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Japan leads the way so far in making hydrogen fuel an everyday item, with hydrogen car sales and a network of fueling stations to replace fossil fuel imports. In this photo 2014 photo, a fuel cell charge station worker demonstrates how to fill a Toyota. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)

Colorado could have a good chance to land portions of $8 billion in federal spending for futuristic “hydrogen hubs” in the clean fuels revolution. 

What that would actually look like on — or in — the ground is still largely a mystery even to the people who are keysmashing the applications for the infrastructure bonanza. 

“I would say right now we’re casting the net pretty wide,” Colorado Energy Office executive director Will Toor said in an interview. 

Colorado signed a pact with Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico to work together and avoid competition for the $8 billion, which Toor anticipates will be divided among six to 10 regional hubs, including similar multistate compacts. Hydrogen lags behind the clean energy generated by solar panels and wind turbines in the race for major investment and public attention. 

But clean hydrogen also holds great potential for the elusive goals of storing utility-scale clean energy, powering heavy trucks, replacing dirtier industrial uses of the element, and running engines not easily converted to electricity, such as ocean shipping.

How a hydrogen fueled alternative building campus might work as the technology expands, according to a proposal by SoCalGas and Bloom Energy. Their vision includes blending locally produced hydrogen into existing gas pipelines for a cleaner energy source. (Business Wire via AP)

For all its potential uses, it is not going to be highly visible or practical for most Coloradans anytime soon, Toor added. Hydrogen fuel cells can in theory power everything from small cars to home heating, but conservationists are currently busy just trying to convince the public to accept less adventurous technology in the form of battery cars and home heat pumps. 

“Hydrogen is an important potential element of our clean energy system,” he said. “I think it is unlikely to be something that people will be using at a retail level or seeing in their daily lives. It’s more a really important technology toward achieving climate goals in sectors like industry, and that last 10 or 15% of electricity generation.”

The $8 billion for hydrogen development was embedded in the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, and the states expect the U.S. Department of Energy to issue a formal request for proposals from the hubs in May.

Here are four areas Colorado leaders and researchers say look promising for hydrogen energy technology in the near future: 

  • Heavy, long-distance trucking: Hydrogen fuel cells onboard vehicles convert hydrogen from tank storage into electricity to drive the wheels. Early battery-electric systems for big trucks use too much payload space for the batteries, and don’t have the long-distance reliability needed between refueling, leaving an opening for hydrogen as a trucking fuel. Producing hydrogen by splitting water with clean electricity has the potential to power trucking fleets that can refuel at large hydrogen stations. 
  • Utility-scale power: Colorado’s growing array of large-scale solar and wind arrays can make clean, daytime electricity. Xcel is pursuing the goal of 80% reduction in carbon emissions from generation by 2030, and western states in the new hydrogen hub compact have better geography and climate for wind and solar generation than northern and eastern states.

But the system needs reliable generation around the clock, when solar and wind aren’t always producing. With hydrogen, the solar and wind arrays can generate electricity to split hydrogen from water during the day. 

The hydrogen can then be burned in fossil fuel-fired power plants with modifications to the turbines, generating clean backup and fill-in power and using existing transmission lines. Utilities are experimenting with how much natural gas can be replaced by hydrogen for large turbines. Hydrogen lacks carbon that results in greenhouse gas emissions, though it can produce nitrogen oxide pollutants that would have to be controlled. 

  • Industrial hydrogen needs: Currently most farming fertilizer is produced using hydrogen from natural gas, combined with nitrogen, to make ammonia. Cleanly produced hydrogen could be used to make the ammonia for farming and for other major industrial uses. 
  • Partial greening of natural gas streams: Clean or green hydrogen can be injected into existing natural gas pipelines to create a cleaner-burning fuel blend for any number of users at the other end of the pipeline. A structure to allow that kind of access to utility pipelines and to encourage gas utilities to use the technology was included in 2021’s Senate Bill 264

Those counting on hydrogen fuel to replace fossil gas stations are finding that reality is falling behind forecasts. Colorado’s AAA auto club still plans to build a passenger vehicle hydrogen fueling station in the Denver metro area, and change over some of its 100 club rescue and repair vans to the fuel. The project is also meant as a demonstration of the technology for future commercially built hydrogen cars — Toyota’s Mirai model is sold in California and other locations with a hydrogen fueling network. 

AAA has a fueling site selected and is now working on construction plans and finding the right manufacturer to retrofit repair vehicles with hydrogen technology, regional spokesman Skyler McKinley said. 

The compact to pursue a regional hydrogen hub does not mean places like Santa Fe or Salt Lake City will compete with Denver to land a big infrastructure project, Toor said. Each state in the compact brings its own research and resource advantages, and the compact means they will cooperate on technology and policy to land federal funding. One state might have more production facilities, another more pipelines, another more of the retired coal-fired power plants ready to convert to hydrogen uses, Toor said. 

Colorado’s energy office led the effort for a “roadmap” to hydrogen clean fuel technology, and that has set the state up well with practical arguments for landing the competitive federal grants, he said. 

“My sense is that there’s going to be a lot of interest in making sure that the projects can actually work,” he said.

Michael Booth is The Sun’s environment writer, and co-author of The Sun’s weekly climate and health newsletter The Temperature. He and John Ingold host the weekly Sun-Up podcast on The Temperature topics every Thursday. He is co-author with...