Douglas County PUD hopes hydrogen fuels the future

Provided graphic/Renewable Hydrogen Alliance An electrolyser is two wires stuck in water that channels an electric current. The current causes the water to separate into hydrogen and oxygen.

EAST WENATCHEE — Two wires placed in water with an electric charge passing through them can separate the liquid into hydrogen and oxygen.

The hydrogen produced in that process can then be collected and turned into a fuel source that can go into gas lines and power vehicles, said Ken Dragoon, executive director of Portland-based Renewable Hydrogen Alliance advocacy group.

“The main advantage is that when hydrogen burns, it doesn’t release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, it only releases water,” Dragoon said. “These hydrogen vehicles that are running around, the only effluent from their tail pipe is clean water.”

Douglas County PUD is in the exploratory phase of looking into hydrogen production, said Gary Ivory, the utility's general manager. Last week, the state Legislature passed a bill to allow PUDs to start pursuing hydrogen production. 

Douglas County PUD will spend the next few years creating a design and implementing a pilot project, he said. It will cost $2 million to $5 million to create.

“We think it is starting to become more cost effective, and carbon has become a big issue at the state level,” Ivory said.

The PUD is facing challenges from wind power, he said. At certain times of the year, Douglas PUD is forced to pay people to take their power because of the increased amount of energy production — particularly in the spring when the snow starts to melt, increasing flows in the Columbia River. 

"When we spill too much water through the dam, it creates nitrogen bubbles that have an impact on the fish," Ivory said. "So we’re forced into a generation position when all the wind providers are also generating power so there is an oversupply, which pushes prices down."

Instead of paying people to take the dam’s energy, though, the PUD could make hydrogen and sell it, he said. Hydrogen is already used in abundance for industrial processes and fertilizer, so it won’t be difficult to find a market.

“We could store it and then turn it around and generate electricity with it,” Ivory said. “We could sell the gas outright for industrial purposes. And we hope that in the future it could be used for transportation fuel."

Humans have known how to make hydrogen for almost 200 years, said Dragoon. But it hasn’t been practical because of the cost of the electricity to make hydrogen fuel. It is only about 70 percent efficient, meaning a hydrogen producer would lose 30 percent of the potential energy in the process.

“If you’re going to go to all the trouble of making wind, or solar, or electricity, the best thing to do with it is to use it directly as electricity and reduce the amount of fossil fuels that are being burned,” Dragoon said.

Things have changed, though, and there are several renewable energy producers in Europe using their electricity to create hydrogen, he said.

What happened is the cost of the electrolyser, the two wires, has gone down in price, he said. The process has also become more efficient and there is a lot more renewable energy available.