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Hydrogen heats up in New York


State energy authorities have backed two Plug Power plants; Hyzon Motors’ new investments to make hydrogen fuel cells for trucks; research on blending hydrogen into the gas pipeline system; and an early-stage startup working to reduce the cost of hydrogen technologies. Taken together, these investments are seen as an indicator of the Cuomo administration’s interest in hydrogen as part of the state’s future energy mix.

The spending — totaling millions in tax credits, cheap power and grants — comes as environmental advocates express alarm about burning hydrogen and are pressuring policymakers to reject proposals by gas plants to rebuild with the potential to do that. The conflict over green hydrogen — a molecule produced from water and renewable electricity — is emblematic of the uncertainty around New York’s energy future and the fight by gas utilities and companies to remain a part of it.

Proponents of going all-in on green hydrogen see it as playing a role in transportation, electric generation, high-heat industrial processes and even building heating, running through pipelines and being burned for energy or used in zero-emissions fuel cells.

“We see our energy system as one that delivers molecules and those molecules will be very different in 2050 than they are today,” said National Grid’s Sheri Givens. “Globally, green hydrogen is recognized as the molecule that will help with multiple uses.”





Green hydrogen can be generated more cheaply from renewable electricity as more renewables come onto the grid. Hydrogen can serve as a long-duration storage fuel for electricity until it is needed. For now, most hydrogen used is produced from fossil fuels.

Environmental advocates are leery of the backing from gas companies for widespread use of green hydrogen. They’re concerned it’s a ploy to prolong the burning of natural gas for power and heat when New York needs to be rapidly winding down that infrastructure instead.

A new report by NY Renews, an influential coalition of environmental justice and other groups that pushed for the state’s sweeping climate law, casts doubt on green hydrogen as a “false solution” pushed by fossil fuel companies.

Supporters of using hydrogen primarily for zero-emissions fuel cells in a range of applications are struggling to draw a distinction.

“Its very important that everybody understands that green hydrogen — i.e. hydrogen that’s made from water, take electricity at low temperatures, split water apart and make hydrogen and then take a fuel cell to put that water back together — is environmentally pristine,” said Bill Acker, the executive director of NY-BEST, which represents the battery and energy storage industry, at a March meeting of a Climate Action Council advisory panel.

“It’s critical that we don’t accidentally take green hydrogen off the table or detract from its development because we’re concerned about an application, not the main application,” Acker said.

The decision on how hydrogen is treated under New York’s climate law and whether it gets additional state funding to bring costs down rests in part on decisions being made by the Climate Action Council, which is tasked under the state’s climate law with developing a plan to create a “zero emissions” electric grid by 2040 and reduce emissions 85 percent from 1990 levels by 2050.

Some members of the council already have expressed skepticism of green hydrogen combustion. “That seems like an exotic, Rube Goldberg-esque approach,” said Environmental Advocates NY’s Peter Iwanowicz. The group is part of the NY Renews coalition.

“New York continues to assess green hydrogen and other technologies in their beginning stages, and recommendations on both near-term practical and cost-effective solutions as well as long-term solutions will be considered by the Climate Action Council as it advances its work in developing a Scoping Plan,” NYSERDA spokeswoman Kate Muller said when asked about the state’s plans for green hydrogen.

Hydrogen innovation economy

While NYSERDA still is developing a hydrogen road map, that has not stopped the state from encouraging investments by companies with a hydrogen focus.

Most prominently, Plug Power has announced plans for two major new facilities in the state. Both a $125 million plant to research and make electrolyzers and proton exchange membranes in Monroe County and a $290 million green hydrogen plant in Genesee County have secured state incentives. The green hydrogen plant will also be getting low-cost renewable power from the New York Power Authority.

Latham-based Plug already provides hydrogen fuel cells to power forklifts for customers including Amazon and Walmart and is targeting additional hard-to-electrify transportation applications.

Plug CEO Andy Marsh is also actively pushing the company into building a broader hydrogen economy — and he’s determined to create the first green hydrogen generation network to supply customers with a fuel that complies with their environmental goals.

“You can’t reach the carbon goals without a whole mix of technologies and one of them is hydrogen,” Marsh said.

Another player is also looking to get in on creating hydrogen from a zero-emissions electric source: Exelon, as part of an effort to secure New York regulatory approvals for spinning off its generation business, is proposing to site a federally supported electrolyzer at its Nine Mile nuclear plant in upstate.

The state is also providing incentives for Hyzon Motors, which makes hydrogen fuel cells for trucks and other heavy-duty vehicles, to renovate a facility in the Rochester area and create 100 jobs.

NYSERDA has also provided grants to Ecolectro, a startup founded by Cornell University graduates that is working on lowering the cost of a key component of hydrogen fuel cells and electrolyzers.

Pipeline research

NYSERDA is backing research at Stony Brook University on blending hydrogen into the pipeline system, in partnership with National Grid.

Transporting green hydrogen is seen by proponents as a major challenge to make it competitive for some applications. Hydrogen can react with some pipeline materials and weaken them.

This challenge presents an opportunity for the existing utilities that own massive pipeline systems and could use their low cost of borrowing to retrofit them to address concerns about safely moving the gas.

“Infrastructure is the biggest barrier for a technology to enter the market,” said Devinder Mahajan, the director of Stony Brook’s Institute of Gas Innovation and Technology. “You have to move molecules. We already have natural gas pipeline infrastructure, so we can move hydrogen. All you need to figure out over the next 10 years is how are you going to replace natural gas with hydrogen.”

Mahajan is overseeing research on how much hydrogen, blended with natural gas, National Grid’s existing pipeline system can handle. He said his team has built a simulator and begun testing materials with samples provided by Grid.

By identifying the best materials to use, Grid could make the decision as it replaces older pipe to use pipe capable of carrying 100 percent hydrogen. The institute is also supporting a national research project on hydrogen blending.

A pipeline system for hydrogen would also bring down the costs of Plug’s ambitious plans for the fuel.

“Building out pipelines to transport hydrogen long distances will certainly drive down costs,” Marsh said. “Using [renewable electricity during] off-peak hours to generate hydrogen to put it in the pipeline with smart management — people around the world are doing it… It’s going to happen.”

Gas utility backing

NY Renews is particularly concerned about hydrogen being blended into the existing pipeline system. They see it as a way for gas utilities to continue making investments in fossil fuel infrastructure with no guarantee that green hydrogen will come into widespread use.

“Trying to sell policymakers and the public on a ‘greener’ gas system, in contrast, is economically and environmentally antithetical to a renewable energy future and to the CLCPA’s goal of achieving a zero emissions economy,” the NY Renews report states, referring to the state’s landmark Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act.

But the group is not wholly rejecting the potential role of hydrogen that is truly produced with renewable electricity.

“If produced by carbon-free means and used for limited but essential energy purposes, hydrogen can be valuable in the energy mix of a decarbonizing economy,” the report states.

Utilities in New York are keenly interested in green hydrogen. As the state moves forward with policies to achieve an 85 percent emissions reduction from 1990 levels by 2050, with the remainder offset, the use of fossil fuels including gas for heating will have to be phased down — and potentially out.

Electrifying most heating and hot water applications is the focus of policies being contemplated by Climate Action Council advisory panels. The staff arm of the Public Service Commission, which regulates gas utilities, has recommended that investments being made now by gas companies need to be fully paid off (“depreciated”) by 2050 to align with the state’s plans.

Gas utilities are looking at their options to support the state goals, achieve their own emissions targets — and still remain financially viable for decades to come.

“To put the money in to do the R&D [on green hydrogen], to work with the national laboratories… That’s not a cover, that’s a real investment of time, money and effort,” said Kim Harriman, vice president of state government relations and public affairs for Avangrid, which owns two New York utilities. “It’s not just a distraction.”

Some utility executives see hydrogen, or renewable natural gas, as an option in cases where electrifying heating in older buildings is challenging. Electrifying everything would require a massive buildout of the grid in a way that may be cost prohibitive, they argue.

In addition to the pipeline research, National Grid has proposed several pilots or demonstrations in its pending rate cases.

One in its upstate gas rate proposal is a partnerships with Standard Hydrogen Corp., a startup out of Cornell based in the Ithaca area. Grid has proposed piloting the startup’s multi-use hydrogen energy storage and delivery system in the Albany area.

The project would use renewable electricity to generate hydrogen that could be blended into the gas pipeline system, stored on site, used to fuel hydrogen vehicles or put into a fuel cell to produce electricity for the grid or for on-site electric vehicle chargers.

“We want to show as many functions as the system can do today that can already be monetized today, even if we expect that the system won’t do all those functions in future deployments,” said Standard Hydrogen’s CEO and co-founder Paul Mutolo. “These are all commercialized components. We’re integrating them to our own proprietary design.”

Revenue from selling the services of the “energy transfer station” is proposed to offset costs to ratepayers and 80 percent of any profit will benefit ratepayers — if Grid gets approval from the Public Service Commission to move forward.

The goal for Standard Hydrogen is to prove out the technology. Then as renewable electricity becomes cheaper and more widely available and demand for green hydrogen grows, they can build out other stations across the state.

Emissions free by 2040

One of the key goals enshrined in the state’s new climate law is that the electric generation sector shall be “emissions free” by 2040. This definition, and prohibitions on offsets being used by power plants, has led to some consternation for the power industry.

It’s not clearly defined, as the renewable 70 percent by 2030 goal is. Would combusting renewable natural gas that’s produced from manure or biomass count as “emissions free” because it’s avoiding just releasing methane — a more potent climate-warming pollutant than the carbon dioxide from burning it — into the atmosphere? What about burning green hydrogen which avoids carbon emissions but still releases some nitrogen oxides (or NOx)?