Baltimore Sun

Coal town’s hydrogen hopes

Developers plan to create massive caverns under Utah desert for storing clean fuel

- By Sam Metz

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.

 ?? RICK BOWMER/AP ?? Intermount­ain Power Agency spokespers­on John Ward walks through a coal-fueled power plant June 22 in Delta, Utah. Developers won a federal loan guarantee for a plan to convert the 40-year-old plant into a facility that burns cleanly-made hydrogen fuel.
RICK BOWMER/AP Intermount­ain Power Agency spokespers­on John Ward walks through a coal-fueled power plant June 22 in Delta, Utah. Developers won a federal loan guarantee for a plan to convert the 40-year-old plant into a facility that burns cleanly-made hydrogen fuel.

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