Hydrogen vehicles on the exhibition hall floor at the Hydrogen + Fuel Cells event in Anaheim.

Executive Director Report Sep-Oct 2018

Through the generosity of RHA’s membership I was able to attend five events in September and October to both learn and teach about the importance of producing climate-neutral fuels from renewable power. In chronological order, the events were:

  • POET Ocean Renewable Energy Conference, Portland
  • Hydrogen + Fuel Cells Conference, Anaheim
  • Energy Systems Integration Group (ESIG) Technical Conference, Denver
  • Oregon CUB Destination Decarbonization Conference, Portland
  • Renewable Northwest Annual Retreat and Board Meeting, Cannon Beach

All but one of these events (Anaheim) involved public speaking engagements—that such a young organization merited so many invitations so quickly is testament to the vitality of our project, and our ability to rapidly reach a wide and diverse. Below are some of the highlights of the experiences.

POET Ocean Renewable Energy Conference, September 18-19, Portland, OR

Pacific Ocean Energy Trust (POET) invited me to present the case for hydrogen from electrolysis as a market for ocean energy resources. What does ocean energy have to do with hydrogen from electrolysis? Getting ocean energy to shore can be expensive and has environmental ramifications. Converting the energy to hydrogen holds promise for circumventing some of those issues.

Joining me on the hydrogen panel was Vladimir Shepsis who presented a proposed novel wave energy technology that would produce hydrogen from onboard electrolysis and sent to shore via the barge itself or separate transport vessel. NW Natural’s Shanna Brownstein, who also happens to be a RHA board member spoke about NW Natural’s interest in renewable hydrogen for the natural gas distribution system, a potential new market for ocean energy.

Also on that panel was the estimable Gareth Davies of Scotland’s Aquatera. I only knew Gareth via email when he graciously arranged my tour of the hydrogen system in the Orkney Islands last fall. The Orkneys use surplus renewable electricity created by wind, tidal, and wave energy to make hydrogen for a variety of purposes. The Orkneys have big plans for renewable hydrogen. Check out the Big Hit website for more information on their innovative thinking.

Hydrogen + Fuel Cells Conference, September 24-26, Anaheim, CA

It seemed that nearly everyone I had spoken with or emailed in the past six months attended the Anaheim event. I met Jeff Serfass, California Hydrogen Business Council Executive Director. We discussed how to ensure that our organizations mesh without overlapping or competing with one another. I met Bill Elrick, Executive Director of the California Fuel Cell Partnership, spearheading the hydrogen refueling stations in California.

There were too many folks to mention everyone— I met Steve Jones of electrolyzer manufacturer ITM Power in person for the first time. ITM Power was RHA’s first large electrolyzer manufacturer Founding Member. I had a good conversation with Steve Szymanski of electrolyzer manufacturer Proton Onsite, now owned by Nel Hydrogen. I got to finally meet Bjørn Simonsen of Nel who got me an interview with Nel CEO Jon Andre Løkke in Norway last fall. I met David Edwards who is in charge of Air Liquide’s hydrogen program, who assured me that Air Liquide is very interested in purchasing renewable hydrogen. ARPA-e’s Madhav Acharya told me that ARPA-e has money for first-of-a-kind electrolyzer projects. I met Hector Maza of Giner ELX, a manufacturer of electrolyzers for the nuclear navy, and that has two 500 kW systems for sale “dirt cheap.”

I learned that in California “renewable hydrogen” means injecting bio-gas into pipelines and getting credit for it when creating hydrogen from natural gas in the usual way. I learned that Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai have production fuel cell vehicles. I learned that just as there are “proton exchange membrane” electrolyzers, there is a company in Germany, Enapter, that makes anion exchange membrane electrolyzers—who knew?

Oregon CUB Destination Decarbonization Conference, September 28 Portland

The Oregon Citizens Utility Board asked me to participate on the “Role of Gas in a Decarbonized World” panel. This was an opportunity to drive home the importance of making more efficient use of the increasing surplus renewable electricity to create climate-neutral fuels for deep decarbonization. I reinforced NW Natural’s CEO David Anderson’s point made during the opening panel that the natural gas system supplies as much energy to the region as the electric grid and that it isn’t going away overnight. Moreover, making renewable gas is the only economically feasible means storing renewable energy over weeks and months.

Energy Systems Integration Group Technical Workshop, October 2-3, Denver, CO

You may not recognize ESIG, but my association with them goes back to about 2003 when they were called the Utility Wind Integration Group. With help from US DOE, UWIG/ESIG was established to help utilities understand how to deal with the variability of wind, and later, solar resources. I was asked to sit on the Flexibility Panel. Back in 2003 utilities’ hair was on fire about dealing with the variability of wind power. Back then I thought (rightly!) that the challenge was overblown because the variability of demand was well known and dealt with in exactly the same way as the new wind generation would be dealt with.

That attitude works well when the penetration of wind and solar is below 10%, not so good if it should reach 20% or more. Everyone at the ESIG event was keenly aware that the power grids have to go well beyond 20% and having sufficient “flexibility” on the grid to deal with the coming variability is going to be a big challenge. The go-to way to handle swings in generation is to adjust output at gas-fired power plants. Once they are off, the only other option today is to reduce output of the renewables, which works but at the expense of the renewable energy already bought and paid for.

Others on my flexibility panel talked about adjusting loads, with a lot of focus on electric water heaters. Many who know me know that is a solution I’ve championed for many years. Utilities have been slow to adopt it for a variety of reasons. The bottom line however is that this solution is good for today, at modest levels of renewables, but it won’t get us to high penetration of renewables—there just aren’t enough flexible loads to turn on and absorb the huge quantities of surplus renewable power when we begin to rely on wind and solar for a significant fraction of our electricity.

So it was that when I explained how surplus renewable electricity could be absorbed at unbounded scale with electrolyzer loads to produce climate-neutral fuels the room came to attention. My conclusion was met with wild applause. What we are promoting is the only at-scale solution to the challenge of integrating large fractions of renewable wind and solar power, and this was exactly the audience to recognize its importance. I am hopeful that ESIG will take this up as a high priority focus of their organization.

Renewable Northwest Annual Retreat and Board Meeting October 11, Cannon Beach, OR.

I worked at RNW from 2006-2010 and in my view it is the premier regional renewable resource advocacy organization in the nation. To date, RHA has yet to impress on the renewable energy community the importance of renewable hydrogen to their success. I had requested RHA be a member of RNW. My invitation to speak and make the case for membership was a great honor and opportunity.

Our message with renewables/environmental community is not uniformly welcome among all RNW members. The reason for the skepticism has to do with the notion that creating a fuel that can be stored in the gas pipeline system prolongs or supports continued, or even expanded use of natural gas.

My key message is this: “Every molecule of hydrogen we create from renewable electricity increases the value and market for renewable power while reducing dependence on fossil fuels.” Today, industrial hydrogen is almost entirely produced from natural gas at a scale that is the energy equivalent of more than 6.5% of gasoline sales. We’ll soon see if this argument results in greater acceptance in the renewable and environmental communities. It helps a lot to have our clean energy advocacy Founding Members BEF and CEERT to boost our credibility!

More to Learn

Speaking engagements are winding down now, just two more on the horizon: NWEC’s Clean & Affordable Energy Conference on November 15 in Portland; and Law Seminars International Electric Power in the West, January 24-25, in Seattle. I look forward to these, but also getting back to the day-to-day work of promoting renewable hydrogen and convincing prospective members to support our work.