Competition heats up to capture IIJA funds for hydrogen hubs

With one-third of its economy tied to energy production, Wyoming isn’t a state that plans to sit back and watch the energy transitions pass it by, taking its longstanding livelihood with it. But standing up a new industry in a relatively small state is no easy task, according to Glen Murrell, executive director of the Wyoming Energy Authority.

“It’s all about a competition for capital,” he said. But bigger states with bigger balance sheets can offer various incentives to lure in private businesses; Wyoming’s options are limited.

The federal infrastructure bill could very well change that. Among the myriad of funding opportunities for projects such as large-scale carbon capture pilots, the infrastructure bill allocated $8 billion to be divided among four new “hydrogen hubs” in regions to be selected by the U.S. Department of Energy. And while Wyoming isn’t about to put all its eggs in one basket — funding for carbon capture or other demonstration projects certainly wouldn’t hurt — the scale of the hub funding, Murrell said, represents a “once in a generation” opportunity.

“If you consider how frugal the approach has been historically with respect to various buildouts, one cannot look at the infrastructure bill and say it’s not enough,” Murrell said. “It’s 10 times, maybe even 20 times more than anything that has happened in the last 10-20 years.”

Wyoming, of course, isn’t the only state to take notice of the feds’ $8 billion offer. At the Electric Power Research Institute, Jeffery Preece, director of research and development for low-carbon resources, said he’s had conversations with some 15 regional groups seeking help with their applications to become hydrogen hubs — even though the DOE has yet to release specific selection criteria.

The sense that the first regions to make significant investments in hydrogen will reap the greatest economic rewards is justified, Preece said. But while it could be easy to point to states like Ohio, California and Texas, where investment in hydrogen has already begun, as the likely hydrogen hubs of the future, Preece doesn’t think the decision will be that straightforward. To win hub designation, he said, is going to require more than the mere ability to create hydrogen — hubs will need to secure offtakers, ensure needed infrastructure is in place, and train a massive new workforce.

But even with all those pieces in place, the future of hydrogen is uncertain, Preece said. Selecting diverse hydrogen hubs — each with its own specialty — may be the best strategy for success.

Calling all offtakers

Most conversations around hydrogen continue to focus on how it will be made, but potential production capacity likely won’t be the limiting factor in the creation of future hydrogen hubs, Preece said. The real challenge, he said, will be ensuring production can connect with potential applications — particularly given the DOE’s interest in financing projects that are ready to begin operating almost immediately.

“The big issue in this is not going to be the supply of hydrogen,” said Brett Perlman, CEO of the Center for Houston’s Future. “The real driver is going to be the demand side—we have to go where the customers are.”

This is also one of the Houston area’s strongest selling points as it pursues hydrogen hub designation. Houston already produces about a third of the nation’s hydrogen, and that means most of the largest users and needed infrastructure are already located there, Perlman said.

“Hydrogen today is all used in feedstocks, and so 95% of the petrochemical industry is on the Texas Gulf Coast,” he said. “These are massive plants, worth trillions of dollars of investment, that can’t be just anywhere. ”

Hydrogen in the region currently is produced using steam methane reforming to split natural gas into its component elements — which means the present-day hydrogen industry is carbon-intensive. So the question that is top of mind for hub planners in Texas, Perlman said, is which users will be the early adopters willing to pay a premium for green hydrogen, generally produced by using electrolysis to divide water into hydrogen and oxygen.

They’re still working out the answers to that question, Perlman said, but industries with higher margins such as specialty chemical manufacturers seem likely candidates, and Texas does have an ample supply of low-cost wind and other forms of renewable energy to drive electrolysis.

Taking hydrogen to the masses

Murrell, in Wyoming, agrees with Perlman and Preece about the importance of securing potential customers for their hydrogen. But this is an area where Wyoming’s application could struggle. The state has all manner of options to create the alternative fuel — ample natural gas for conventional techniques, experience in carbon capture to mitigate emissions, extensive wind resources, and nuclear presents an option for emerging technologies.

“The problem in Wyoming is in respect to consumption,” Murrell said. “We can produce massive amounts of hydrogen, all clean. But Wyoming is a very small state, and being able to complete the demand chain was our big challenge.”

To address this shortcoming, Wyoming signed an agreement in late February with the states of Utah, New Mexico and Colorado that proposes the creation of a four-state hydrogen hub region in the Mountain West. Wyoming and New Mexico, with their wind, solar, and natural gas resources, could focus on production while supplying offtakers in the larger, more urbanized states of Utah and Colorado.

“That will be a tough challenge for other hubs, to have all the pieces in place, and this interstate region has all the pieces checked off,” Murrell said. “And simple geography is good for us — we’re in the central part of the country, and many of the other hub concepts are on the coast. If we want to build a national infrastructure, a hub in the middle creates a strategic piece.”

Murrell’s perspective on how a hydrogen hub would evolve in the Mountain West differs from the vision in Texas. Instead of large industrial customers, Murrell believes demand would first develop in the transportation and utility sectors — beginning potentially with the Intermountain Power Project in Utah.

Located in central Utah, the Intermountain Power Project is a coal plant currently undergoing renovations so that it can deliver clean energy derived from burning hydrogen in gas turbines to communities in Southern California. It aims to begin operations in 2025, starting with a blend of natural gas and 30% hydrogen, and progressing to 100% hydrogen as 2050 approaches. The project, which hopes to have a hydrogen supply contract in place by the end of this year, is currently listed on the DOE’s H2 Matchmaker website as one of the largest potential hydrogen offtakers in the nation.

Needing to export the majority of its hydrogen out of state does pose a question of storage and transportation, but Wyoming should have this covered, with access to existing natural gas pipelines extending all the way to the West coast, Murrell said. There’s also the potential for research and development jobs to flourish as the industry seeks answers to additional questions around storing and transporting hydrogen. And at the same time, Murrell said, he’d love to see the development of smaller offtakers — fuel cells used as backup generators for hospitals, and the conversion of shipping fleets to hydrogen fuel, with fueling stations built along major shipping corridors such as I-80.

“Our biggest pitfall perhaps is we’ll get out muscled, out politicked, outspent by other regions in the country who have more political mass behind them,” Murrell said. “That is the biggest risk I think.”

Transitioning the natural gas workforce

Infrastructure to connect hydrogen producers with customers is also top of mind in the Los Angeles-area, where Southern California Gas has already proposed the construction of a 100% hydrogen pipeline equivalent to 25% of the company’s existing natural gas network.

“The key prerequisite of hydrogen at scale is affordability,” Yuri Freedman, senior director of business development for SoCalGas said. “But you need to have it at a cost that is affordable to people, and the only way to bring hydrogen to any location at low cost is by pipeline.”

But while critical, Preece said, offtakers and infrastructure won’t be enough to clinch a hub designation alone — there’s also the question of how applicants will find the massive workforce needed to install all those projects. A proposed hydrogen road map, produced by a group led by the Fuel Cell & Hydrogen Energy Association, estimated that the transition to a hydrogen economy would create 3.4 million new jobs by 2050, with 700,000 workers needed by 2030 compared to the 200,000 jobs in hydrogen production today.

This is why Freedman believes the hubs will most likely develop around existing centers of natural gas production: while many of the jobs that will enable a hydrogen economy do not currently exist, some of the skills needed to get the ball rolling are already used in the natural gas industry.

“If we really intend to diminish our use of natural gas, then it stands to reason to take the workforce now focused on natural gas and gradually transition to hydrogen service,” Freedman said. “That to me is the logical transition.”

Preece, however, is unconvinced that every future hub will have a background in natural gas. There are so many potential technologies for making, using and transporting hydrogen — including many that are currently still ideas in research laboratories — that it’s not clear which concepts will ultimately win out.

Rather than focusing on the odds that an individual hub will succeed, Preece said, “I think the portfolio that the DOE chooses at the beginning could likely be fairly diverse, to ensure that risks associated with this type of transition are spread out.”

There’s also the question, Preece said, of how the DOE will implement its expressed interest in equity and environmental justice, and how to ensure the $8 billion has the greatest impact in a field where some prospective hubs are already well on their way to becoming a reality. Houston, Perlman said, “is a hydrogen hub already.” Federal funding might accelerate the transition there, but Perlman believes it will take place whether or not Houston is selected.

But for smaller communities in Wyoming, the future is more precarious. Not getting hub designation, Murrell said, “would slow down our progress, our transition, and manifest in terms of the communities in Wyoming that would suffer for it.”

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