When a hydrogen fuel cell company was pursuing ways to expand its green hydrogen production and get closer to emerging markets for its products, John Middleton saw an opportunity to add a major commercial/industrial customer to his co-op’s load.

As CEO of Nahunta, Georgia-based Okefenoke Rural Electric Membership Corp., he decided to take an active role in helping local economic development advocates in southeastern Georgia promote the project and seal the deal.

“We were confident in our ability to provide the power needed at various phases of the project,” Middleton recalls. “We are 84% residential load, so adding a commercial/industrial account with a high load factor benefits our consumer-members.”

With 200 kilowatts of community scale solar and a larger 1.86-megawatt solar array locally available, Okefenoke is also a member of Tucker, Georgia-based Green Power Electric Membership Corp., a co-op-owned renewable energy supplier with 1.3 gigawatts of renewable energy installations and 38 member co-ops.

By 2025, Green Power expects to expand to 2 GW of renewables, primarily from solar.

A $100 million processing plant for “green hydrogen” is now under construction, and once completed, about 70 new full-time jobs will take root in Camden County, Georgia. Once commitments were firm, Okefenoke REMC built a dedicated substation to service a zoned economic development district carved into the thick pine forests long central to its territory’s lumber-based economy.

With a shrinking market for paper depressing demand for pine feedstock, new jobs in emerging industries are essential for the future.

“There are hundreds of employees out there working for different construction firms,” says James Coughlin, executive director of the Camden County Joint Development Authority. “They’re leasing properties for lodging, parking and staging. They are eating in our restaurants, staying in our hotels and spending money in our communities, so they are having a tremendous downstream rippling benefit on our area.”

Federal support to develop hydrogen as a fuel source began decades ago and included congressional passage of the Hydrogen Fuel Act of 1996, which authorized $50 million in grants and matching funds for research and development of demonstration projects.

The bipartisan infrastructure law passed in 2021 represents a much more sizable commitment, with $9.5 billion for hydrogen initiatives, including $8 billion for development of up to 10 regional hydrogen hubs. Additional funds are also available to support advances in clean hydrogen production and related technology and to support a feedstock and distribution supply chain.

“The basic technology for generating hydrogen has been around for a long time,” says Rae Cronmiller, NRECA’s senior director of environmental and regulatory affairs. “The challenge is to affordably produce hydrogen, including so-called ‘green hydrogen,’ and develop the infrastructure to allow nationwide distribution for its use as a utility-scale fuel.”

Obstacles remain

Hydrogen, the lightest and smallest element, is the most abundant material in the universe. But it must be processed with high heat and pressure to separate it from water. Traditional hydrogen production from fossil fuels like natural gas produces significant amounts of carbon dioxide as a byproduct, effectively negating its use at utility-scale as a clean fuel alternative.

According to the Department of Energy, hydrogen production in the United States totals about 10 million metric tons a year. Analysts expect that domestic demand for hydrogen could top 73 million metric tons by 2050 and create more than 1 million new jobs by the end of this decade.

The only plant in the nation designed specifically for hydrogen generation is the 485-MW investor-owned Long Ridge Generation Plant in Hannibal, Ohio, which was commissioned in 2022. It has done test burns using a fuel blend that includes up to 20% hydrogen, and developers expect to increase that to 100% green hydrogen within a decade.

But transportation, storage and distribution remain obstacles to both consumer acceptance and widescale commercial fuel use. Most hydrogen production occurs at or near plants using it as a feedstock.

Hydrogen’s small molecular size means it has a propensity to leak, necessitating specialized fabrication and transport procedures and leak detection.

Of the more than 3 million miles of pipelines in the United States, only 1,600 miles are designed for and used to transport hydrogen.

Tankers or rail cars must be chilled to nearly minus-500 degrees Fahrenheit to maintain hydrogen in a liquid state. Of nearly half a million rail cars in the United States, only about 500 now available can effectively transport hydrogen. And tank trucks equipped to handle hydrogen currently service 431 distribution hubs, primarily located within 200 miles of production sites.

Meanwhile, there are around 15,000 hydrogen fuel cell-powered trucks operating in the United States today, and most are committed to intermodal freight handling in California, operating no more than 200 miles from cargo terminals. There are also about 50,000 fuel cell-equipped forklifts used in the logistics industry, but that number is rapidly expanding. Fuel cell backup power for cellphone towers and other commercial and industrial applications is well positioned as an alternative to batteries and small solar arrays.

Development of a hub system for processing and storage of hydrogen at several locations across the country could increase demand and lead to production and sales of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, which could account for 5% of passenger vehicles and up to 10% of buses and trucks in the United States by 2050.

'Potential opportunities'

At the University of Minnesota’s West Central Research and Outreach Center, a 1,000-acre facility near Morris, part of the facility’s 2 MW of wind and solar power will be used to produce up to 1 metric ton per day of anhydrous ammonia at a pilot plant. Ammonia is a nitrogen fertilizer but is also a good hydrogen carrier that can be used store and transport hydrogen for later conversion into fuel.

The ammonia from the production facility will be used by nearby Runestone Electric Association to fuel mobile generators for limited industrial use, but eventually could be repurposed for fuel cells and other hydrogen power uses.

“There are times during the summer and on holiday weekends when demand for electricity can get close to the local system capacity, so mobile gensets could help us avoid adding substations and additional equipment or extending lines to handle the seasonal demand,” says Ryan Rooney, Runestone’s energy services and business development manager.

The Alexandria, Minnesota-based distribution co-op includes the research center among its membership, which includes thousands of seasonal vacation homes located on area lakes.

The flatbed-mounted generators of 250 to 300 kilowatts could meet the needs of about 150 to 200 average homes. Unlike lithium-ion batteries, which require recharging after several hours of use, the gensets operate over many hours fueled by nurse tanks similar to those used to apply anhydrous ammonia as a fertilizer.

With the support of its power provider, Maple Grove, Minnesota-based Great River Energy, Rooney says Runestone expects to have a prototype available for field testing in 2024.

While it could be decades before utility scale hydrogen-based power generation is achieved, co-ops are engaging by supporting demonstration projects and other facets of the industry. “State and federal policy decisions, including financial support for hydrogen research, development and deployment, could affect timelines and drive the choices available to co-ops,” says Bobby Hamill, an NRECA senior legislative affairs director.

NRECA is consulting with representatives of the National Laboratories on opportunities in the hydrogen sector that could create 700,000 new jobs by 2030 producing about $130 billion in economic impact. The domestic hydrogen industry may employ as many as 3.4 million people by mid-century.

And since the future of clean or carbon free hydrogen is so closely tied to renewable energy, electric co-ops and their members could benefit.

“Co-ops and their G&Ts will continue to provide the most reliable, affordable product for their members,” says Stephanie Crawford, NRECA’s director of regulatory affairs. “Planning horizons and build times are long, so all utilities, including cooperatives, are constantly working to try and anticipate leading solutions and their potential to reach commercial operation.”