Personal View: It’s time to add hydrogen to Ohio’s energy mix

March 7, 2022

Across the globe, countries and regions are beginning to use hydrogen as a way to store zero-emissions energy and maintain vibrant industrial economies while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This transition is being accelerated by the decrease in cost for renewable energy, falling costs for making hydrogen, the desire to reduce carbon emissions, and the improved performance of the latest clean energy technologies.

We have an exciting opportunity in Northern Ohio to be a part of this global hydrogen pivot.

That’s why we’re trying to do our part to bring a low-carbon emissions “hydrogen hub” to our region.

Case Western Reserve University and the University of Toledo, together with leading companies from around the state and other local, regional and national partners, are assembling a proposal to attract federal funding for a low-carbon emissions hydrogen hub to meet industrial and transportation demands. A Midwest Hydrogen Hub, centered in Northern Ohio, would be one of the hubs identified specifically in the federal bipartisan infrastructure bill that was approved in the fall 2021.

Think of each of these hubs as an ecosystem of users and suppliers of hydrogen — principally manufacturers, transportation companies and their supply chains. The overarching goal: Spark regional investment and drive down the cost of clean hydrogen.

So what can other stakeholders do to take part? For starters:

What has been holding us back?

One issue that has concerned Ohio’s investors in renewable energy is energy storage. When the sun isn’t shining or the wind is calm, typical forms of renewable energy struggle to deliver the electricity our economy requires.

And while batteries are improving, they are heavy. They are better suited to storing energy for buildings, homes and cars, but aren’t a good match for manufacturing, heavy-duty equipment, long-distance transportation or maintaining charge under frigid conditions.

Factories, trains, airplanes and ships have higher power requirements over longer durations, and need that power source to take up as little weight and space as possible.

That’s where hydrogen comes in. Hydrogen, when run through a fuel cell, makes electricity to power an electric motor, with no pollution or emissions. When combusted, hydrogen can create power and heat with significantly reduced emissions when compared to burning fossil fuels.

New technologies, new hopes

Companies, researchers and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) are tackling the obstacles to a transition to a hydrogen economy through aggressive research and development. Significantly, DOE has established the “Hydrogen Shot” program, setting a price target of $1, per 1 kilogram of hydrogen by 2031.

Such a dramatic price decrease would accelerate the adoption of hydrogen for energy storage.

Until now, hydrogen has primarily been made through a process known as steam methane reforming (SMR) derived from natural gas. Due to the cost and emissions generated from making hydrogen this way, it has primarily been used by industry. (A separate project led by Cleveland State University, Stark-Area Regional Transit Authority and others addresses this cost and emissions issue. It is targeting a natural gas-derived hydrogen hub, which would invest heavily in carbon capture, utilization and sequestration technologies, and also accelerate the region’s transition to a hydrogen economy.)

Recent advances in electrolyzers, a device that takes water and electricity and makes hydrogen, means that in the very near future, hydrogen will be made nearly anywhere with access to water and electricity. This stored energy could be used weeks after it’s been made, and can be moved around the region to where it’s needed.

Northern Ohio’s abundance — and opportunity

While Northern Ohio doesn’t have abundant sources of renewable energy yet, it does have an abundance of water and emissions-free electricity in the form of our two nuclear power plants: Davis-Besse and Perry, operated by Energy Harbor.

Energy Harbor has already announced plans to make moderate amounts of hydrogen using a low temperature electrolyzer at its Davis-Besse nuclear power plant, through a pilot project with the DOE. Producing hydrogen could improve the economics of our nuclear power stations, while also jump-starting our region’s transition to an emissions-free hydrogen economy.

So, the urgent takeaway for Northern Ohio businesses and manufacturers is this: The hydrogen transition is already underway across the globe — and we’ve got to move quickly to have a share in the growth.

Goodrich is a Cleveland resident.