Kentucky is betting on hydrogen to be the fuel of the future.
Hydrogen is the lightest chemical element: a colorless, odorless, combustible gas and the most abundant element in the universe.
This universal building block could hold the key to decarbonizing the economy, transitioning to renewable energy and ushering in a new era of prosperity for Kentucky manufacturing and transportation.
There have been false starts in the past, and a number of challenges remain to make hydrogen cost-effective and at-scale. But the push to make hydrogen the fuel of tomorrow is accelerating.
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law includes $8 billion to develop regional clean hydrogen hubs across the country. Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear announced the state would become a hydrogen hub with a network of producers, consumers and connective hydrogen infrastructure last year.
In September, Kentucky joined a coalition of seven states to form a Midwestern Hydrogen Coalition with the goal of accelerating and improving clean hydrogen production.
“We may solve our problems if we can figure out hydrogen because there won’t be a carbon footprint,” University of Louisville Conn Center for Renewable Energy Director Mahendra Sunkara said.
With all this momentum, WFPL News explains how hydrogen works and what a hydrogen-based future could look like in Kentucky.
Hydrogen: A primer
The global economy runs on fossil fuels. This, as you have probably noticed, is a problem. Burning fossil fuels releases heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We have been doing that a lot, for a long time.
So long in fact, climate scientists say humanity has a rapidly closing window of time to end our reliance on fossil fuels and secure a livable future.
Hydrogen-based fuels, on the other hand, could replace our fossil fuel infrastructure without producing all of those pesky, climate-warming greenhouse gases.
“In the long-run, globally we are going to look at a renewable future with a carbon-free fuel source, which could be hydrogen,” Sunkara said.
The basic process for making hydrogen has been understood for centuries, according to the International Energy Agency. This process, called electrolysis, uses electricity to split water (H20) into hydrogen and oxygen.
That electricity can come from any source. Wind, solar, geothermal and tidal power sources generate so-called “green hydrogen” with a very low carbon footprint.
But hydrogen fuels can also be made using natural gas and coal as electricity sources. Coal-generated hydrogen can have a high greenhouse gas emissions. Natural gas can be used as both an electricity source and as a raw material for producing hydrogen. Depending on the process, it can have a low to medium-sized carbon footprint.
While some options create more emissions than others, all offer some versatility in the energy transition and for the buildout of hydrogen infrastructure, Sunkara said.
So you made some hydrogen, now what
Solar panels only produce electricity while the sun is shining. Wind turbines generate power when the wind blows. Hydrogen fuel cells have the potential to store that energy for later use and overcome some of the current challenges that exist with battery energy storage.
The International Energy Agency says hydrogen could provide a promising low-cost electricity storage option for days, weeks or even months.
And it’s not just the energy sector. Hydrogen has the potential for it to decarbonize a number of industry sectors: the chemical industry, cement, steel and aluminum manufacturing — all of which are necessary, but where emissions remain stubbornly difficult to reduce.
Hydrogen also has the potential to revolutionize the transportation industry with uses in fuel cells that operate similar to batteries in electric cars, or in internal combustion engines. The emissions from the tailpipe would be mostly water, and you wouldn’t have to wait to charge a battery.
“I think hydrogen is going to play a huge role in decarbonization, which is one of the drivers. Second, it’s a fuel that will replace the fossil fuels that we have,” Sunkara said.
In all of these scenarios, hydrogen has the co-benefit of reducing air pollution and saving lives.
Hydrogen in Kentucky
Sunkara, with U of L’s Conn Center for Renewable Energy Research, says Kentucky has the natural resources for hydrogen production: abundant water as well as methane, which can also be used to produce hydrogen.
As a manufacturing state, Kentucky has a built-in market for hydrogen. It’s already commonly used in oil refining and the production of fertilizers. Beginning next year, Toyota plans to assemble hydrogen fuel cells for use in heavy-duty commercial trucks.
“Almost all the manufacturing industry sectors, cement steel, smelting or refining or any of the chemical factories are all starved for hydrogen. They’re all looking for low-cost clean hydrogen,” Sunkara said.
Given the state’s role as transportation hub, Kentucky could build out hydrogen infrastructure through building hydrogen fuel stations, or sending it through pipelines to nearby states, he said.
Finally, given the need to transition to renewable energy sources, hydrogen could provide the storage necessary for renewables to supply consistent, reliable electricity.
Challenges and opportunities
At different points in the 1970s, 90s, and early aughts, hydrogen production has benefited from renewed interest, but each time market forces stifled widespread adoption. Sunkara says the basic problems facing hydrogen are scale, cost and carbon footprint.
Right now, hydrogen production mostly relies on electricity from coal and natural gas, eliminating much of the potential green benefits. Hydrogen production used in the refining industry, for example, produces nine tons of C02 for every ton of hydrogen, Sunkara said.
Another problem is the source of hydrogen: Water is the most abundant resource on the planet, and one Kentucky has plenty of, but current technologies require that water be pure in order to produce hydrogen. If experts can figure out a way to produce hydrogen using river and sea water, for instance, it could help bring down costs, Sunkara said.
Then there’s the infrastructure. In the early aughts, hydrogen-based vehicles suffered from a “chicken and egg” problem: without the necessary infrastructure like refueling stations, there wasn’t enough interest in the vehicles, according to the IEA.
“So even though we think we know this technology. We are not completely sure that we can actually produce it at a much larger scale at a much lower cost and with a much lower carbon footprint,” Sunkara said.
But there are reasons for optimism. With the global energy sector in transition, hydrogen is a versatile fuel source that could benefit from current dirty energy sources as well as renewable energy sources like solar and wind.
Researchers, including those at U of L’s Conn Center, are building the next generation of clean hydrogen technology. Meanwhile, major federal and state investments including the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act could provide the momentum for widespread adoption across our energy landscape.
Sunkara believes that in the next five years, hydrogen will play a larger role in decarbonization in energy, industry and in transportation.
In the longer term, hydrogen could be the key to a future where the state’s industry makes use of the state’s water and natural gas resources to produce a zero-carbon fuel distributed through pipelines and at gas stations, useful in both fuel cells and internal combustion engines, capable of powering our cities when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.
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