The race is on (again) to build out a low-carbon hydrogen economy

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Long Ridge Energy Generation, in Hannibal, Ohio started burning hydrogen along with natural gas in this photo from April, 2022, sending electricity onto the mid-Atlantic grid. Photo: Reid R. Frazier

STATE IMPACT PENNSYLVANIA – At an industrial site on the banks of the Ohio River, Vance Powers pointed to a brand new building – a big blue box with pipes coming in and out of it.

Inside the building is a 485-megawatt electric generator owned by Long Ridge Energy Generation. Since opening two years ago, Long Ridge has run the plant on natural gas from the nearby Marcellus and Utica shale region.

But a few weeks ago, it began an experiment that its owners hope is the start of new, cleaner way to power the economy – on hydrogen.

In March, the plant, in Hannibal, Ohio, started feeding its combustion turbine with a small percentage of hydrogen, trucked in from a nearby chemical plant.

“We think that what we’re doing here today is ahead of the curve,” said Powersthe company’s chief financial officer. The company says it’s the first of its kind to blend hydrogen with natural gas to make commercial power.

Powers says the company plans to use more hydrogen, but has been using small amounts of it as a test.

“Will the turbine burn it? We’ve just proved, yes, it will,” he said. “The next step is how do you get it in industrial-scale size and at an economical level?”

That is the ultimate question with hydrogen, the most common element in the universe. It’s been the subject of attention from scientists and policy makers for decades, because of its potential to replace fossil fuels. That’s because when it’s used to power a car or fuel a power plant, hydrogen creates no carbon dioxide – its chief byproduct is water. But getting a clean, cheap source of it has been hard to do. 

That might be changing. Thanks to a combination of government support and pressure from investors, companies are trying to revive the dream of a hydrogen economy.

Bo Wholey, Long Ridge’s CEO, said the company started exploring ways to lower its plant’s carbon footprint a few years ago, in response to what customers want – electricity that doesn’t produce carbon dioxide, the key driver in climate change, which the UN has called a “threat to human wellbeing and (the) health of the planet”. Without deep and rapid cuts to carbon pollution, the UN recently reported, the earth could see catastrophic warming by the end of the century.

Wholey said he was hoping to lure a data center to this stretch of the Ohio-West Virginia border by the promise of low-carbon energy.

“We’re really responding to what the market wants,” Wholey said. On top of that, investors are starting to demand lower carbon footprints, he said. “I think any new power plant project is going to have to have some pathway to decarbonize. I don’t know that financing would be possible without that in today’s market.”

Eventually, the company wants to run the plant completely on hydrogen. Right now, Long Ridge gets a few truckloads of hydrogen a month in big, white tubes from a nearby chemical plant. But it would need much more to run completely on hydrogen.

Most industrial hydrogen is made from natural gas, in a process called “steam methane reforming.” This method – known as “grey hydrogen,” creates CO2.

Long Ridge says it wants to capture that CO2 and store it underground, a method known as “blue” hydrogen.

Around the country, others are beating a path to hydrogen, which the federal government has been trying to support since the George W. Bush administration.

President Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure bill included $8 billion to create four “hydrogen hubs” around the country – where facilities create, store, and use hydrogen in industrial settings. A consortium of companies is hoping to land one in the Pennsylvania, West Virginia and southeast Ohio region. That has Wholey excited.

“This location here…is perfect for at least one of those hydrogen hubs,” he said. “That’s certainly something that we’re going to be evaluating, as we think about how to make running on hydrogen more economical.”

But power plants aren’t the only end users of hydrogen. It’s a climate-friendly solution for settings where batteries aren’t ideal – like in long-haul trucking, aviation, and heavy industries that need a lot of heat.

Hydrogen analyst Bridget van Dorsten of the consulting firm Wood Mackenzie says the hubs underwritten by the infrastructure bill could help lower carbon pollution from ports, air travel, and petrochemicals.

Van Dorsten says blue hydrogen isn’t a perfect climate solution – companies can only capture about 90 percent of the CO2 created when making hydrogen out of natural gas.

“It won’t ever be zero,” she said. “The whole idea with carbon capture and storage is you’re not sequestering 100% of the carbon dioxide that gets emitted.”