The race for clean hydrogen is on. Can Houston lead the way?


Emily Pickrell, UH Energy Fellow

The hydrogen economy is coming, and the Biden administration is working hard to push it forward.

On November 15, 2021, President Biden signed into law the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which provided $9.5 billion in funding to accelerate the development of clean hydrogen technology. The legislation aims to help initiate the transition to clean hydrogen as both a manufacturing fuel and a transportation fuel.

It is still in its infancy, as potential hydrogen production centers have begun to appear, even as the technology to produce economically competitive clean hydrogen is still maturing.

Several regions are doing their bit to fill the Biden administrative purpose reduce the cost of clean hydrogen by 80% to $1 per kilogram over the next ten years. The potential benefits have already been quantified by the Department of Energy: a potential 16% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, as well as $140 billion in revenue and 700,000 jobs by 2030.

Houston has natural advantages in conversation. More than 900 miles of hydrogen pipelines and more than a third of the hydrogen production already in existence are centered around Houston. Most of this production is for what is called gray hydrogen, which means it has a high carbon footprint. (This gray hydrogen is produced using methane steam reforming, which produces both hydrogen as well as carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide as by-products.). It also has a mature wind industry and generous solar capacities.

Yet Houston’s strongest argument may actually be its demand for the type of energy hydrogen can produce, rather than its production capabilities.

“We have structural advantages here in Houston, including significant industrial demand for hydrogen,” said Alan Rossiter, a chemical engineer at the University of Houston. “This anchor demand would allow us to more efficiently develop clean hydrogen at scale with lower risk than anywhere else in the market.”

Houston oil and gas companies are already investing in technology that can remove and store gray hydrogen emissions. One of the largest of them, ExxonMobil, has already developed a consortium of industrial partners and a $100 billion proposal to develop state-of-the-art deployment of carbon capture and sequestration, or CCS. CCS is an existing technology that can create blue hydrogen by removing these carbon emissions. What it needs is to become commercially viable, a process that usually involves an initial level of government support and investment.

And ExxonMobil is candid in its view that this investment should come to Houston, for the benefit of the environment and the greater Houston area.

“The large-scale and affordable deployment of CCS in the Houston area will require the support of industry, communities and government,” ExxonMobil explained in a statement. Company Website which details its plans for its carbon capture technology. “If the right policies and regulations are put in place, CCS could help the United States and Houston achieve net zero goals while generating new jobs and protecting existing jobs that are important to Houston’s economy. .”

It’s a valid point: the U.S. Gulf Coast is large enough to store about 500 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, and the refining and petrochemical facilities that line the coast wouldn’t have to transport the emissions. if blue hydrogen was used.

Yet others are leveraging Houston’s advantage as an oil and gas mecca to question whether the region will ever be able to think beyond oil and gas-based hydrogen production. with CCS as support.

They dispute the idea that a Houston-led hydrogen shift will mean an eventual shift from blue hydrogen produced with natural gas to green hydrogen, which is made by electrolysis, splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen. .

“Fossil fuel companies are suggesting that the ‘hydrogen economy’ could start working with brown hydrogen, then later switch to blue hydrogen, and again later to green hydrogen, because the CCS and finally electrolyser technology are becoming cheaper”, wrote Alex Grant, who runs a clean energy technology consulting firm, at Clean Technica. “It’s a bait and switch scam.”

Meanwhile, other potential hubs that talk about green hydrogen from the start are starting to emerge.

Hy Stor Energy has recently announcement it had chosen Mississippi for one of the largest green hydrogen production sites in the world. He argues that the state has excellent infrastructure and abundant storage capacity.

States like Massachusetts have developed studies highlighting their benefits, including a track record of thoughtful climate change plans.

Brett Perlman, chief executive of the Center for Houston’s Future, says the advantages offered by other states right now are just that – talking.

“None of this is done – everyone wants to say they’re doing something,” Perlman said. “None of these proposed projects actually exist right now – they’re just resources. All of these regions are trying to make the case for the largest amount of federal dollars ever spent on energy. It’s not a done deal, by no stretch of the imagination.

And while Houston has a home-field advantage of about a third of hydrogen production in the United States, huge pipeline infrastructure and vast storage facilities, it also needs to explain how that will help it move forward. the technological development of clean hydrogen, rather than holding it back. It’s work that organizations such as the Center for Houston’s Future have focused on, developing – with the University of Houston – a explanation to find out how the region can do this.

One of its strongest arguments stems from its proximity to demand for the kind of energy Houston uses for refining and manufacturing — energy that is hard to replace with electricity.

It’s a niche that hydrogen could fill by replacing the 26 billion cubic feet of natural gas used daily in this country to industrial consumption. And that production could be operational in the quantities demanded, relatively quickly, without having to worry about building nationwide pipeline infrastructure to move the hydrogen to where it is needed.

But Texas oil and gas companies could do more.

He could show he is serious by implementing CCS technology as soon as possible. Texas could also strengthen its hand by making its own plans on climate change and explaining how its development of a hydrogen hub will fit into it.

And he could showcase his arguably most valuable asset: human talent. Houston has a concentration of knowledge in the energy sector that has few competitors in the world, let alone on our home shores.

“While there may be other places where people are doing R&D work on electrolysers or wind turbines, when it comes to taking something and scaling it, there is no place that has the professional and technical capabilities that we have,” said Greg Bean, executive director of the Gutierrez Energy Management Institute at the University of Houston’s Bauer College of Business. “We have a workforce in the energy sector that knows how to do project development, project engineering, project finance, capital maintenance – you name it.”

Emily Pickrell is a veteran energy journalist, with over 12 years of experience covering everything from oil fields to industrial water policy to Mexico’s latest climate change laws. Emily has reported on energy issues in the US, Mexico and the UK. Prior to journalism, Emily worked as a policy analyst for the US Government Accountability Office and as an auditor for the international aid organization CARE.

UH Energy is the University of Houston’s center for energy technology education, research, and incubation, working to shape the energy future and forge new business approaches in the energy sector.


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