Can green hydrogen save a Utah coal town?

DELTA, Utah — The coal plant is closing. In this small Utah town surrounded by cattle, alfalfa fields and brush-lined desert roads, hundreds of workers will be laid off over the next few years – victims of environmental regulations and competition from less energy sources. dear.

Yet, opposite the coal heaps and the furnace, beneath dusty fields, another transformation is underway that could play a pivotal role in providing clean energy and replacing some of those jobs.

Here in the rural Utah desert, developers plan to create underground caverns in ancient salt dome formations where they hope to store hydrogen on an unprecedented scale. The venture is one of many projects that could help determine the importance of the role hydrogen will play globally in providing reliable, round-the-clock, carbon-free energy in the future. .

What sets the project apart from other renewable energy ventures is that it is more about seasonal storage than power generation. The salt caves will function as gigantic underground batteries, where energy in the form of hydrogen gas can be stored when needed.

“The world is watching this project,” said Rob Webster, co-founder of Magnum Development, one of the companies spearheading the effort. “These technologies have not been scaled to the extent that they will be for this.”

In June, the US Department of Energy announced a $504 million loan guarantee to help fund the Advanced Clean Energy Storage project – one of its first loans since President Joe Biden relaunched the Obama-era program known for providing loans to Tesla and Solyndra. The support is intended to help convert the site of a 40-year-old coal-fired power plant to one that burns clean hydrogen by 2045.

Amid polarizing energy policy debates, the proposal is unique in having won support from a broad coalition that includes the Biden administration, Sen. Mitt Romney and the five other Republicans who make up Utah’s congressional delegation. , rural county commissioners and electricity suppliers.

Renewable energy advocates see the Utah project as a potential way to ensure reliability as more of the power grid is powered by intermittent renewables in years to come.

In 2025, the plant’s initial fuel will be a mixture of hydrogen and natural gas. It will then switch to full hydrogen operation by 2045. Skeptics fear this is a ploy to extend the use of fossil fuels for two decades. Others say they support investment in clean, carbon-free hydrogen projects, but fear it will actually create demand for “blue” or “grey” hydrogen. These are names given to hydrogen produced from natural gas.

“Convincing everyone to fill those same pipes and plants with hydrogen instead of (fossil fuels) is a brilliant move for the gas industry,” said Justin Mikula, a fellow energy transition specialist at New Consensus, a think tank.

Unlike carbon capture or gray hydrogen, the project will eventually transition to not requiring fossil fuels. Chevron in June canceled its intention to invest in the project. Creighton Welch, a spokesman for the company, said in a statement that it had not met the standards by which the oil and gas giant assesses its investments in “low-carbon companies”.

As utilities evolve and become increasingly dependent on intermittent wind and solar, grid operators are facing new challenges, producing excess electricity in winter and spring and less than needed in summer. The imbalance between supply and demand has sparked fears of potential blackouts and raised concerns about further weaning off fossil fuel sources.

This project converts excess wind and solar energy into a form that can be stored. Proponents of clean hydrogen hope to be able to store energy during seasons when supply exceeds demand and use it when needed in later seasons.

Here’s how it will work: Solar and wind power will power electrolysers that split water molecules to create hydrogen. Energy experts call it “green hydrogen” because its production does not emit carbon. Initially, the plant will operate with 30% hydrogen and 70% natural gas. It plans to switch to 100% hydrogen by 2045.

When consumers need more energy than they can get from renewables, the hydrogen will be piped across the street to the site of the Intermountain Power Station and burned to power turbines, the same way coal is used today. This makes it, in theory, a reliable complement to renewables.

Many rural Delta residents hope that turning the city into a hydrogen epicenter will help it avoid the decline that afflicts many towns near shut down coal plants, including the Navajo Power Plant in Arizona.

But some worry that using the energy to convert energy – rather than sending it directly to consumers – is more expensive than using renewables themselves or fossil fuels like coal.

Although Michael Ducker, head of hydrogen infrastructure at Mitsubishi Power, acknowledges that green hydrogen is more expensive than wind, solar, coal or natural gas, he said the price of hydrogen does not should not be compared to other fuels, but rather to storage technologies such as lithium-ion batteries. .

For Intermountain Power Agency, the hydrogen plans are the culmination of years of discussions about how to accommodate the efforts of the coal-fired plant’s biggest customer – Los Angeles and its water and power department – to move away from fossil fuels. Now resentment toward California is sweeping through the Utah community as workers worry about the local impacts of the country’s energy transition and what it means for their friends, families and careers.

“California can sometimes be a whistle and a synonym here,” said Councilman Nicholas Killpack, one of Delta’s few Democrats. “What we all recognize, I think, is that we have to do what the customer wants. Everyone, regardless of political opinion, recognizes that California doesn’t want coal. That we want to sell it to them or not, they won’t buy it.

The coal-fired plant was built in the wake of the energy crisis of the 1970s, primarily to supply power to growing cities in Southern California, which purchase most coal-fired power to this day. But battles over carbon emissions and the future of coal have pitted states against each other and prompted lawsuits. California laws to phase out fossil fuels have driven down demand for coal and threatened to leave the plant without customers.

In Millard County, a Republican-leaning area where 38% of local property taxes come from the Intermountain Power Plant, two coal plant workers ousted incumbent county commissioners in last month’s Republican primary. The races saw campaign placards plastered across the city and exploited in angst over the multi-million dollar plans and how they could transform the labor market and the character of the rural community.

“People are okay with the concept and the idea of ​​it being built,” said Trevor Johnson, one of the GOP’s top winners, looking out from the parking lot of the coal-fired plant toward where it will be. hydrogen installation. “It’s just that coal power is cheap and provides a lot of good jobs. This is where the problem lies. »

The Associated Press’s climate and environmental coverage receives support from several private foundations. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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