Coal town’s hydrogen hopes
Developers plan to create massive caverns under Utah desert for storing clean fuel
DELTA, Utah — The coal plant is closing. In this tiny Utah town surrounded by cattle, alfalfa fields and scrub-lined desert highways, hundreds of workers over the next few years will be laid off — casualties of environmental regulations and competition from cheaper energy sources.
Yet across the street from the coal piles and furnace, beneath dusty fields, another transformation is underway that could play a pivotal role in providing clean energy and replace some of those jobs.
Here in the rural Utah desert, developers plan to create caverns in ancient salt dome formations underground where they hope to store hydrogen fuel at an unprecedented scale. The undertaking is one of several projects that could help determine how big a role hydrogen will play globally in providing reliable, around-the-clock, carbon-free energy in the future.
What sets the project apart from other renewable energy ventures is it’s about seasonal storage more than producing energy. The salt caves will function like gigantic underground batteries, where energy in the form of hydrogen gas can be stored.
“The world is watching this project,” said Rob Webster, a co-founder of Magnum Development, one of the companies spearheading the effort. “These technologies haven’t been scaled up to the degree that they will be for this.”
In June, the U.S. Department of Energy announced a $504 million loan guarantee to help finance the “Advanced Clean Energy Storage” project — one of its first loans since President Joe Biden revived the Obama-era program known for making loans to Tesla and Solyndra. The support is intended to help convert the site of a 40-year-old coal plant to a facility that burns cleanly-made hydrogen by 2045.
Amid polarizing energy policy debates, the proposal is unique for winning support from a broad coalition that includes the Biden administration, Sen. Mitt Romney and the five other Republicans who make up Utah’s congressional delegation, rural county commissioners and power providers.
Renewable energy advocates see the Utah project as a potential way to ensure reliability as more of the electrical grid becomes powered by intermittent renewable energy in the years ahead.
In 2025, the initial fuel for the plant will be a mix of hydrogen and natural gas. It will thereafter transition to running entirely on hydrogen by 2045. Skeptics worry that could be a ploy to prolong the use of fossil fuels for two decades. Others say they support investing in clean, carbonfree hydrogen projects, but worry doing so may actually create demand for “blue” or “gray” hydrogen, names given to hydrogen produced using natural gas.
This project converts excess wind and solar power to a form that can be stored. Proponents of clean hydrogen hope they can bank energy during seasons when supply outpaces demand and use it when it’s needed in later seasons.
When consumers require more power than they can get from renewables, the hydrogen will be piped across the street to the site of the Intermountain Power Plant and burned to power turbines, similar to how coal is used today. That, in theory, makes it a reliable complement to renewables.