Texas needs to move faster to become clean, green hydrogen hub

Japanese engine maker Yanmar perfected the first small diesel engine in 1933; this year, the conglomerate is showing off a hydrogen fuel cell for ocean-going boats.

Every day, one of the world’s biggest manufacturers announces a new clean energy technology, and many rely on hydrogen. Texas has an almost unequaled opportunity to lead the world in clean hydrogen, but only if our business and political leaders can see past oil and natural gas.

“Texas starts out with some great advantages,” said Brian Weeks, senior hydrogen development director at the Gas Technology Institute, a non-profit that supports new technologies. “Moving out of the old hydrogen industry into the new hydrogen, clean energy world has been a very long and slow process getting companies interested and government agencies involved.”

Texas is the nation’s largest hydrogen producer, and most of the gas goes to refine oil or make ammonia. The Gulf Coast region is home to half the nation’s hydrogen pipelines and enormous subterranean caverns that store gases.

Few places in the world do more with hydrogen—few clean fuels offer as much opportunity.

Yanmar’s hydrogen fuel cell technology creates a new market and addresses one of the most challenging industries to decarbonize, intercontinental shipping.

Texas researchers are developing new applications ranging from drone fuel to storing wind and solar power. So why is the nation’s largest green hydrogen hub going to Mississippi?

“We’re not that far along,” Brett Perlman, CEO of Center for Houston’s Future, acknowledged during a conference about the Future of Hydrogen in the Ontario and Texas Economies. “We’re just getting ready to launch our effort.”

As I’ve explained in past columns, hydrogen puts the hydro in hydrocarbons. The gas is the most common element in the universe and packs more energy per kilogram than any fuel other than nuclear fissile material.

Humans can generate pure hydrogen in two general ways. The traditional method heats natural gas with steam, releasing 9 kilograms of carbon dioxide per kilo of hydrogen.

Electrolysis applies electricity to water, splitting it into hydrogen and oxygen. If the electricity is generated by wind or solar facilities, the hydrogen is considered green. But hydrogen made from electrolysis typically costs $30 a kilogram, and it only becomes economical at $4 or less a kilo.

Hundreds of companies, though, think they can make clean hydrogen affordable. One way is to capture the carbon associated with the steam process, thus creating what the industry calls blue hydrogen. Others believe they can bring down the cost of making green hydrogen.

One of the world’s most ambitious hydrogen projects, located on the northwest border of England and Wales, will produce both colors. HyNet leverages existing natural gas production, offshore wind power, salt caverns and existing refineries to replace fossil fuels with hydrogen.

“HyNet involves both the upgrade to existing infrastructure, as well as developing new infrastructure. This includes underground pipelines, hydrogen production plants and storage facilities,” HyNet’s mission statement says. “The project aims to lead the creation of a low carbon economy, protecting and creating local jobs to the North West and North Wales and across the UK.”

That sounds like something Texas should do. The Center for Houston’s Future, the University of Texas, the Gas Technology Institute and a dozen private corporations are working on something similar, called [email protected] Texas.

“We have to start at the place where the existing asset base is,” Perlman said, pointing to the oil and gas industry.

Texas generates 30 percent of the nation’s hydrogen, almost all of it produced with steam. The Houston H2 Hydrogen Hub would capture the carbon and sequester it in existing caverns to make it blue.

Perlman said electrolysis entrepreneurs are considering Texas because of existing hydrogen pipelines that run near natural gas powerplants. Electricity generators can blend hydrogen with natural gas to reduce carbon emissions.

Electrolysis companies can also buy cheap electricity from Texas wind and solar plants when the grid doesn’t need it. They effectively store the wind and solar energy as hydrogen for use later to back up the electric grid.

Texas petrochemical facilities can convert hydrogen into liquid ammonia, another way of storing renewable energy. With a bit of adaptation, ammonia can fuel diesel engines.

The state will need more pipelines, transmission lines, hydrogen storage and electrolysis equipment. But these things create jobs for oil and gas workers looking to escape a shrinking industry.

[email protected] breaks ground in earnest next month and offers tremendous economic opportunity. If Texas wants to maintain its current leadership in the energy economy, we need to support this kind of innovation and stop living in the past.

Tomlinson writes commentary about business, economics and politics.

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