• Los Angeles unveils two-step plan to switch 1,900 megawatts of electricity generated by burning coal to natural gas, then transition to hydrogen.
  • Toyota, Honda and Hyundai sell hydrogen-powered cars in California, which has the toughest U.S. emissions standards.
  • L.A. follows the European Union and Japan, which recently began encouraging the use of hydrogen in power generation, transportation and heavy industry.

Los Angeles may catapult the U.S. to the global lead in hydrogen technology, after falling behind Europe and Japan in the effort to use the gas as a clean source of power.

While the European Union and Japan have ambitious plans to increase the use of clean hydrogen there’s been mostly silence on the subject from the U.S. The Netherlands and Germany are working on a hydrogen grid and have trains running on the gas, while Japan has plans to highlight hydrogen at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.  

Los Angeles has stepped up in place of the Trump administration with a two-step plan to replace 1,900 megawatts of power coming from a coal-fired plant in Utah with two natural-gas-powered units by 2025. Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems Ltd. will build the turbines. This would be the world’s first power plant to run on 100% hydrogen produced through electrolysis, which separates water into hydrogen and oxygen.

“Hydrogen is not an energy source but an energy carrier, and it’s still not clear that it’s the best one available,” Michael Lynch, president of Strategic Energy and Economic Research. “It’s still very expensive to store, transport and use hydrogen. If you have a huge excess of wind power it might make economic sense, but there’s a lot of work to be done.”

LA’s Department of Water and Power has pledged that the units will be able to burn a mix of 30% hydrogen and 70% gas when operations begin in 2025. That ratio is expected to steadily shift until the plant uses only hydrogen in 2045, the state’s deadline for switching to a 100% climate-friendly electricity supply. 

The department plans to develop a “renewable energy hub” next to the plant in Utah. Solar farms, wind turbines and potentially other renewable sources will be used for electrolysis which separates water into hydrogen and oxygen. The almost 500 mile-long transmission lines that now move electricity produced by coal to Los Angeles will send carbon-free power within 25 years.

The plant sits above an underground salt dome that the utility plans to use to store high-pressure hydrogen up to a year, which would allow for the vagaries of wind and solar power to be taken into account.

“Competing with fossil fuels as industrial feedstock will require less capital costs and will likely become the most important use of electro-hydrogen,” Tomas Kaberger, an energy professor at the Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, told Karma. 

Bloomberg New Energy Finance projected last year that the costs of renewable hydrogen production per kilogram will drop from $2.50-$6.80 in 2019 to $1.40-$2.90 by 2030. The cost may drop to as low as 80 cents in 2050. If governments double what they charge polluters, power plants that run on hydrogen would be able to compete with those burning carbon-based fuels by 2050, according to Bloomberg.

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles have batteries that hold hydrogen and oxygen, with power being generated by chemical reactions between the elements. Toyota, Honda and Hyundai are selling hydrogen-powered automobiles in California. There were 44 hydrogen-fueling stations to supply the roughly 8,000 vehicles operating in the state in January. The state plans to have 1,000 stations operating by 2030.

“Hydrogen has a lot of appeal in an engineering and environmental sense, but the economics are still terrible,” Lynch said.

(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)