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Utah town hopes green hydrogen can replace coal jobs

The Delta coal plant is being shut down. In this little Utah town surrounded by livestock, alfalfa farms, and desert roadways bordered with sagebrush, hundreds of people will be laid off over the next few years due to environmental laws and competition from cheaper energy sources.

Yet, across the street from the coal stacks and furnace, beneath dusty fields, another shift is occurring that could play a vital role in delivering clean energy and supplanting some of these employment.

Here in the desolate Utah desert, developers aim to excavate underground caverns in ancient salt dome formations to store hydrogen fuel on an unprecedented scale. This is one of numerous initiatives that could help decide how significant a role hydrogen will play in the future in supplying carbon-free, reliable, round-the-clock electricity worldwide.

The project differs from previous renewable energy initiatives in that it focuses more on seasonal storage than energy production. The salt caves will operate as enormous underground batteries, storing energy in the form of hydrogen gas until it is required.

Rob Webster, co-founder of Magnum Development, one of the companies leading the endeavor, stated, “The world is watching this project.” These technologies have not been scaled up to the extent necessary for this.

In June, the U.S. Department of Energy announced a loan guarantee of $504 million to assist finance the “Advanced Clean Energy Storage” project. This was one of the department’s first loans since President Joe Biden relaunched the Obama-era program known for lending to Tesla and Solyndra. The funding is meant to assist in the 2045 conversion of a 40-year-old coal plant to a facility that burns cleanly produced hydrogen.

In the midst of polarizing energy policy debates, this proposal is unique in its ability to garner support from a broad coalition that includes the Biden administration, Sen. Mitt Romney and the five other Utah Republicans who comprise the state’s congressional delegation, rural county commissioners, and power providers.

In the next years, renewable energy proponents see this as a potential method for ensuring grid dependability as intermittent renewable energy increasingly powers the electrical system.

In 2025, the plant’s initial fuel will be a combination of hydrogen and natural gas. Until 2045, it will then shift to functioning solely on hydrogen. Skeptics are concerned that this could be a tactic to extend the usage of fossil fuels by two decades. Others assert that they are in favor of investing in carbon-free hydrogen projects, but are concerned that doing so may increase demand for “blue” or “gray” hydrogen. These are the terms used to refer to hydrogen created from natural gas.

“Convincing everyone to fill these same pipelines and facilities with hydrogen rather than fossil fuels is a fantastic move for the gas business,” said Justin Mikula, an energy transition fellow at the research tank New Consensus.

In contrast to carbon capture and gray hydrogen, the project will eventually no longer require fossil fuels. Chevron changed its investment plans for the project in June. Creighton Welch, a corporate spokesman, stated in a statement that the company’s investments in “reduced carbon businesses” did not meet the company’s criteria.

As utilities shift and rely increasingly on intermittent wind and solar, grid operators are confronted with new challenges, including the production of excess energy in the winter and spring and insufficient power in the summer. The supply-demand imbalance has given rise to concerns about probable blackouts and spurred apprehension regarding a complete transition away from fossil fuels.

This initiative transforms extra wind and solar energy into a form that can be stored. Proponents of clean hydrogen hope to be able to store energy during seasons when supply exceeds demand and use it when it is required.

Solar and wind energy will be used to power electrolyzers that split water molecules into hydrogen. Energy specialists refer to it as “green hydrogen” because its production generates no carbon. Initially, the plant will be powered by 30% hydrogen and 70% natural gas. It expects to completely shift to hydrogen by 2045.

When consumers need more energy than renewables can provide, hydrogen will be piped across the street to the Intermountain Power Plant and burned to power turbines, similar to how coal is currently used. In principle, this makes it a reliable renewable energy supplement.

Numerous in rural Delta hope that transforming the town into a hydrogen epicenter will allow it to avoid the decline that has befallen many towns around defunct coal plants, such as Arizona’s Navajo Generating Station.

However, some believe that using energy to convert energy, as opposed to distributing it straight to consumers, is more expensive than using renewables or fossil fuels such as coal.

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