The Sierra Nevada Mountains in Yosemite National Park. (Image: Soly Moses/Pexels)
Most of the global hydrogen supply still comes from natural gas, but new alternatives are beginning to emerge. In addition to decarbonizing the hydrogen supply chain, alternative sourcing can also open up new economic development opportunities. In particular, hydrogen derived from biomass can help local communities participate in wider energy markets while addressing other urgent environmental and economic issues, too.
Alternative sources for hydrogen
Currently, 95 percent of the hydrogen produced in the United States comes from natural gas. If natural gas is eliminated from this supply chain, it would help decarbonize major industrial sectors that depend on hydrogen including transportation, fertilizer, food processing and pharmaceuticals, among others.
Clearing fossil energy resources from the supply chain would also reduce the carbon footprint related to steam reformation. Steam reformation is the most common process for extracting hydrogen from natural gas and other feedstocks. It is an energy-intensive process that requires high heat, ranging from 700 to 1,000 degrees Celsius.
“Steam reforming is endothermic — that is, heat must be supplied to the process for the reaction to proceed,” according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
Steam reformation is a mature technology that has dominated hydrogen production for many years, but alternatives are arising. Much of the activity is currently centered on electrolysis, which deploys renewable energy to jolt hydrogen from water.
Drawing hydrogen from biomass is another new area of activity. Within that field, attention has focused on pyrolysis, which refers to the gasification of biomass in an oxygen-free environment. As with steam reformation, pyrolysis systems require high heat. However, pyrolysis systems can run on the synthetic gas they produce from gasified biomass, eliminating the use of energy from outside sources.
Pyrolysis at work: the carbon-negative solution
Pyrolysis is considered to be a carbon-negative system because it produces a charcoal-like, carbon-sequestering substance called biochar, in addition to hydrogen and other fuels. Sometimes referred to as biocarbon, biochar is an effective soil enhancement that can increase crop yields while also helping to conserve water. Biochar is not yet widely used in the U.S., but efforts to scale up the production and application of biochar are underway.
One such project is taking place in California, where the state’s Department of Conservation launched a $50 million pilot project last year called Forest Biomass to Carbon-Negative Biofuels. The goal of the program is to convert forest and agricultural waste to hydrogen and biochar, with a focus on marketing these products within California.
“The impetus behind this program is to address serious and significant issues of forest health and wildfire risk in the Sierra Nevada,” according to the Department of Conservation. The agency also lists fossil fuel replacement and carbon sequestration among the benefits.
Decentralizing the energy infrastructure
The Forest Biomass program underscores how alternative hydrogen sourcing can enable local communities to deploy renewable resources to participate in energy markets. The program passed a milestone last spring with the selection of eight proposals for producing hydrogen and biochar in the Sierra Nevada region.
One of the eight proposals selected is a partnership between the pyrolysis firm Kore Infrastructure and the Tule River Economic Development Corporation. TREDC is owned by the Tule River Tribe, encompassing the traditional territories of the Yokuts people and headquartered in Porterville, California. The agency is governed by a board of directors consisting of tribal members and local business professionals.
The $500,000 funding award calls for Kore to construct a pyrolysis facility in Porterville. Construction is set to begin in 2024, with operation expected the following year. Once up and running, the facility will take in 48 tons per day of non-marketable forest waste and produce two metric tons of hydrogen daily along with 10 tons of biocarbon (note: the company refers to biocarbon and biochar interchangeably).
Kore plans to market the hydrogen to the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach for use in converting diesel-powered equipment to zero-emission fuel cells, helping to support broader seaport decarbonization initiatives. The Porterville facility may also supply hydrogen closer to home as local demand emerges.
The forest waste harvesting operation will take place in parts of the Sierra Nevada Forest that are already under management by TREDC. The proposal also involves plans to bring additional land under TREDC management. To supplement the forest waste, the pyrolysis facility will take in wood waste from orchards in the Central Valley region.
New economic development opportunities for local communities
Until now, TREDC has focused on small-scale, on-site economic development projects like gas stations and restaurants. The Porterville project is a significant pivot in a new direction, but it is also one that draws on local resources and experience.
“We have not done any other energy-related project, but the tribe has done forest management since the beginning of time,” Dennis Ickes, TREDC’s chief executive officer, told TriplePundit, referring to conservation practices that maintain healthy forests. “This project enables us to get a foothold in the market and be progressive in forest management.”
TREDC has also won grants for solar panels and electric vehicle chargers at its properties, but the pyrolysis project is an entirely new level of scale. It will occupy a 40-acre site owned by TREDC. A $3.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce will provide funding for basic infrastructure at the location including water, roads and electricity.
“Dead, dying, diseased or rotting wood can be chipped and left in place, burned in slash piles or composted. Currently, most is landfilled or burned,” Ickes said.
The option to burn agricultural waste will be all but eliminated in part of the region after 2025, as regulators seek to improve air quality in the San Joaquin Valley, Ickes said. Carbon-negative hydrogen production facilities like the Porterville project can provide farmers with an economical alternative.
“This is a problem that we are solving in a way that benefits the environment,” Ickes said. “We are taking carbon out.”
More decarbonization opportunities for farmers
Currently, the California Department of Food and Agriculture advises farmers to replace burning with chipping and composting, a practice known as whole orchard recycling.
Pyrolysis with hydrogen production is rapidly emerging as another option. In addition to the Forest Biomass program, the leading utility Southern California Gas Company announced plans for a major pyrolysis facility to process agriculture wood waste and nutshells into hydrogen and renewable natural gas in August.
Kore also anticipates that other projects will follow its TREDC facility. The company affirmed in a July statement that its future plans include tripling the initial size of the Porterville facility.
“Kore’s model is being closely considered and evaluated for replication by the Central Valley Orchard and Forest Management for several projects throughout the Central Valley,” according to the company.
The prospects for a rising bio-derived hydrogen market in California also increased last week, when the U.S. Department of Energy announced seven projects to win funding under the new Clean Hydrogen Hubs program. California won a $1.2 billion share for a proposal focused exclusively on electrolysis and biomass.
Fossil energy stakeholders are still aiming to maintain their edge on hydrogen production, but California wields a significant influence on national markets. If money talks — and it does — the new investments in public and private funding for hydrogen from biomass will benefit farmers, local communities and the statewide economy as a whole.
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.