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Has Hydrogen's Time Finally Arrived?

Hydrogen has been hailed as the fuel of the future since Bill Clinton was President, but its time may have finally arrived. A natural gas power plant developer in nearby Hannibal, Ohio, is going all in on the idea with plans to move toward providing carbon-free power to customers as early as fall 2021.

Long Ridge Energy has announced its 485-megawatt Long Ridge Energy Terminal will start blending 5 percent hydrogen with natural gas when it goes online this fall. The goal is to have the $600 million plant running on all hydrogen by the end of the decade. The 1,600-acre site sits along the Ohio River, about 90 miles southwest of Pittsburgh, and used to house an aluminum smelter. Initially, the hydrogen won't be carbon-free, but instead will come from a neighboring industrial plant that produces it as a byproduct. The other ingredients are in place with abundant water from the Ohio River and large-scale storage for the hydrogen in underground salt domes beneath the plant site. Long Ridge will use General Electric's most advanced gas turbine, which can burn 15 to 20 percent hydrogen by volume initially, and up to 100% with modifications.

Hydrogen is a clean fuel that produces only water when burned in a fuel cell. It can be produced from natural gas, nuclear power and solar and wind - which is the ultimate goal of this project. With commercial operations planned finalized in November, Long Ridge will be the first purpose-built hydrogen-burning power plant in the United States and the first worldwide to blend hydrogen in a GE H-class gas turbine. In Utah, a coal-fired power plant is also being equipped with gas turbines that will be able to run on hydrogen produced with renewable energy and three other eastern U.S. developers are working on making gas plants hydrogen ready.

The issue with hydrogen has always been cost, but that may be changing. A new study by the Stanford Graduate School of Business shows power-to-gas systems harnessing renewable energy can produce cleaner, cost-effective hydrogen for industry.

While technology already exists to make green hydrogen with electrolysis, which uses electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, it's extremely expensive and only being done on a very small scale.

While hydrogen extracted from coal and natural gas can be produced more cheaply, it's not carbon-free. For the first time this year, investment bank Lazard included a study of hydrogen as a supplemental fuel for combined-cycle gas generation. It put the cost of power for a gas plant that burns 20 percent hydrogen at $88 per megawatt-hour for "blue" hydrogen made from natural gas to $127 per MWh for "green" hydrogen made from electrolysis. That compares to $44 to $79 for a standard combined-cycle gas plant.

While it is likely that hydrogen will be part of the clean energy future, it is still to be seen how long it may take to bring the cost to the point where it can be used on a large-scale basis.

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