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Developing the Hydrogen Economy: A vision for New York

23rd September 2021 Anita Hawser 6 min read

Green hydrogen as an energy or fuel source is not a science project. It's happening now. But more investment and collaboration are needed if the hydrogen-powered economy is to deliver economic growth and jobs.

Hydrogen has the potential to play an exciting role in supporting the decarbonization of our economy. Much of the technology to make this happen already exists today. Could it provide a way of helping regions and countries meet the climate change challenge, particularly in such hard-to-decarbonize sectors as heavy industry, transport and heating? New York State is addressing these questions as it leans into green hydrogen projects.

New York has identified a great tool for the energy transition job—and a way to bolster the circular carbon economy

“Low-carbon hydrogen is the Swiss Army knife,” said Dr. Julio Friedmann, senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. “You can use it for all kinds of stuff. The big wins are in heavy industry where there are few other options, for heavy duty vehicles like long haul trucks and ships, and in residential and commercial to provide carbon-free heat on demand.”

Today, the world produces approximately 70 million tons of hydrogen per year. The US makes about 10 million, mostly for chemicals and fuels. But New York State and other government entities, along with enterprise and utilities, are looking to increase production quickly. “Green hydrogen is one of the most promising ways to accelerate the energy transition,” said Friedmann. This is especially true because hydrogen is also good for the circular carbon economy, Friedmann explained, as it could take carbon dioxide and turn it into fuel.

Hydrogen isn't a science project anymore

Plug Power is building one of North America’s largest green hydrogen production facilities in Western New York. The plant will produce 45,000 tons of hydrogen a day, the equivalent of 90,000 gallons of gasoline, using “green” hydropower from Niagara Falls. “There's more going on in hydrogen than people know,” said Andy Marsh, Plug Power's CEO. “We use 50,000 kg of hydrogen per day. Every four seconds, a fuel cell powered forklift truck is being filled up. This isn't a science project. It's real.”

With hydrogen slated to become a multi-trillion-dollar global market, potentially creating 700,000 jobs in the US by 2030, experts from government, academia and industry debated the ingredients needed to build a thriving hydrogen economy at Climate Week NYC.

Working together is key

“It will take a significant commitment and collaboration among a range of stakeholders, government, industry and the public to make the hydrogen economy a reality,” said Cordi O'Hara, president of National Grid Ventures.

Friedmann cautioned that it is important to be humble: “The whole point of hard-to-decarbonize is that it's not easy. It's hard. We've got to recognize it's a team sport and we need to build partnerships, spend money and put our shoulder in.”

Governments and enterprise have a lot to gain

Cities are leading the way. New York City, for example, has plans to obtain 70% of its electricity from renewables (solar, wind) by 2030. Could hydrogen be a part of that mix? “As more renewables come onto the grid, hydrogen can provide long duration storage to smooth the peaks and valleys of electricity supply and demand, particularly given the variable nature of solar and wind power, for example, when skies are cloudy and the wind isn't blowing,” explained O'Hara.

National Grid is exploring the blending of hydrogen into natural gas networks to decarbonize the heating/building sector. “Natural gas networks have a real value in the future if we can blend in low-carbon fuel like hydrogen into the existing delivery networks,” said Rudolph Wynter, president of National Grid New York.

New York needs to focus more on building a hydrogen market

With New York working to stay on track to reach net zero by 2050, hydrogen could potentially decarbonize its entire energy system. Developing a hydrogen hub in New York could also drive significant economic activity. New York State Senator Kevin Parker, who sponsored a bill to establish a renewable hydrogen incentive and financing program to meet clean energy and greenhouse gas emission reduction targets, agrees. “It could create full-time jobs for my constituents,” he said.

But more needs to be done to get there. “I don't believe at this moment that New York has directed its energy and focus enough on building a hydrogen market. It could allow us to use underutilized resources such as power plants that are being mothballed,” stated Parker. “I would love to see some of them re-powered in a sustainable way.”

There’s lots of potential for hydrogen at the state and national levels

O'Hara said Long Island's traditional fossil-fuel power plants could run on hydrogen, providing reassurance no matter the weather. “Using electrolysis, we can produce local green hydrogen on the island for storing high volumes of energy at different times when demand is higher or for other sectors,” she explained. “When the wind is blowing less or intermittent, you could keep energy supply reliable by using stored green hydrogen.”

A bipartisan infrastructure bill recently passed by the Senate allocated $8 billion over four years to the Department of Energy for the development of at least four clean hydrogen hubs in the US. A hub would bring together hydrogen production, storage and demand for multiple sectors, with both process and output integrated with other renewable technologies to ensure clean and reliable energy.

Government can play another role, too. “Hydrogen hubs are great, but tax policies are more important,” noted Marsh of Plug Power, who expects hydrogen fuel cells to take off in the next 10 years just like solar did. “Tax credits for green hydrogen will move many applications.”

New York’s vision is echoed in hydrogen projects across the pond

Hydrogen is also on the rise in the UK and Europe. Claire Thornhill, associate director at Frontier Economics, said the EU's Hydrogen Strategy, published in July 2020, aims to produce six gigawatts of green hydrogen by 2024 and 40 gigawatts by 2030. The UK is aiming for five gigawatts of low-carbon hydrogen by 2030. “Five years ago, few policymakers and investors were talking about hydrogen, now projects are being developed. We expect huge buildout over the next five years,” Thornhill said.

In the region, everyone agrees that hydrogen needs to flow most urgently toward the heavy industry sector, but a resilient supply of low-carbon hydrogen is imperative to success. “There is a role for blending in the near term to decarbonize buildings and to build a production track record,” said Thornhill.

Heavy transport, such as rail, can be powered by hydrogen

Transportation, particularly heavy transport, is another big near-term option for hydrogen. “Hydrogen is an opportunity to clean up the atmosphere while we're creating fuels for transportation such as railroads,” said Mike Hart, CEO of Sierra Energy and Sierra Railroad Company, the oldest private railroad in California.

Hart's company captures waste from landfill sites and converts it to hydrogen. It then uses it to fuel trains. “The railroad industry represents a fantastic opportunity,” he explained, “because with a single customer you can create thousands and thousands of kilograms of demand by converting locomotives. You could convert an entire railroad fleet for freight and passenger services operating on zero emission hydrogen fueled by garbage.”

Hart said the hydrogen market is slowly forming, but more capacity is needed. “We have 9,000 requests from people overseas who want to take our technology, but there is not sufficient demand for those facilities today,” he explained.

It’s time to rally behind clean hydrogen so we can move forward

Friedmann said the next critical step for hydrogen is a clear standard to define what clean means. He explained that we also need supplies, not to mention improved affordability. “But the thing we need most critically,” he said, “is more people. We don't have operators who are familiar with hydrogen.”

Despite the challenges entailed in building a hydrogen economy, Friedmann is optimistic about the future—and not just for New York. “What's exciting is how markets and governments have woken up. Across the entire economy, we have an enormous challenge and hydrogen is going to be a part of that,” he stated. “It completes a vision of a just and thriving world I cannot wait to live in.”

To view the video in full, visit Climate Week NYC 2021 Facebook Watch.