The U.S. energy infrastructure has been in the news this week, as the devastation from Hurricane Harvey continues to ripple through the Gulf Coast region of Texas, a major oil and gas hub. This kind of infrastructure concentration is rapidly becoming outdated in a warming world in which weather events are more frequent and more extreme. With that in mind, let’s take a look at a new Energy Department initiative aimed at leveraging hydrogen to create a more diverse, resilient energy infrastructure for the nation.
Note: The Houston Chronicle has assembled a list of contacts for persons interested in donating or volunteering to assist victims of Hurricane Harvey.
Hurricane Harvey and the U.S. energy infrastructure
Almost one-third of the nation’s refining capacity is located along the Gulf Coast in an area stretching from Texas to Louisiana.
Most analysts expect gasoline prices to rise as a result of the storm. According to a report in Forbes magazine on August 29, though, the ongoing global oversupply of crude oil is expected to cushion the impact on prices at the pump somewhat.
Nevertheless, the impact on oil and gas infrastructure has been significant. Offshore rigs can resume operations relatively quickly after a storm passes through, but onshore facilities can struggle with the effects of flooding for many days. In the case of an extreme, lingering event like Harvey, recovery can take weeks if not months.
Several refineries have shut down including ExxonMobil’s enormous Baytown refinery. Shipping has also been impacted, and the Colonial pipeline — the largest pipeline from the Gulf Coast to points east — has reported disruptions.
Onshore drilling operations, including fracking, have also suspended operation.
Hydrogen and energy diversification
The era of fossil fuels is far from over, so Harvey does not spell an end to the Texas oil and gas hub. However, the storm does demonstrate something that the U.S. Department of Energy has been hammering away at for years.
That is, as a matter of national defense and domestic security, the U.S. energy infrastructure can no longer lean on concentrations of oil and gas activity.
Energy diversification was a key feature of the Obama administration. In addition to ramping up wind and solar investments during Obama’s terms in office, the Energy Department embarked on an ambitious biofuel initiative aimed at developing commercially viable biofuel crops for each region of the US.
The Obama administration also zeroed in on hydrogen as a pathway to diversification.
That strategy garnered scorn from some energy observers, for two main reasons. Hydrogen can be used to in a fuel cell for zero emission electric vehicles, but the current primary source for hydrogen is natural gas.
In addition, hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles are expensive compared to their battery-powered cousins, and hydrogen fuel stations are few and far between.
However, those criticisms are becoming outdated. The Energy Department is turning its attention to renewable hydrogen sourced from water, California and other key states are building out their fuel station networks, and more auto manufacturers are beginning to invest in lowering the cost of fuel cell technology
The hydrogen energy infrastructure
That brings us to the Energy Department’s new call for projects.
As illustrated by the schematic below, fossil fuels are currently part of the strategy. However, wind, solar and geothermal are also part of the picture. Given a supportive federal policy (more on that in a second), the role of renewables can grow while fossil fuels fade into the background.
The main point is that a broad range of fuels — fossil, renewable, and nuclear — can be used to generate electricity, and electricity can be used to “split” hydrogen from water.
And, just as diversity goes into hydrogen production, diversity comes out. The Energy Department points out that water-splitting can foster grid flexibility and provide the industrial and nuclear power sectors with a market for their waste heat:
…While much of this hydrogen is currently produced from natural gas, a rapidly growing alternative is to produce hydrogen by splitting water (e.g., electrolysis or thermochemical cycles). In addition to producing hydrogen, electrolyzers have the potential to supply marketable “grid services” due to their ability to rapidly respond to fluctuations in power supply. Water splitting can also enhance the economics of industrial processes that produce high-temperature heat, such as nuclear power plants.
The Energy Department also notes that the fuel cell electric vehicle market is just one of many end uses for hydrogen:
Hydrogen is already an essential feedstock in the U.S. oil refining and ammonia production industries and is emerging in other applications, such as the chemical and food industries , transportation, ironmaking, and backup power.
Energy and national defense
Energy has long been considered a keystone of national defense, and in fact the U.S. Energy Department has its roots in the nation’s nuclear weapons program during World War II.
When a destructive storm like Harvey hits, a nation at peace can focus on the human impact and put the full weight of its resources into rescue and recovery.