What is renewable hydrogen, why is it important enough to have its own advocacy group, and why right now?

A whole lot of hydrogen is already produced—the energy equivalent of 6% of gasoline sales, mostly for fertilizers and other industry, some for fuel. However, use of electrolysis—or hydrolysis, splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen with electricity—is not widespread. Today, by far the majority of industrial hydrogen is produced by stripping hydrogen atoms from natural gas, leaving a large carbon footprint. We aim to change that.

Hydrogen produced from electrolysis using surplus renewable electricity takes clean wind and solar power beyond the electric grid! Not only can it replace all other hydrogen in existing manufacturing processes, it can be substituted for fossil fuels. It can to some degree be injected directly into natural gas pipelines, or be combined with carbon dioxide to make “renewable” methane that is completely interchangeable with natural gas. It can become the feedstock for other fuels, or be used directly for transportation in fuel-cell electric vehicles.

Now, since the technology for splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen has been around for more than two centuries, it is reasonable to ask, why this, why now? Two things have changed to make it relevant today.

First is the increasing frequency and intensity of surplus renewable electricity. Wind and solar are excellent sources of clean electricity, but they have challenges. One of the challenges is what to do when wind and sun are super-abundant but demand is low. That’s happening more and more often as we build out renewable fleets. Growing reliance on variable sources—wind and solar—has meant occasional and increasingly frequent “super-surpluses” of renewable electricity. Electric utilities have tended to focus on what happens when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow, but there’s an equally important flip side: more and more we see renewable power surpassing demand.

It’s clear that we will need to do something productive with these super-surpluses, and clearer still that one of the most useful things to do is produce climate-neutral fuels from splitting water. Making even a small dent in converting existing industrial uses to renewable hydrogen would make the problem of super-surpluses disappear almost overnight, while increasing the value of renewable generation and opening a huge new market for it. With costs for wind and solar dropping, renewable electricity production will continue to increase, and so will super-surpluses.

Using this abundance to produce clean renewable hydrogen fuel captures it all, greatly reducing carbon in the bargain.

The second factor is that electrolyzer costs have been plummeting, mostly due to Europe deploying the technology at scale in dozens of facilities. Late in 2017, in Oslo, Norway, I had a unique opportunity to interview the CEO of Nel Hydrogen, which claims to be the world’s largest manufacturer of electrolyzers. I knew electrolyzer cost had halved in just a few years, from economies of scale, but the CEO made clear that Nel’s internal target was a further two-thirds reduction in cost!

On top of everything else, natural gas companies are now desperate to figure out ways to reduce the carbon content of their product. It all means that between where we are today and where we’ll be in just a few years, with lower technology cost and greater availability of renewable electricity at low prices, there is going to be a huge business opportunity. We intend to lay the foundation.

The need for the Renewable Hydrogen Alliance became obvious in speaking with energy experts in the US, realizing that almost no one here is aware of the big changes that have occurred and are occurring. A spark for its creation was the realization that renewable hydrogen will not just be win-win, it will be win-win-win-win. We don’t see any losers, except potentially the fossil-fuel industry. Electric utilities get new flexible demand that can be energized during super-surpluses of renewable power. Gas utilities get a huge new green source. Renewable developers get expanded markets for their power, renewable manufacturers increased value for their product. And the environmental community gets decarbonization in an industry with limited ability to decarbonize in any other way.

What are RHA’s goals and how will you judge its success?

First and foremost we want to bring people together to identify and overcome barriers to producing and using hydrogen from water and renewable energy. For this we’ll need to undertake a broad, large-scale education and networking effort. We have spoken with folks in many fields—gas and electric utilities, environmental groups, regulators, renewable developers and manufacturers. None—not one—has been aware of this huge emerging market, already taking hold in Europe.

Of course we will count success by deployments. We would love to see at least 500 MW of fully flexible electrolyzer load in the next few years—five years at most. This might sound naïve, but it is possible, and feasible, and given our critical need to reduce carbon, absolutely vital.

RHA’s ultimate success will be fostering an industry that stands on its own, with regulations and policies that make sense for everyone. At that point the alliance might not be needed any more, and I’m totally okay with that! This would mean everyone is educated and the technology is being deployed at a broad economic level, reducing carbon at a rate far faster than would otherwise be the case.

Tell us about your new organization’s name, the Renewable Hydrogen Alliance; what’s behind the choice of words?

Coming up with a name has been one of the most difficult tasks! There were ardent supporters of differing ideas; this was the consensus choice. Hydrogen is a wonderful and powerful word, but a little fraught. There is a great book called The Hype About Hydrogen, written in response to the notion circulating some years ago that everything should be powered by hydrogen. The book rightly points out why that doesn’t make a lot of sense—but we’re focused on the critical role hydrogen does have to play, so it deserved a title role.

Since some people know almost all hydrogen produced today is derived from fossil fuels, it was important for “renewable” to precede hydrogen in the name, to underscore that we’re about hydrogen not from fossil fuels but from renewable sources, primarily solar and wind power.

Most everyone liked “initiative” or “alliance”, instead of, say, “association.” There’s much to be said for both words—the notion that our organization is an initiative and is all about initiative was very attractive, and alliance suggests a group assembled for a common purpose, something we definitely aspire to. As for choosing, to tell you the truth the acronym won the day: “RHA” evokes Ra, the Ancient Egyptian Sun God, tying us to the power of the sun!

Could you say more about “super-surplus” and the ways renewable energy has opened the way for hydrogen?

Depending on variable, less predictable renewable resources to provide reliable power has brought lots of interesting changes. In 2012 or so I was involved in helping figure out what to do about oversupply in the Northwest—a term we sort of invented; I now prefer to call it “super-supply” or “super-surplus.” One Northwest transmission operator claimed it had to cut off wind generation because there was insufficient demand for power. The industry’s hair was on fire about this—wasting electricity, renewable electricity with no value, potential impacts to grid reliability, whether it was caused solely by wind power, and so forth. I chaired a regional committee charged with finding a solution.

It turned out there wasn’t so much power being turned down that it economically justified doing anything differently. Eventually the parties figured out how to apportion which plants get turned down and who pays for it and everyone went on their way.

When I began my career in 1982 everyone was concerned over how we were going to create enough power to meet demand, and I think many of my peers are still around and programmed to worry about power shortages. But the emerging challenge is what happens when we create more renewable energy than can be efficiently consumed. This is going to continue and to increase rapidly as we add wind and solar power to the system. From 2015 to 2017 Germany added 20% to its wind and solar fleets; over that same time the generation they had to simply turn off for lack of demand quadrupled.

We’ve never seriously considered how to operate a power system that routinely produces more power than demand can absorb. I’ve long seen this as a huge opportunity … for something. Until recently it wasn’t clear what that something might be. Now we think creating hydrogen and derivative products is a great solution—the only practical one we’re aware of with existing technology.

What is your own background and how did you come to be so passionate about this project?

I’m in my fourth decade in the electric utility business. I started in hydropower planning and modeling for BPA, the Bonneville Power Administration, which gave me a huge leg up in understanding how to deal with variable, less predictable resources—hydro, then wind and solar when they became commercial. In 2010 I wrote a book on calculating costs of accommodating variable resources, with suggestions on how to minimize these costs.

About a million years ago I got a master’s degree in physics; hydrogen, being number one in the periodic table, the simplest of all elements, holds a special place in my heart. But my long-standing passion was never about hydrogen or the “hydrogen economy”; it’s been to leave the planet better off than when I got here. I realize it might not happen, but we have a moral responsibility to do what we can.

So I’ve always looked for areas where I could use what talent I have to push ahead in support of this goal. Since climate change is the challenge of our times, and solar and wind power have become keys to addressing it, that’s where I’ve focused my attention. When I realized renewable hydrogen could play such an important role, that’s what I became passionate about; and when I saw the huge progress in Europe, virtually unknown among my US peers, the way forward seemed clear.