Home Energy system Duke Energy and Dominion explore hydrogen production in North Carolina

Duke Energy and Dominion explore hydrogen production in North Carolina

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Apple's data center at Maiden is powered by a mixture of hydrogen and solar energy.  Utilities like Duke and Dominion are increasingly turning to hydrogen as part of a carbon-free future.

Apple’s data center at Maiden is powered by a mixture of hydrogen and solar energy. Utilities like Duke and Dominion are increasingly turning to hydrogen as part of a carbon-free future.

Bloomberg archive photo

Duke Energy knows that reducing carbon levels by 2030 means removing more coal plants and building more solar farms. After that, the future grows bleaker, and officials at the highest level of the company believe that hydrogen, a long-researched and under-used fuel, may be part of the answer.

At the end of October, Lynn Good, CEO of Duke, touted the promise of hydrogen in a conversation with former US Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, saying: It is becoming a truly valuable tool for achieving net zero.

For utility companies, the potential of hydrogen is clear: it burns without any greenhouse gas emissions, producing only water or steam. And companies have started researching how much hydrogen they can mix with natural gas in order to use existing pipelines and distribution system to sell what they call a cleaner product, with Dominion Energy currently pursuing a project. pilot in North Carolina.

But skepticism about hydrogen remains high. While hydrogen burns cleanly, the process of separating gas from other substances – especially natural gas – results in emissions of carbon dioxide. And some wonder if utilities can use hydrogen as an excuse to keep investing in gas infrastructure instead of renewables.

“This is sort of the main, crucial question about hydrogen: where do you get this hydrogen – how do you make it? And I think the answer to that question would really tell you how good it is for the environment, how economically viable it is, how clean it is, etc. .

apple data center 2.jpg
Apple’s data center at Maiden is powered by a mixture of hydrogen and solar energy. Utilities like Duke and Dominion are increasingly turning to hydrogen as part of a carbon-free future. Bloomberg archive photo

Almost all of the hydrogen used today is “gray hydrogen,” which is created by processing natural gas and results in emissions of carbon dioxide in addition to hydrogen. Much of the research, however, including a project announced by the US Department of Energy this summer, focuses on “green hydrogen” in which gas is separated from water using generated electricity. from renewable sources.

Some also wonder about the generalization of the use of hydrogen. While utilities like Dominion Energy tout hydrogen as the “Swiss Army Knife of clean energy,” environmental groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council say the powerful fuel should be used in a more targeted way, with fuel cells. hydrogen fuel decarbonising the maritime industry or steelworks. .

“Do you use it sparingly, which has great potential?” Or are you using it on a large scale just because you want to perpetuate the use of some form of gas in the system? Said Rachel Fakrah, policy analyst in the Climate and Clean Energy program of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “This is, I think, a point of tension that we are currently seeing in the hydrogen space between these two very different visions of this energy resource.”

Use of hydrogen by Duke Energy and Dominion

A Dominion Energy training site in Gastonia could be the site of the Virginia utility’s second pilot hydrogen program. The utility’s tariff case reviewed by the NC Utilities Commission includes a pilot program that would see the utility test a mixture of 95% natural gas and 5% hydrogen, similar to a mixture of gasoline and ethanol .

The pilot would allow Dominion to see how hydrogen affects pipes, if it still shows up on leak detection systems and how it affects customers’ devices, said Aaron Ruby, a spokesperson for Dominion. A similar pilot in Utah earlier this year was successful, and the company plans to use the mixture in a small portion of its service system in Utah.

“Hydrogen has the potential to enable large-scale, economy-wide decarbonization which we will have to see if we are to tackle climate change,” Ruby said, adding that it could be used to reduce emissions. emissions not only from electricity and natural gas, but also from manufacturing and transportation.

Currently, Dominion uses gray hydrogen, sourced from natural gas with carbon dioxide emissions in the separation process. In the long term, said Ruby, the utility intends to switch to green hydrogen, using water and renewable energy.

“We’re trying to get ahead of the technology, to fully understand it, to get all the experience and knowledge that we need, so when green hydrogen is available, we’re good to go,” Ruby said.

Duke Energy, North Carolina’s largest utility, has yet to launch any pilot projects. But the Charlotte-based utility has announced a research partnership with Siemens Energy and Clemson University that will use electrolysis to produce hydrogen from water using electricity generated from renewable sources. and study how to store gas.

Green hydrogen is quite possibly the way forward for Duke in the Carolinas, said Sara Adair, Duke’s director of public policy.

“Blue hydrogen” – the hydrogen that is separated from natural gas and the resulting carbon dioxide is captured and stored – is difficult because of the geography of the Carolinas, according to Adair. And the existing energy mix of the public service, which is based on carbon-free nuclear power and renewable energies, lends itself to green hydrogen.

Duke sees hydrogen as one of the many technologies that could provide a reliable source of fuel when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. Other technologies being considered in the same vein are advanced small nuclear reactors, long-term storage and potentially carbon capture.

“Think about the seasonal changes in energy – moving solar power from sunny October days to cold October mornings, and that’s where these technologies become increasingly important,” Adair said, adding that hydrogen could also provide a way to store excess renewable energy.

In a 2020 climate paper, Duke described a vision in which new technologies – whether hydrogen or advanced nuclear generation – produce around 16% of its electricity by 2040 and 30% as part of a net zero fleet in 2050.

Right now, the price of green hydrogen is part of what is holding back the technology. Duke estimates that a mixture of 80% natural gas and 20% green hydrogen would cost about twice as much as natural gas.

Factors that could drive prices down, Adair said, include the price of renewables continuing to drop and electrolysers that separate hydrogen from water are becoming more efficient. Company officials are hopeful that projects like the one they are launching at Clemson will help.

“We see a need for these technologies to be deployed on a large scale by the mid-2030s,” said Adair, “but to get there we need to do research and development, pilot and advance this learning curve and down the cost curve today.

How to use hydrogen?

Fakrah calls much of the widespread enthusiasm for hydrogen ‘hype’ and is primarily concerned that utilities will try to market its widespread use as an energy source in an effort to continue investing in it. natural gas turbines and infrastructure. This infrastructure is increasingly under fire from climate advocates and scientists who are concerned about methane emissions from natural gas, an extremely potent greenhouse gas that does not last in the environment as long as dioxide. of carbon.

Many natural gas turbines can already fire a mixture containing hydrogen, Duke said in his 2020 climate report.

“This fits very well with the business model of many gas utilities and gives them a potential lifeline to potentially maintain the same business model and simply reallocate many of their assets to hydrogen,” Fakrah said.

Hotz, professor at Duke University, said that while hydrogen is a powerful fuel that burns cleanly, it is not “a holy grail” for the energy problems of the world, especially if the hydrogen comes from the earth. natural gas.

But “I don’t think hydrogen is the solution to all of our problems – not at all,” Hotz said. “Personally, I think our energy future will be much more varied. We are going to have different energy sources and energy carriers for different applications. (But) I think in some areas hydrogen could play a very important role.

This story was produced with financial support from 1Earth Fund, in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners, as part of an independent journalism scholarship program. The N&O retains full editorial control of the work.

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Adam Wagner covers climate change and other environmental issues in North Carolina. Her work is produced with financial support from 1Earth Fund, in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners, as part of an independent journalism scholarship program. Wagner’s previous work at The News & Observer included covering the COVID-19 vaccine deployment and North Carolina’s recovery from recent hurricanes. He previously worked for the Wilmington StarNews.