Texas project proposes using wind to make fuel from water
Texas is working hard to secure a base beyond fossil fuels and its status as an oil powerhouse. While it already generates more wind power than any other US state, the powerful air that hits its high plains will soon power a new process: making vehicle fuel from water.
Scientists say this technology, called “green hydrogen,” plays a major role in the world’s hopes to transition off fossil fuels and reduce carbon emissions.
Until recently, producing green hydrogen fuel has been too expensive to compete with gasoline or diesel. But that’s changing fast thanks to big subsidies authorized in the federal Inflation Reduction Act passed in June.
One project, announced last month in North Texas, hopes to be the first large-scale producer of pure hydrogen from water. Its developers – Air Products and Chemicals Inc., an industrial gas supplier; and AES, a renewable energy company — is expected to begin operations in 2027. With government support, planners hope an ecosystem of engines, pipelines and fueling stations built for hydrogen will follow.
“This will definitely become commercial,” said Joe Powell, director of the Energy Transition Institute at the University of Houston and a former chief scientist at Shell. “Until you can mass produce it, the costs are a bit high. That’s where some of the government incentives come into play to get us over that curve.”
AES said the Texas project was not its only green hydrogen venture, though others have not been disclosed. Air Products did not respond to requests for comment.
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Hydrogen fuel is not new, it just hasn’t been clean. For decades, hydrogen has been produced from petroleum gas, using steam to break apart methane molecules, leaving behind a high-carbon residue that is either released into the air or, more recently, injected underground.
But hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe, can also be extracted from water through a high-powered process called electrolysis, which leaves only oxygen behind. When it runs on renewable electricity, the process is completely clean – although the supply chain is not.
Hangup: It consumes large amounts of energy.
The North Texas project includes building a 900-megawatt wind farm — on par with the largest in Texas — and a 500-megawatt solar farm for a total of 1.4 gigawatts, more power than San Antonio consumes.
With it, the project will produce 200,000 kilograms of hydrogen per day, enough fuel to meet 0.1 percent of daily US oil demand.
It will also be eligible for tax credits of up to $3 per kilogram of hydrogen produced, without which the venture would not be economically viable.
Powell said the project’s 1.4 gigawatts of power “will rank at the top of the range of proposed projects in the US,” although green hydrogen proposals in Europe, Australia, Africa and the Middle East range from 10 to 67 gigawatts.
“They’ve been working on hydrogen in Europe for a long time, and I think we have to play to get here,” said Hugh Daigle, an associate professor of petroleum and geosystems engineering at the University of Texas Energy Institute. and a former Chevron scientist. “The (Inflation Reduction Act) is enabling the development of these large-scale facilities that will be necessary to transition us to low-carbon energy.”
Large-scale facilities are only one part of the puzzle. A hydrogen market will need pipeline infrastructure, similar to the large networks that transport oil, gas and water. And on the other hand, it will need customers – fuel cell engines that work on chemical energy, without involving combustion.
“There’s not that much of a market yet,” Daigle said. “When this market grows, they will be ready to supply the fuel.”
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Michael Lewis, a researcher at the University of Texas Electromechanics Center, said there are only a few thousand hydrogen cars in existence today — mostly in California and mostly made by Toyota.
Some trains in Europe run on hydrogen. But for the most part, medium- and heavy-duty hydrogen vehicles haven’t hit the market.
“They are in the early stages of preparing this technology commercially for large-scale deployment,” said Lewis, who helped design a prototype hydrogen delivery van for UPS. “Everybody has developed one, but they haven’t started selling them yet.”
AirBus is designing an airplane powered by burning hydrogen in modified gas turbine engines and hydrogen fuel cells that produce electricity. A Norwegian company already operates a small hydrogen-powered ferry, and other shipbuilders are racing to apply the technology to long-distance freight transport.
“This market will grow significantly through 2030,” Lewis said.
Hydrogen fuel offers an alternative to electrification for vehicles that need to travel long distances without charging, or fleet vehicles delivered between shifts without time to charge, Lewis said.
Beyond vehicle fuels, hydrogen can be used to run power plants, albeit with much lower efficiency. In those cases, electricity is used to produce fuel, which is transported and burned to produce electricity. Users are better off drawing power directly from renewable sources, said Abbe Ramanan, a project director with the Maryland-based Clean Energy Group.
“It just doesn’t make sense to use it for power generation,” she said.
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Although the production of green hydrogen is a clean process, its supply chain is not. Windmills and electrolyzers still have carbon footprints, especially if they are produced overseas with coal power.
Some critics say the renewable energy used to produce green hydrogen should be fed into the grid instead, replacing old fossil fuel plants and charging electric cars. But for cars that aren’t suitable for electrification, hydrogen fuel offers an important zero-emissions option.
“My personal opinion is that you need all of the above,” Powell said at the University of Houston. “We will decarbonize the network. We need to start looking at decarbonising the rest of the sectors.”
This story was published in partnership with Inside Climate News, a nonprofit, independent news organization covering climate, energy and the environment.