by Timothy B. Hurst

A New Mexico-based company has announced plans to build what it is calling, the world’s first utility-scale, zero-emissions hydrogen power plant.

Although most-often discussed as a high-efficiency transportation fuel, hydrogen’s role in other sectors of the energy landscape is also making headway. On Wednesday, Jetstream Wind Inc. announced it has broken ground on a new $219 million plant in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico that would use electricity from wind, solar and “other renewable energy sources” to split water into hydrogen and oxygen using a process called electrolysis. The resulting hydrogen would then be burned to spin turbines, similar to those found in natural gas plants.

“Basically, it’s a scaled-up model of eighth-grade science,” CEO of the privately-held Jetstream Wind, Henry Herman, told the Associated Press. “In eighth grade we took DC batteries, ran cables into water and produced hydrogen gas. All we’re doing is utilizing that on a much larger scale.”

Hydrogen + Renewables = Symbiosis?

The 10-megawatt New Mexico plant would be designed to smooth the natural variability of the energy created by wind and solar generators, creating enough electricity to power about 6,000 homes and businesses.

“Intermittent renewables can store their off-peak electricity for use later or for sale as a fuel,” president of the National Hydrogen Association, Jeffrey A. Serfass, wrote in Renewable Energy World last fall.  “Adding a hydrogen system to ensure reliability increases the value of renewables and gives utilities flexibility.”

Just like having a back-up power system, utilities can use the hydrogen on demand to produce electricity when needed most, writes Serfass. “In this way, hydrogen technologies are a key enabler for the wider deployment of renewables.”

But the economic viability of hydrogen as an energy source has long been one of its biggest sticking points, as has the question of where the hydrogen will come from. The vast majority of hydrogen is currently gleaned as a byproduct of natural gas production, but reneawble electrolysis models promoted by companies like Jetstream and others seek to create hydrogen with less carbon-intensive processes like sun, wind and geothermal.

So whether these two sagging alternative energy sectors will lean on each other a little and help get each other back up and running remains to be seen. But innovative projects like these give me hope.

Officials from Jetstream Wind expect it will take more than a year to build the plant once the permitting process is complete. The plant is expected to generate about 150 construction jobs and 30 permanent jobs.