[email protected] in California: A Role for Ammonia?

By Stephen H. Crolius on January 25, 2018

[email protected], the United States’ program for creating a national hydrogen energy economy, held a workshop in Long Beach, California on November 7, 2018.  According to [email protected]’s website, the themes of the day included “opportunities to align hydrogen technologies with evolution in power generation, transmission, and transportation sectors; and [assessment of] hydrogen infrastructure needs [for the] growth of diverse industries.”  According to individuals who were present, ammonia was mentioned as a factor that could contribute to viable hydrogen solutions.

[email protected] was launched in 2016 by representatives of the U.S. Department of Energy and several of the United States’ national laboratories.  Previous workshops were held in Colorado and Texas.  California was a notable choice for the third workshop because the state, whose economy would be sixth largest in the world if it were a country, has made a serious commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions: a 40% decrease from 1990 levels in 2030, 80% in 2050.  With leadership from the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and the California Energy Commission (CEC), the climate program includes a comprehensive and complementary set of measures including a cap-and-trade regime and sectoral initiatives in electricity generation, the built environment, industry, “natural and working lands,” and transportation.

With such an energetic approach, it is perhaps no surprise that California is surpassed only by Japan, the world’s third largest economy, in its zealous support for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCVs).  As in Japan, government agencies are leading the FCV charge in collaboration with an industry cadre that is dominated by automotive manufacturers and industrial gas companies.  And since the auto companies have held up their part of the bargain by bringing FCVs to California on a commercial basis, all eyes are on the development of a hydrogen fueling station network.

Presentation from CARB

Andrew Martinez, an Air Resources Engineer in the Emissions Compliance, Automotive Regulations and Science / Advanced Clean Cars Branch of CARB, reviewed the state’s hydrogen fueling station progress in one of the [email protected] workshop’s three programmed presentations.  He reported that 62 hydrogen fueling stations will be operational by the end of 2018.  A joint agency report referenced by Martinez showed that the first 60 of these stations involved a capital expenditure of $180 million.  The California Energy Commission provided 69% of that investment.  Private companies provided 31%.

The state’s assumption of so much financial risk is inevitably accompanied by an awareness that success is anything but assured.  In the words of the joint agency report, “The Energy Commission funds the stations and technologies that, together, have the greatest success in achieving self-sufficiency, which is important to ensure that the state’s investment enables the successful launch of this new market and to prevent it failing after state funding ends.”

Presentation from Argonne National Laboratory

Amgad Elgowainy and Krishna Reddi from Argonne National Laboratory delivered another presentation at the workshop. This one included an analysis of the current levelized cost of natural-gas-derived hydrogen fuel in California. It shows that total cost ranges across fueling stations from $13 to $16 per kilogram. Elgowainy and Reddi showed that production comprises approximately $2 of the total; transport $4-$6; and fueling station costs $6-$8. The focus of their presentation was a new compression technology developed at Argonne that promises to reduce fueling station costs by as much as $1 per kilogram. A kilogram of hydrogen has approximately the same energy content as one gallon (3.8 liters) of petrol. When the price of petrol in California and the superior fuel efficiency of FCVs are taken into account, a hydrogen price of $6.50/kg is needed to achieve economic parity with petrol.

None of the workshop presentations addressed the $4-$6 per kilogram cost of transport.  Nor does reducing this cost appear to be on the state’s agenda. In the joint agency report, cost-reduction mechanisms are mentioned in only general terms: “alternative funding mechanisms that would attract larger-scale investment;” state support for “station O&M during this early market phase to reduce the out-of-pocket costs to station operators as they work to build efficiencies in their operational staffing and supply chains;” an “intent of lowering the cost for the hydrogen molecule and greening the fuel production.”

Industrial Gas Company Panel

The state may have the understanding that the industrial gas industry is working to reduce the cost of hydrogen transport.  The topic came up during one of the workshop’s panel discussions, “Alignment of [email protected] with National Scale Hydrogen Infrastructure Growth.” This session featured representatives from “energy and industrial gas companies such as Air Products, Praxair, Air Liquide, and Linde,” and focused on “expected evolutions of hydrogen infrastructure, including growth of liquefaction, recovery of hydrogen from industrial process streams, and/or growth in gaseous terminals.”  It was in the course of this discussion that ammonia was acknowledged as a potentially advantaged method for moving large quantities of hydrogen over long distances.  Most of the transport discussion, however, focused on liquid hydrogen.

California illustrates a conundrum for countries and states on the cutting edge of hydrogen energy development.  The automotive manufacturers developed FCVs on the strength of promises made by these jurisdictions to develop hydrogen fueling infrastructure.  As the “go-to” developers of such an infrastructure, the industrial gas companies naturally focus on their core competencies in elemental hydrogen production and logistics.  This leaves government actors to identify and qualify potentially superior technological alternatives.  In a recent interview with Ammonia Energy, CARB’s Martinez emphasized that relevant California agencies are constantly performing “due diligence on developing technologies.”  And he confirmed that the agencies are aware of ammonia energy concepts.  Yet, that public-sector awareness, by itself, is unlikely to galvanize serious consideration of the advantages of an ammonia-enabled hydrogen economy.  Without such consideration, there is a very real risk California will end up with a hydrogen economy that is high-cost and/or subject to early obsolescence.

While ammonia energy proponents take steps to become a force for advocacy, the gap in California may be best filled in the near-term by the auto manufacturers.  Toyota in particular is a common denominator across several relevant groups and efforts.  In California it is a top-tier member of both the California Fuel Cell Partnership and the California Hydrogen Business Council.  In Japan, Toyota Motor Company’s parent Toyota Industries and sibling Toyota Central Research Institute are members of the Green Ammonia Consortium. Toyota Industries is also a partner in a Hiroshima University effort to develop ammonia-to-hydrogen purification technology that can be deployed at hydrogen fueling stations.  In Australia, Toyota Motor Corporation is a partner, along with Hyundai and Linde, in demonstration of a hydrogen fueling station based on a different ammonia-to-hydrogen purification technology.

Toyota’s standing in California is likely at an all-time high in the wake of its November 2017 announcement that it will spearhead construction of a renewable hydrogen production facility at the Port of Long Beach.  According to the company’s press release, the project “will build the world’s first megawatt-scale carbonate fuel cell power generation plant with a hydrogen fueling station.”  The plant “will generate approximately 2.35 megawatts of electricity and 1.2 tons of hydrogen per day, enough to power the equivalent of about 2,350 average-sized homes and meet the daily driving needs of nearly 1,500 vehicles.”  The plant will be developed and operated by Fuel Cell Energy, Inc.  As it happens, Fuel Cell Energy is currently working under a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA-E) REFUEL Program on a project entitled “Protonic Ceramics for Energy Storage and Electricity Generation with Ammonia.”

The Toyota’s plant’s feedstock?  “Bio-waste sourced from California agricultural waste,” or more precisely, manure from dairy cows.  To an outsider who has not been privy to the myriad incremental decisions undoubtedly made in the development of Toyota’s plan, this choice of raw material may seem almost willfully perverse.  For one thing, the plant will require something like 40 tonnes per day of manure, most or all of which will need to be trucked in from dairy farms that are at least 80 miles (130 km) to the east and north.  For another thing, while manure may be referred to as “biowaste,” its prevalent use is as an organic fertilizer that helps maintain the health of agricultural soils.

But the most compelling consideration relates to a missed opportunity. It happens that the dairy farms closest to the Port of Long Beach are on the edge of the Mojave Desert.  The Mojave is considered to have the best solar resource in the United States and is also home to one of the country’s leading wind resources.  It is one of the special places on the planet where renewable electricity is generated throughout a majority of each 24-hour period.  A profile of this nature was identified by International Energy Agency analyst Cedric Philibert (and reported by Ammonia Energy) as a key to producing renewable hydrogen at cost parity with the conventional steam methane reforming process, with subsequent conversion to ammonia for economic transport to market.

Presentation from CAISO

In this light, one could imagine a different project – one that moves truckloads of green ammonia to hydrogen fueling stations throughout Southern California instead truckloads of cow manure to Long Beach. Such a project would fit into the vision of the California Independent System Operator (CAISO), the operator of most of the state’s electric grid.  The vision was articulated by Angelina Galiteva, a member of the CAISO Board of Governors, during her workshop presentation.  Galiteva highlighted the grid management challenges the state is encountering as it moves toward its goal of 50% renewable electricity by 2030: variable and unpredictable output from renewable generating assets in short-term (minute-by-minute), mid-term (diurnal) and long-term (seasonal) contexts, including such a surfeit of output from solar installations during mid-day hours that baseload generating plants can not be turned down far enough to compensate.  In response, CAISO has taken steps to “enable transmission-connected storage and distribution-connected resources to participate in ISO market” and is awaiting results from the California Energy Commission’s long-term program of research into energy storage technologies.

The alternative hydrogen production project could be the world’s first at-scale demonstration of distributed ammonia production as a grid-balancing energy storage asset.  In combination with deployment of ammonia-based hydrogen fueling stations, it would simultaneously serve at least three of the state’s sustainable energy goals: production of cost-competitive renewable hydrogen, reduction of station-dispensed hydrogen fuel, and balancing of the state’s grid as it becomes majority-renewable.  And ultimately, it would be a form of technology development diversification that would lessen the risk of the state’s bold march down the hydrogen energy path ending in a technological dead end.