Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems Bets on Renewable Hydrogen for Decarbonization: Q&A with Michael Ducker

(Image: A hydrogen gas turbine. Credit: Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems)

by | May 26, 2020

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Michael Ducker from MHPS discusses renewable hydrogenUtility-scale renewable hydrogen advanced this spring.

The Intermountain Power Agency tapped power generation and energy storage technology company Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems (MHPS) in March to provide gas turbines for a new facility owned by the Intermountain Power Agency and operated by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. The plan for this renewable energy facility in Delta, Utah, is to eventually adapt those turbines into hydrogen-converting ones.

A separate effort under way in Utah, the Advanced Clean Energy Storage project, is owned by MHPS and Magnum Development. This project calls for renewable energy to produce hydrogen, which then gets stored in an underground salt dome onsite. The hydrogen can later provide power during dips in wind and solar availability.

“You’re taking water and electricity — in this case renewable electricity — and producing hydrogen,” explained Michael Ducker, vice president of renewable fuels in the Western region for Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems (MHPS) Americas. “The process described for making hydrogen doesn’t produce any emissions.”

Environment + Energy Leader recently caught up with Ducker to find out more about renewable hydrogen, and how it could contribute to decarbonization across sectors.

What is the business case for hydrogen?

States and corporations have a strong desire to reduce our impact on the environment and reduce overall carbon emissions. More renewables on the grid reduce carbon emissions, but there’s not always a one-to-one match for when we’re producing and when we need it.

Lithium-ion batteries are great for intra-day storage and small-scale variations. The problem becomes when the sun, the wind, and hydro produce so much that even at night I’m having to curtail renewables.

This is where hydrogen really starts to shine. It can store large amounts from over-production cost-effectively for days, weeks, and months at virtually no loss. It becomes an economic way to do the bulk long-duration type of storage.

How does the MHPS hydrogen fuel production and storage process work?

Electrolysis has been around for a long time. We take water — H2O — and run it through this electrolyzer system. An electric current splits the water into hydrogen and oxygen. You just need the feedstocks of energy and water.

The hydrogen we can store. In this case, we’re looking at salt caverns, which is where we stored hydrogen for decades serving the petrochemical industry.

The beauty of a salt cavern is that to create one of the voids like we have at our facility in Utah, you take water, inject it underground, and pull saltwater out. No hazardous materials. I didn’t even need to send people underground. It’s just done with water that’s returned back into the environment.

We take the hydrogen out of storage in the salt cavern and run it through the gas turbine. That process creates electricity and the byproduct is water.

What are the main challenges around renewable hydrogen production in general?

One of the fundamental hurdles is scale. Cost is a function of scale. In the hydrogen industry as a whole, 97% produced around the globe is fossil-based, only 3% is through electrolysis, and of that, next to none is based on renewables.

We’re trying to solve the challenge of decarbonization. If you take lessons from the solar industry, 15 years ago solar was way too expensive. But society rallied around renewables. Today solar is arguably more cost-effective than a lot of existing generation.

Hydrogen is very expensive. We just don’t have the scale yet. That challenge is solvable, but it will take policies, consumers, and the market driving the scale.

Are there regulatory considerations?

It’s more policy-driven: Are there incentives or regulatory drivers that push this forward?

I want to be clear. We’re not saying hydrogen is the silver bullet. To decarbonize, it’s going to take a confluence of technologies — hydrogen, lithium-ion batteries, solar, wind, biomass — but hydrogen plays a very important part in that toolkit.

What stage is the Advanced Clean Energy Storage project in now?

We’re developing the business model. The Intermountain Power Agency selected Mitsubishi for the hydrogen-gas turbines. They’re working on hydrogen as a feedstock into that turbine. We are actively looking to support that, where we would provide the hydrogen production and storage.

There are also other entities interested in renewable hydrogen as a feedstock. We’re in the FEED stage: front-end engineering design, looking at ways we can reduce costs on the production and the storage sides. And we’re doing engagements with the supply chain to reduce costs up front.

Another aspect is business development. We’re not just talking with the power industry. We’re talking with people in the transportation sector and in heavy industrial manufacturing sectors, people who see hydrogen as an opportunity to decarbonize.

Where do you see renewable hydrogen heading in the future?

Mitsubishi has been around for 150 years, and we haven’t gotten to this point by pursuing a boom-bust approach. We make century-long bets. We believe very strongly in the outlook for renewable hydrogen, and renewables in general.

Do you have any advice for corporate energy managers thinking about renewables and storage?

If the only goal is lowest cost, renewables can help in some instances, but you’ve got to have consumers and corporations that believe strongly in ESG investing.

I liken it to 10, 15 years ago. A lot of companies that did initial solar power purchase agreements were spending way above market price. But they believed strongly in what solar represented for the company, for society. Even though they lost money in those deals, they’ve more than made up for it. They were some of the first movers and they’re reaping the benefits today.

It’s about having long-term vision and balance. That type of approach can help the industry achieve its deep decarbonization goals.

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