You are here

Remarks of ASFE Steven Winberg as prepared at the USEA Hydrogen Workshop: Hydrogen's Role in a Hydrogen Economy on July 23, 2020


Thank you for that introduction.


I’m pleased to speak to you today on a topic that is re-emerging as an important element within the energy community.  I use the term re-emerging because for those that have been in the industry for a few decades you well know that hydrogen has come to the forefront and then slid into the background.  This has happened a couple of times in the course of my career but this time, I think that it may very well take hold as a commercially viable source of energy for power generation and in the transportation sector.


The International Energy Agency says that there is a growing consensus that hydrogen will play a key role in the world’s transition to a sustainable energy future and we are seeing a number of countries focus on Hydrogen.  These countries include Norway, the U.K., most of the countries in the European Union, Japan, and Australia. Why the renewed interest in hydrogen?  Well, the EU, for example, has a net zero by 2050 goal for CO2.  That level of CO2 reduction cannot be achieved unless there is a significant transformation in electricity production, industrial emissions and the transportation sector.  And hydrogen can play a role in those three sectors because it does not emit carbon dioxide when it’s burned. It’s a zero-carbon fuel.


Hydrogen is very definitely part of our strategy at DOE to ensure affordable, secure and clean energy from many types of domestic resources.  We want to use our great natural gas resources and our extensive coal resources to advance a hydrogen economy.


Unlike many other fuels, hydrogen has a little bit of a mystique about it. It is sometimes thought of as a “fuel of the future”. But hydrogen is being produced today from existing resources, mostly fossil fuels - natural gas and coal. The United States currently produces about 10 million metric tonnes of hydrogen per year. Most of that hydrogen comes from reforming of natural gas; in the U.S, a small fraction comes from coal gasification.  But coal gasification provides a large fraction of the hydrogen produced globally.


Currently, hydrogen is used in petroleum refining, metal refining, fertilizer production, food processing, electronic industries, and fuel cells; as you know, cars powered by fuel cells are sold and used in several places today.

In the future, however, hydrogen could be used in many more applications, such as grid-scale power generation, grid-scale energy storage, fuel for transportation, domestic and industrial heating, and cement and metals manufacturing.


Because many industrial processes require high temperatures, some believe that hydrogen’s greatest future use might be in manufacturing, which already uses the overwhelming majority of hydrogen.


Although some predict the electrification of almost all energy usage, electricity can’t replace fossil fuels in many high-heat processes, because of the carbon content required. Future R&D advances could result in biomass being used to provide the necessary carbon through hydrogen pyrolysis. However, replacing the ~1500 million tonnes of coal annually used for steel production with biomass alone would require substantial investment by government and industry.


Hydrogen combustion is a way for manufacturers to obtain high heat without direct carbon emissions.


Why isn’t hydrogen more widely utilized now? One of the challenges is the cost.


The most widely used technology today, hydrogen reformed from natural gas, is the least expensive option. Next is what is called “blue” hydrogen. That’s hydrogen production from gas or coal with CCUS although there are those that would argue that coal even with CCUS is not blue hydrogen.  About 3-4 percent of the hydrogen produced in the U.S. today is “blue”. Using CCUS can actually reduce emissions to near zero – and at the lowest cost. 


In fact, one of DOE’s major carbon capture, utilization and storage projects – in Port Arthur, Texas – combines carbon capture with steam methane reforming to produce “blue” hydrogen.


There is also a product some have named “green” hydrogen, produced by using electrolysis and renewable energy from the electrical grid. Between one and two percent of the hydrogen in the U.S is produced using electrolysis, but it’s quite expensive. Producing hydrogen from fossil energy with carbon capture and storage is 3 to 10 times less expensive than converting renewable electricity into hydrogen.


A key goal at DOE is driving down costs and facilitating the broader use of hydrogen – and our technology investments are helping us do that.


The Office of Fossil Energy has been especially active on this front.  The Department has supported the development of hydrogen turbines, fuel cells, and coal gasification with pre-combustion carbon capture for producing hydrogen fuels. We have focused our hydrogen research in four areas:


First, we are researching hydrogen production using gasification and methane reforming technologies. The Office of Fossil Energy supports the development of gasification and pre-combustion technologies to produce hydrogen - from coal and other feedstocks such as plastics and biomass. We are funding Coal FIRST (Flexible, Innovative, Resilient, Small, Transformative), an R&D program for 21st century coal power plants that produce first-of-a-kind zero or net negative greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.


Coal FIRST plants with CCUS could actually make hydrogen carbon-negative. Coal FIRST plants will incorporate CCUS technologies to generate hydrogen, as well as carbon-neutral electricity. Additionally, Coal FIRST technologies combined with CCUS are expected to be able to produce hydrogen at a very competitive cost.


Second, we are funding hydrogen transportation infrastructure. Existing pipeline infrastructure in the United States can be used to introduce from 5 % to 15 % hydrogen, without substantial negative impact on end users or the pipeline infrastructure. That blended fuel can reduce the carbon footprint of power generation by combined-cycle and simple-cycle turbines.


Modifications to materials or lining for existing infrastructure could enable conversion to 100% hydrogen in the future.


Our midstream R&D is focused on enhancing the safety and efficiency of natural gas production, transmission, and storage infrastructure.  One thing we’re exploring is the potential of using our existing domestic natural gas pipeline infrastructure to expand the transportation of hydrogen.


The natural gas pipeline network within the United States is a highly integrated network that moves natural gas across about 3 million miles of mainline to end-user markets and other pipelines, and between natural gas producing areas and storage facilities.


Within this network, over 1,600 miles of pipeline are dedicated to the transmission of hydrogen, representing the largest dedicated hydrogen pipeline system anywhere in the world.


Blending hydrogen into natural gas pipeline networks may be an option for delivering pure hydrogen to markets, using separation and purification technologies downstream to extract hydrogen from the natural gas blend near the point of end use.


We need to assess multiple factors to safely integrate hydrogen blending into the existing natural gas pipeline systems. One problem remaining to be solved is hydrogen embrittlement, the degradation of structural materials due to exposure to gaseous hydrogen.


While hydrogen compression can be utilized for transport and storage, this compression does come with energy penalties of up to 20% of the energy content required for compression.


Third, we’ve invested considerable resources supporting the development of hydrogen turbines, fuel cells, and coal gasification systems with pre-combustion carbon capture for producing hydrogen fuels.  We are researching how hydrogen turbines and solid oxide fuel cells can generate carbon-free electricity. We’ve also conducted technical and economic system studies evaluating hydrogen production through processes like steam methane reforming. 


And we expect that in the quest for a lower-carbon future, we can utilize hydrogen, CO2, and carbon from coal to make advanced products such as carbon fiber, graphene, and carbon foam, which have better performance and lifecycles than current products.


Finally, our new Advanced Energy Storage program is leveraging the low-cost, low- or no-emissions production of hydrogen from fossil fuels to facilitate energy storage that can improve our energy production and use.


Hydrogen can be stored either as a gas or a liquid. Storage as a liquid requires high-pressure tanks. But hydrogen can also be stored underground; for example, in salt caverns, depleted oil and gas reservoirs, aquifers, and hard rock caverns. The Fossil Energy Office already has extensive experience with natural gas storage.


Geologic cavern storage of hydrogen for industrial use already exists at two locations in Texas and is being developed in Utah. We are currently working to characterize and validate geologic storage around the United States that can be used for hydrogen storage.  That storage will enhance the security, reliability, and resilience of our energy infrastructure.


We’re utilizing our investment, the low cost of natural gas, lessons learned, and our expertise to jump start a low-cost and carbon-free hydrogen economy with CCUS.  And we’re looking at ramping up hydrogen production at coal-fired power plants to help manage load and use existing assets in a hydrogen energy ecosystem.


This is where we see the additional benefits of Coal FIRST technologies – particularly modular gasification combined with CCUS, which not only can advance American hydrogen production from coal, but also offers alternative markets and uses for biomass and plastics by converting them to chemicals and a range of fuels beyond hydrogen. 


So, technology development will continue to drive global energy transformation, and it will help us address the environmental challenges to critical fossil energy resources for power production.


The International Energy Agency predicts that countries that are developing hydrogen technologies—such as the United States, the UK, Japan, and others—will rely on fossil fuels as the primary source of H2 production.


The United States could position itself to be an exporter of hydrogen, similar to its role as an exporter of liquefied natural gas. Hydrogen exports could become a major industry. FE’s Oil and Natural Gas Office will investigate the possibility of modifying LNG terminals to handle hydrogen and CO2.


Japan is already working with Australia to gasify Australian coal and to import pure hydrogen into the Japanese economy. The United States could replicate that model, or even ship LNG to other countries, convert the natural gas to hydrogen, and return the CO2 to the United States to be stored or used for enhanced oil recovery.


Hydrogen can enable the transition of the electricity, manufacturing, and transportation sectors toward a low-carbon footprint here at home. It will also open up opportunities to provide consumers around the world with cleaner, affordable choices across the power and transportation sectors and keep the United States competitive globally.


The Office of Fossil Energy recently released our “Strategy for Hydrogen”, highlighting the R&D and other efforts we are planning to enable large scale hydrogen production. That production will support the transition to carbon-free power in the transportation and manufacturing sectors.  In addition, we released a Request for Information asking our stakeholders for their input on R&D that the Office of Fossil Energy should consider for hydrogen generation, transportation, storage, and electricity generation.


The rest of this workshop will include presentations by the IEA and the Coal and Natural Gas offices in Fossil Energy, highlighting ongoing and future R&D for hydrogen.


Thanks for inviting me to speak today.