Big Wind-To-Hydrogen Project Afoot In Minnesota

A press release does not a power station make, but several companies in Minnesota have come together to pursue a wind-to-hydrogen project that would be “the largest hydrogen production facility powered by wind energy in the U.S.”

The attraction of such a scheme is obvious (and we’ve written about some similar pilot programs undertaken in Germany): Instead of reforming hydrogen from natural gas by stripping out the hydrogen atoms, a less-than-green process, hydrogen would be produced by electrolysis, in which electricity obtained from wind turbines is used to separate H20.

A Minnesota wind farm (image via Wikimedia Commons)

A Minnesota wind farm (image via Wikimedia Commons)

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has been studying ways to use wind to produce hydrogen through its W2H2 program, and in a recent presentation [PDF] concluded that “further reductions in the cost of wind electricity and electrolyzer capital are needed to make this type of plant widely applicable.”

On the second part of that equation, we’ve recently seen Canadian researchers report coming up with a line of catalysts based on inexpensive, Earth-abundant materials, including iron oxide, that they claim will before long result in reducing the electrolyzer costs.

The Minnesota project developers say that by taking advantage of “lower value” nighttime wind energy — lower value because grid operators often don’t need it the electricity in the overnight hours — they can produce hydrogen at a low enough cost to make their operation viable. They might be right. The NREL, while generally sounding pessimistic about the current viability of wind-to-hydrogen, said that “site viability is very dependent on the quality of the local wind resource.” The lab analyzed 42 potential wind-to-hydrogen sites in the U.S. and one of the few that checked out well was just south of the Renville County area in southwest Minnesota, where the Minnesota project is planned.

The Minnesota proposal, dubbed Emerald H2, is an offshoot of a planned 70 to 100 megawatt wind farm. Emerald H2 would use 5-7 turbines totaling 10 MW of generating capacity aimed at producing 500,000 kilograms of hydrogen annually.

There’s another aspect to the plan, as well, intended to give the project the ability to provide power when a utility needs it: “(B)y utilizing a 1MW Fuel Cell, the project offers one of the first ‘on-demand’ renewable peaking resources by incorporating the sale of wind energy on the grid to a local utility during peak hours only,” the developers said.

One that will help the project is the wind energy production tax credit, which was extended earlier this year to cover wind farms under construction before Jan. 1, 2014. The NREL, in its presentation, said the effect of the PTC “is significant,” translating to a $1/kg drop in the cost of H2 production, a 17-27 percent whack off the cost of the hydrogen.

Midwest Real Estate News reported that the Minnesota wind-to-hydrogen developers “are now talking with potential investors” and are hopeful of beginning work on the project before the end of the year in anticipation of going into operation about a year from now.

Sports columnist, newspaper desk guy, website managing editor, wine-industry PR specialist, freelance writer—Pete Danko’s career in media has covered a lot of terrain. The constant along the way has been a fierce dedication to knowing the story and getting it right. Danko's work has appeared in Wired, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.