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Interview with Michelle Detwiler, Executive Director of Renewable Hydrogen Alliance

Renewable hydrogen is a frequent topic now in the clean energy community. Hydrogen’s potential as the ‘Swiss Army knife’ of decarbonization and its promise to help clean up the most difficult-to-decarbonize sectors makes it an important tool in the clean energy and clean transportation toolkit. According to a recent report by Straits Research, the green hydrogen market was $1B in 2021 and is expected to reach $72B by 2030. It is a rapidly changing industry with significant deployments across the US in planning or projects under construction.

Michelle Detwiler RHA

Michelle Detwiler | Executive Director of Renewable Hydrogen Alliance

The Renewable Hydrogen Alliance (RHA) is a key resource in the Pacific Northwest’s hydrogen landscape. It’s a non-profit headquartered in Portland and founded in June 2018 by Pacific NW energy stakeholders including the Bonneville Environmental Foundation (BEF), Northwest Natural, Forth and 3Degrees. We asked Michelle Detwiler, Executive Director of RHA, to shed some light on this growing industry. 

First, a definition. The RHA website says this: “Hydrogen can be produced by breaking water into its constituent parts through a process called electrolysis. Splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen with electricity was discovered a few weeks after the discovery of the battery more than 200 years ago. The introduction of low-cost electricity from solar and wind raises the possibility of creating hydrogen from low-carbon resources. Today, commercially available hydrogen is primarily derived from processing natural gas, leaving a significant carbon footprint. Transitioning to creating hydrogen from water and renewable electricity is a vital part of realizing a low-carbon future.”

1. What role do you play in the clean energy ecosystem in the Pacific NW? 

RHA’s role is to promote and advocate for all the ways renewable hydrogen can help the Pacific NW meet its clean energy and GHG emission reduction goals. 

2. What do you do to advance your mission to promote and advocate for the use of renewable electricity to produce hydrogen and climate neutral derivative fuels?

Initially we did a lot of talking to policymakers, industry, environmental groups, utilities, public transit, and other stakeholders, introducing them to what renewable hydrogen is, how it can decarbonize multiple sectors of the economy, and why it is important as an additional tool to help the Northwest region meet state GHG emission reduction goals and address climate change. Now, thanks to our work raising awareness and interest in this area, we can spend more time advocating for the kinds of policies we need to bring this clean technology to scale, reduce costs and start having a measurable impact on reversing climate change. In addition, now that hydrogen has become a popular topic in the energy and transportation sectors and more people outside of those sectors know about it, the focus of our education and outreach work has shifted a bit to addressing  misinformation and misperceptions.  We want to make sure that the public  view of the value of renewable hydrogen to help reduce dependence on fossil fuels is based on accurate, factual information so people  can make an informed decision on whether or not they support its use. 

3. Why is clean hydrogen an important tool in decarbonizing the economy? 

Renewable hydrogen can reduce our dependence on fossil fuel power generation by allowing more renewable energy on the grid; it can act as a storage medium for any excess renewable energy that is not needed. There are times of the day when more solar and wind energy than we need is produced and other times there isn’t enough. By using surplus renewable energy to power an electrolyzer to make hydrogen, you’re effectively able to store energy that would otherwise go to waste, maintain its value (and the value of the asset that created it) and use it when and where you need it independent of the grid where it came from. Producing hydrogen this way also provides electric system services such as grid balancing, flexibility, and congestion relief. 

While there is no single, ideal solution to reducing GHG emissions and our dependence on fossil fuels,  RHA is very clear that we don’t see competition between decarbonization technologies but instead, complementarity. The transition to clean energy and clean transportation is a task of epic proportions, difficulty, and cost, and we must have several options, including renewable hydrogen, that demonstrably and measurably decrease GHG emissions in a variety of sectors. For example, in industries that use natural gas for the industrial process, electricity is not a feasible replacement. For long haul, heavy-duty trucks that don’t go back to “base,” battery electric doesn’t provide the needed range, and a significant amount of cargo space is lost to the batteries to power the truck, causing a loss of shipping revenue. Public transit agencies have difficulty adequately serving passengers when one-third of their fleet is back at the garage charging. Long duration storage of energy for use in the winter when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine for days on end requires more than the limited hours of power that battery storage can provide. Emergency disaster relief shelters and other services can be powered by zero emission, hydrogen fuel cell backup power generation instead of polluting gas or diesel generators when the grid has gone down. 

4. You just wrapped up your annual Symposium in Missoula, MT in early June. What are your takeaways from that convening? How is the industry changing? 

Since our first Symposium in 2019, we have had a panel on hydrogen projects, and it’s a little bit like watching children grow up. The first time we hear about a project, it’s just a plan or a concept, but with every Symposium, we see the progress – a groundbreaking, or grant funding awarded, or construction vehicles onsite or an announced date of completion. It’s very exciting. The industry, specifically in the Northwest, is maturing, getting more sophisticated and growing significantly. In the four-plus years since RHA was founded, we’ve gone from no clean hydrogen projects in the Northwest to more than 30 in the planning, development, or construction stage.

Another exciting thing to see is the amount of interest in renewable hydrogen backed by real money. At our June Symposium, we had an investment panel with two investment funds, the US Department of Energy, and one company that was the recipient of investment funds. Just those four entities represented about $15 billion in project funding. 

5.  Policy & funding efforts for clean hydrogen are picking up at the state and federal level. Which state and federal efforts are you tracking? What are the key milestones coming up this fall and into next year? 

We’re probably tracking more state and federal efforts than you have space for!  On the federal level, the big one is the $8 billion federal hydrogen hub program included in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed last fall. We are working closely with the states of Washington and Oregon to help put together a Pacific NW regional renewable hydrogen hub that will include projects from both states. Prior to passage, we were also tracking the climate bill, now known as the Inflation Reduction Act, that provides both a production tax credit and an investment tax credit for clean hydrogen. At the state level, we’re tracking Clean Fuels Program rulemakings to make sure they provide the same advantages and credit opportunities for hydrogen fueling as for battery electric charging. In Oregon specifically, we are tracking the development of the Oregon Department of Energy’s Renewable Hydrogen Study which is due to the legislature by the middle of September.

6. Many in the clean energy community are still learning about clean hydrogen as the technology, use cases, cost structures and deployments evolve. Education is an important part of the work.  What challenges do you have in educating others about the benefits of renewable hydrogen? What are some common misconceptions people have about renewable hydrogen? 

RHA’s goal is to be a source of accurate and reliable information about hydrogen in general as well as renewable hydrogen. It’s definitely easier to educate someone who knows nothing about renewable hydrogen than someone who knows a little but has received their information from an unreliable or inexperienced source. The first group usually is pretty open-minded but the second may have formed incorrect assumptions from which it can be hard to dissuade them. 

One of the biggest and to me, most surprising misconceptions is that renewable hydrogen is made from fossil fuels (it’s not). Another is that hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCEV) are not electric vehicles and that they have engines that combust hydrogen (they don’t). Yes, you can fuel an FCEV with hydrogen at a pump in a few minutes similar to how a gasoline or diesel vehicle gets fueled, but the hydrogen passes through a fuel cell that creates an electrochemical reaction that charges a battery in the car that powers the vehicle. And the only tailpipe emission is water that is clean enough to drink. 

Another misconception is that hydrogen is unsafe. Hydrogen is like any other flammable gas or fuel in that it has to be handled with care. Just like for gasoline, propane or any other flammable or explosive substance, there are safety standards, training, and regulated equipment for working with, storing, or dispensing the hydrogen. In the case of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, hydrogen is actually safer than gasoline. Gasoline is heavier than air, and its flammable, toxic fumes can gather on the ground around you and explode if they come in contact with an ignition source; in comparison, hydrogen is non-toxic, lighter than air and quickly disperses, with considerably less chance of it being concentrated enough to cause a fire or explode. Hydrogen fuel dispensing equipment also forms an airtight seal on the vehicle tank so there are no fumes or leakage.

Finally, on the hydrogen as a ‘Swiss Army knife’ comparison, I want to be clear that just because renewable hydrogen could replace fossil fuels in many applications does not mean that it always makes sense to do so. However, RHA believes that the market, technologies, and needs should determine which applications for renewable hydrogen make sense;  government policy should not pick winners and losers. 

7. Anything else you would like to add about RHA, your members and/or the renewable hydrogen community in the Pacific NW? 

RHA’s membership covers the full spectrum of the hydrogen value chain from utilities to vehicle and electrolyzer manufacturers, project developers, clean energy and clean transportation advocacy groups, a NW tribe and many more. We advocate for clean energy and clean transportation policy so the beautiful NW can meet its GHG emission reduction goals, create good jobs, and reverse climate change, especially for the benefit of those communities historically overburdened with the negative impacts of a changing climate and environment.

For more information on the Renewable Hydrogen Alliance check out the RHA website, particularly the Resources page, to learn about the industry and local efforts.