Cascadia needs cleaner fuels to reduce carbon emissions by 2030
Towards hydrogen and beyond
Experts predict that meeting the demand for clean fuels in 2030 will lead clean fuel producers to new technologies and ingredients that are on the cusp of commercial production.
One potential source of future fuels is abundant biomass material such as wheat chaff and other agricultural scraps, sludge from sewage treatment plants and small trees from thinned forests. Biomass can be converted into methane gas and compressed to fuel vehicles. Alternatively, superheated water and catalysts – materials that speed up chemical reactions – can turn biomass into an oily mixture called “biocrude” that refineries can use.
Holladay and collaborators at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Washington State University are working to demonstrate the feasibility of the biofuel chain. They make biocrude from a mix of sources, including sewage sludge from Detroit and food waste from a prison and military base in Washington state.
Last month they reported continuous conversion of biocrude into renewable diesel for more than 2000 hours, without damage to the particularly expensive catalysts that refineries use.
PNNL-WSU research could play a small role in the set of new generation clean fuels approved by Washington State’s Energy Strategy 2021: gaseous hydrogen made from renewable energy and liquid fuels produced by reacting this “green” hydrogen with a range of materials.
Cascadia’s first green hydrogen project started in March in the Douglas County Utility District in downtown Washington. The plant will use hydroelectric power produced at the utility’s Columbia River Dam to split the water into gaseous hydrogen and oxygen.
This hydrogen can replace the natural gas and coal that power industries, or be used to power electric vehicles that get their power from fuel cells rather than batteries. Fuel cells are electrochemical devices comparable to the Douglas PUD Hydrogen Plant, but working in reverse to combine hydrogen and oxygen and so produce electricity.
Toyota, which along with Hyundai and Honda already sells fuel cell vehicles in California and British Columbia, partners with Douglas PUD to open a market in Washington by building the state’s first hydrogen refueling station near Centralia.
Douglas PUD expects to get an extra boost from its hydrogen production: flexibly adjusting the operation of the plant to maintain the balance between energy supply and demand. (See the sidebar: Using hydrogen to safeguard the network)
Another way to use hydrogen to fight climate change is to produce low carbon liquid fuels. These include diesel for use in heavy vehicles and jet fuel for jet engines. A company in Quebec is building one of the largest green hydrogen plants in the world, about 17 times larger than that of Douglas PUD. It plans to convert non-recyclable municipal waste and wood waste into biofuels.
Decarbonization modeling supporting Washington’s new energy strategy has revealed that hydrogen-derived fuels could account for four-fifths of the state’s clean fuel supply in 2030. Such projections are new to America. North, but they are the new norm in Europe and Asia, where large renewable hydrogen projects are multiplying.
A Danish renewable energy giant, Ørsted, is plans for a hydrogen plant 200 times the size as Douglas PUD and would be powered by a dedicated offshore wind farm.
Cascadia’s clean fuel standards have started a transition to low carbon fuels. But these programs are not enough to deliver the hydrogen and clean fuel industries needed by 2030.
The big investments promised by the Biden administration could help. An infrastructure plan that President Joe Biden unveiled last month pledges $ 15 billion for large demonstration projects for emerging energy technologies, including 15 hydrogen projects.
According to Jeremy Hargreaves, the energy systems modeler with San Francisco-based Evolved Energy Research who led recent research for Washington state, the uncertain cost of hydrogen-based fuel processes means it’s difficult to predict which fuel lanes will ultimately escalate.
What is certain, Hargreaves said, is that hydrogen fuels will cost much more than current commercial fuels, such as renewable diesel. That’s why electrifying as fast as possible rose to the top of the strategic menu that Hargreaves’ firm evaluated for Washington state and in similar studies for British Columbia and Oregon. It makes sense to electrify as many cars and trucks as possible before switching to the more expensive green hydrogen fuels.
Environmentalists fear that the expansion of clean fuel production will actually undermine this effort, undermining the early adoption of electric vehicles in the market.
“You are pushing to continue using fossil-powered trucks and ferries, rather than switching to electrified equivalents,” said Patrick Mazza, a Seattle-based environmental activist and energy analyst.
Many fear that hydrogen-based fuels could also stimulate new production of fossil fuels. Right now, green hydrogen is quite expensive. At the moment, it is much cheaper to continue to use a non-climate friendly process involving natural gas which is responsible for more than 2% of global carbon dioxide emissions.
Even if some of the carbon emissions could be captured, producing more hydrogen from natural gas would stimulate further fossil gas drilling and associated methane leaks.
“You offer a new market for fractured gas, with all of its air and water pollution issues, as well as questionable carbon benefits,” Mazza said.
In contrast, Wilson’s minimal trucking concern at Titan Freight Systems is to ensure that Cascadia starts removing trucks from oil today.
Wilson has spent this winter educating fellow hauliers and Oregon trucking associations on the benefits of renewable diesel. Then, after an unsuccessful 2020 bid for the Portland City Commission, Wilson returned to politics this year, proposing state law to phase out petroleum diesel by 2028.
Bill de Wilson had a frosty reception from Oregon Republicans, who have made a habit of fleeing the Oregon State Capitol to block climate legislation. The trucking association has raised fears of a renewable diesel shortage and soaring prices. Thus, Wilson and Democratic State Representative Karin Power, who formally introduced the bill last month, added several safety valves to the bill intended to avoid steep price increases.
Wilson positions his bill as a cost saving measure that can improve health, increase jobs and reverse nearly a decade of increased carbon emissions in Oregon. And, he said, these wildfires are costing him customers. “We are compromised when we lose entire communities to fire or smoke in the summer, because people don’t buy fishing gear,” Wilson said.
Frank Lemos, Titan’s director of operations, said his concern was to deal with the negative reactions likely to come from Wilson’s proselytizing for climate action. He wants a cleaner workplace for his drivers, and he admits getting rid of fossil fuels is important for his drivers’ grandchildren.
But it also needs to protect its drivers from the inevitable flashbacks of their industry counterparts, whether it’s CB radio chatter or truck stops. He expects those conversations to go awry, with drivers learning that costs will rise and Titan will have to cut wages or jobs.
“You don’t want to be seen as this guy from this company trying to change the way trucking is done,” Lemos said. “No one wants to be that scapegoat who makes a difference. But someone has to be. “
This story is supported in part by a grant from the Investigative Journalism Fund.