Hydrogen Can Work – But New Mexico Needs A Plan

Los Alamos

Editor’s note: Daniel Leonard is an electro- and materials chemist and Los Alamos resident. This commentary was first published in the Santa Fe New Mexican.

The tabling of the hydrogen hub plan presents a fantastic opportunity for a real discussion about what the hydrogen economy could look like in New Mexico.

The failed legislative effort focused on perks for the oil and gas industry at taxpayer expense. Discussion was long on rhetoric about jobs and short on details to ensure real emissions reductions. There was little mention of the value of hydrogen in a carbon-free future.

However, this legislative effort has brought the idea of a hydrogen economy to the forefront. Those concerned about climate change need to understand how important hydrogen is to a zero-carbon future. The hydrogen economy is needed and is coming. I hope New Mexico chooses to participate.

First a couple of basic facts: Use of hydrogen as a fuel is the only viable means to decarbonize many critical industries like chemical manufacturing, metals-refining and as a fuel for heavy transport (trucks, buses, trains and ships). The amount of water needed for hydrogen production is extremely small.

To put this in perspective, to store all of the electrical energy produced in New Mexico in all of 2020 as hydrogen would require only about half as much water that we lose to evaporation from cooling the San Juan Generating Station. Hydrogen production by electrolysis and steam methane reforming have roughly equivalent water needs, and both processes are extremely water-efficient. Even our arid state has enough water to support industrial-scale hydrogen production.

Any potential emissions benefit derived from the adoption of hydrogen is linked to two fundamental aspects: How is the hydrogen produced? And what is the hydrogen’s application? To achieve emissions reductions, future legislation should tie the acceptable means of hydrogen production with the intended application. Hydrogen for energy storage to support the electrical grid should be restricted to zero-emission methods only, like electrolysis. However, for transportation, steam methane reforming is a reasonable method in the near term.

Ultimately, all hydrogen will have to be produced from carbon-free sources, but we can still realize a significant emissions benefit in the short term from our natural gas resources.

Hydrogen would dramatically lower the emissions of transportation sectors where no viable battery-electric alternatives exist (heavy-duty transport and equipment). Studies from the Department of Energy estimate that using hydrogen derived from natural gas results in a 50 percent reduction in CO2 emissions compared to gasoline or diesel, even without sequestration. This is because the efficiency of a fuel cell twice as efficient as a diesel engine.

Fuel cells produce no nitrogen oxides or particulate emissions, which will have significant benefits to air quality and public health. The supporting infrastructure would increase the low-emission transportation options available to consumers by enabling fuel cell electric vehicles as an alternative.

The state should not put all its eggs in the carbon capture, utilization and sequestration basket, technology that has yet to be proven. In fact, the Petro Nova Project, the first and only large-scale carbon capture project in the United States, was mothballed after two years of operation. Proposals for the Escalante Generating Station are similar to what failed at Petra Nova. There are other potential paths for our coal-fired power plants. The Advanced Clean Energy Storage Project in Delta, Utah, is worth investigating. Unlike proposals for Escalante, the Utah project plans to be 100 percent renewable in the future.

We have everything we need to make hydrogen work: massive solar and wind potential; mature fossil energy infrastructure to serve in the short-term; and highly advanced technical resources in our national labs, universities, state agencies and private partners. All we lack is a plan.