By Allison Crawford
The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet’s (EEC) Office of Energy Policy (OEP) has formed the Hydrogen Work Group to take advantage of the U.S. Department of Energy’s $8 billion program to build a country-wide network of regional hydrogen hubs.
The federal program is part of the Biden administration’s push to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and the OEP hopes its effort will help make Kentucky competitive in the future hydrogen economy.
“Hydrogen is the future of economic development,” said Office of Energy Policy executive director Kenya Stump. “It’s a future fuel that’s important to transportation and to our manufacturing community. So we are working to make our state as prepared as possible for an economy based in hydrogen.”
Hydrogen is the simplest and most abundant element known in the universe. It is both an energy carrier and can also deliver or store energy.
It can be produced from a variety of resources, such as coal, natural gas, nuclear power, biomass, and renewable power like solar. These qualities make it an attractive fuel option for transportation and electricity generation applications. It can be used in passenger and freight vehicles, in aircraft and in ships, in homes, to power utility generators, and in many more applications.
“Hydrogen is the ultimate clean fuel that is portable,” said University of Kentucky’s Center for Applied Energy Research (CAER) director Dr. Rodney Andrews. “Compressed hydrogen is like a traditional liquid fuel, meaning it can be used in a combustion system or a fuel cell. But, the only byproduct is water so there’s no carbon dioxide footprint.”
Hydrogen’s climate-friendly qualities are also of interest to corporate entities. As a step toward achieving carbon neutrality by 2035, Toyota has announced that its Kentucky plant will begin producing hydrogen fuel cell modules in 2023. The fuel cells will be used in the commercial trucking industry, which Toyota says will also help the transportation sector begin to reduce its carbon emissions.
Fuel-cell vehicles function similarly to electric vehicles but use a hydrogen fuel cell to generate the electricity the car needs. A hydrogen vehicle is refueled in a similar fashion to a gas vehicle – when the tank is low on hydrogen, you fill it up at the filling station.
“That’s the appeal for hydrogen,” Andrews said. “It can integrate into what we do now in a way that doesn’t have to wildly change our behavior.”
Hydrogen can also be used and transported in ways similar to natural gas, Andrews said.
“We already run pipelines,” he said. “This would be a bit different in that you would also be looking at hydrogen fueling stations and related infrastructure. But we’re already talking about [building new stations] for electric vehicles, so it wouldn’t be a complete overhaul of what we are doing.”
Stump said the state has already worked with the federal government to declare I-64, I-65, and I-75 as hydrogen corridors, which means Kentucky can start installing hydrogen fueling stations along those routes.
Louisville Gas and Electric and Kentucky Utilities (LG&E and KU), Kentucky’s largest electric utility, is part of the hydrogen work group and has been pursuing hydrogen research and development in partnership with the EEC and CAER for two decades. Like Toyota, the utility is interested in incorporating hydrogen as a way to help reduce its carbon emissions.
“This goal to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 is indeed a very formidable [research and development] and engineering challenge that my teammates are working full time on addressing,” said Aaron Patrick, the utility’s technology research and analysis manager during the first meeting of the hydrogen work group. “The key is not reaching net-zero, it’s reaching net-zero while maintaining low-cost and maintaining reliability.”
LG&E and KU is not only interested in using hydrogen to produce electricity, but also in producing hydrogen using both natural gas and green energy. For the utility to reduce its carbon emissions, it would need to capture the CO2 released while producing hydrogen from natural gas, Patrick said. LG&E and KU has one of the few operational power-plant carbon capture systems in the nation.
Although hydrogen can be produced using fossil fuels and renewable energy, Andrews says that the most likely energy source for hydrogen production is nuclear energy.
“It can run twenty-four-seven and produce hydrogen when you need it to,” Andrews said. “Hydrogen from solar is there, but there are efficiency issues with how much you can actually produce from those systems right now…. Large nuclear stations give you very clean hydrogen without the ups and downs you have from renewable sources.”
The OEP is talking with industry leaders to see what nuclear energy options Kentucky has for hydrogen production, Stump said. “We have the site of the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant in western Kentucky that could have potential. Then we also have the [Tennessee Valley Authority] that serves part of our state, and they have an interest in hydrogen and a long history with nuclear.”
In addition to exploring possibilities for Kentucky’s production and consumption of hydrogen, the work group is positioning Kentucky as a “connector state.” Stump said that OEP’s main role in the development of a future hydrogen hub network is building relationships with industry leaders and government officials in other states.
“We’re able to connect to a potential Appalachian hub, along with maybe a Midwest hub and a Southeast hub. So, we’re a strategic connector state in terms of economic development and the hydrogen economy,” Stump said.
“However, it’s going to be so important for us as stakeholders to work across our state line. We’re having conversations with West Virginia, Ohio, Tennessee, and all of our partners in those states to make sure Kentucky is at the table when project opportunities become available.”
Andrews says that Kentuckians could start seeing hydrogen becoming a regular part of everyday life within the next couple of decades, driven by environmental concerns.