added: “All the hydrogen gas in the world could not replace our current use of natural gas. But we have the potential to do that with electricity.”

Smith, the state hydrogen expert, concurred. New, clean buildings, homes and cars are now cheaper to heat, cool and power with electricity from renewable energy.

A green hydrogen future

Hydrogen production would bear no resemblance to giant coal or nuclear plants, but could be contained in structures as small as a shipping container and be located on the site of a major user, such as a steel factory or a shipping port, according to Smith. All that is needed is plenty of water and access to renewable electric power.

For now, the U.S. is trying to catch up with other nations. This year, Germany became home to the first hydrogen-powered passenger train, and a Norwegian company will soon launch the first hydrogen-powered maritime ship. Thousands of people in Japan, South Korea and parts of Europe already drive cars run on hydrogen fuel cell batteries, and hydrogen fueling stations exist on roadsides.

In the Northwest, companies like Amazon, PACCAR and ZeroAvia are already investing heavily in a future of hydrogen power used in forklifts, trucks and airplanes, Detwiler, of the Hydrogen Alliance trade group, said. Obsidian Solar, an Oregon-based renewable energy company, is preparing to invest in a green-hydrogen fertilizer production plant.

Ten years from now, she said, semi-trucks wouldn’t need to spew diesel particulates into the air. They could run on hydrogen. Others could benefit as well.

“Farmers can use renewably produced fertilizer, because you need hydrogen to make ammonia, which is a key component of fertilizer. You could decarbonize the fertilizer industry,” Detwiler said.

By creating hubs and accelerating public investment in hydrogen, the federal energy department hopes to decrease the cost of hydrogen just as it cut the cost of solar energy. Through investments and partnerships in developing domestic solar panels and solar infrastructure, it helped reduce the price of solar power by 75% from 2010 to 2017.

Solar power today is the cheapest electricity in history, according to the International Energy Agency.

Smith, the energy department’s hydrogen expert said the next eight years will be critical for developing green hydrogen and ensuring it is cheap and widespread.

“Around 2030 it will really start hitting its stride,” she said.