Cars drive through Fresno County, California, which will soon be home to the largest green hydrogen plant on the West Coast.
A leader in fuel cell solutions, Plug Power recently announced it will build the largest green hydrogen production plant on the West Coast. The state-of-the-art production facility in Fresno County in the Central Valley of California will be powered by renewable energy. Once completed, it will produce 30 metric tons of green hydrogen daily and serve customers up and down the West Coast.
The project also includes the construction of a new wastewater treatment facility that will supply the water needed by the plant and provide recycled water to Mendota, an increasingly water-stressed agricultural hub in Fresno County.
The California facility will expand Plug Power’s network of plants that already includes sites in New York, Tennessee and Georgia. Combined, they will supply 500 tons of liquid green hydrogen daily by 2025, preventing 4.3 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions from entering the atmosphere.
What is green hydrogen?
At the California plant, Plug Power will use electrolyzers to split water into hydrogen and oxygen through the electrolysis of water. Since the system will be powered by a 300-megawatt solar array, the only emissions created will be oxygen.
Although hydrogen itself is a green fuel, it can be associated with large amounts of carbon dioxide emissions in the manufacturing process. Almost all (99.6 percent) of the hydrogen on the market is produced using fossil fuels. For example, brown hydrogen is produced from coal and gray hydrogen from natural gas.
Therefore, not all hydrogen is created equal from a sustainability standpoint. Because hydrogen is very energy-dense, the production process is energy-intensive. Using brown or gray hydrogen is similar to driving an electric vehicle and charging it with electricity generated from coal. Although the car itself would have minimal emissions, it creates a demand for polluting energy sources.
Is green hydrogen cost-competitive?
“When fully built, the network of plants in the U.S. will offer transportation fuel to customers that is price-competitive with diesel," Plug Power claims in a press statement. "In addition, Plug Power’s investment in green hydrogen production will contribute to decarbonizing light-duty vehicles, freight-transportation, and logistics operations, and supports California’s leading role in developing hydrogen as a zero-emission fuel.”
Research firm Wood McKenzie expects green hydrogen prices to fall by 64 percent by 2040. Currently, China and the United States account for 21 percent and 19 percent of global demand. However, one obstacle to large-scale adoption is the current lack of infrastructure, including fueling stations and pipelines. Removing these obstacles would make green hydrogen more cost-effective.
Some of this could change with the new infrastructure bill making its way through Congress and a potential extension of the investment tax credit (an incentive for wind and solar energy). Nevertheless, the falling cost of solar and wind energy is excellent news for the green hydrogen market.
Why is green hydrogen so appealing?
Green hydrogen presents opportunities to lower carbon emissions from specific sectors that are especially polluting, such as the chemical, iron, steel and long-haul transportation sectors.
Many delivery fleets, including at DHL, Amazon, UPS, FedEx, Walmart and the U.S. Postal Service, are starting to electrify. But some of the logistics around batteries are challenging for long-haul trucking, freight shipping and air travel. Transporting heavy batteries is inefficient and takes up space, and refueling can be time consuming. By contrast, hydrogen is energy-dense, thus it is space efficient and offers quick refueling.
The Plug Power announcement signals the green hydrogen market is advancing. Pending required permits, the company expects to break ground in early 2023 and begin production in early 2024. Lee Ann Eager, president and CEO of the Fresno County Economic Development Corp., is also counting it as a win for the region, which has some of the poorest year-round air quality in the U.S. and is now choking on smoke from nearby wildfires.
“Green hydrogen represents the energy of the future, and with this major announcement, Fresno County will soon plant its flag as the strategic center for California’s hydrogen economy,” she said. “This project is poetic justice for our region, which has struggled with persistent poor air quality and will produce the zero-emission fuel needed to support the state’s renewable energy goals.”
Image credit: Tommy Lisbin/Unsplash
Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.