Business

Iowa could become hot spot for green hydrogen technology

Change in presidential administration makes industry optimistic

Ideal Energy officials say they speak #x201c;regularly#x201d; with Alliant Energy and MidAmerican Energy about hydrogen
Ideal Energy officials say they speak “regularly” with Alliant Energy and MidAmerican Energy about hydrogen technology. (Courtesy Ideal Energy)
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About a decade ago, Troy Van Beek used to lug around a solar panel to explain to potential customers that the technology, which still was relatively new at the time, can’t “steal sunlight.”

“We seriously did that for a number of years,” recalled Van Beek, CEO of Fairfield-based Ideal Energy, “because there was just a complete misunderstanding or just a lack of education on it.”

Now 11 years after the company’s founding, Ideal Energy is trying to sell another novel piece of renewable energy technology — green hydrogen.

Green hydrogen, unlike the more common gray or blue hydrogen, is generated from renewable resources such as wind energy or solar energy.

Less than 1 percent of hydrogen produced is green hydrogen, according to an Oct. 22 Wall Street Journal article.

But some researchers and business leaders see plenty of long-term potential for green hydrogen in Iowa.

“It all depends on policy, economies of scale and the price of electricity, said Greg Wilson, Ideal Energy’s lead researcher.

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“But Iowa’s hydrogen will probably be some of the cheapest hydrogen in the country.”

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Much of the research surrounding the energy source has been in California. Syed Mubeen, a chemical and biochemical engineering professor at the University of Iowa, has a research partnership with Santa Barbara, Calif.-based SunHydrogen, for example.

But Wilson sees Iowa and other Midwestern states “that have really good wind, solar and a big ag economy” as well positioned for future hydrogen growth because the proximity of necessary resources.

“The reality is most of the generation of wind and solar is not going to come from the two coasts. It’s going to come from the middle of the country,” he said.

Wilson and Van Beek said companies such as Ideal Energy said a lack of support from the federal government has held the industry back in the United States.

“Most people in renewables, you don’t have to give them too much truth serum to get them to tell you that the Trump administration was really hard on the industry,” Wilson said.

Meanwhile, the European Union said in a 2020 report that clean hydrogen power is “essential” to reaching its goal of carbon neutrality by 2050.

Van Beek has “high hopes” for President Joe Biden’s clean energy plan, though.

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Biden’s plan released during his presidential campaign calling for “dramatic cost reductions” in green hydrogen to make it cheaper than less environmentally friendly ways of producing hydrogen over the next 10 years.

The skills gap in Iowa’s workforce has made it harder for companies such as Ideal Energy to find qualified personnel. Van Beek said the company started its own apprenticeship program to train workers in the technology.

Many utilities have been focusing on battery storage for now, though. Terry Kouba, the president of Alliant Energy’s Iowa utility, told The Gazette in October that battery storage is a “big piece of our future.”

The company’s Clean Energy Blueprint released in October does not include any plans for hydrogen yet, but Ideal Energy officials said they talk “regularly” with Alliant and MidAmerican Energy about hydrogen technology.

“They are trying to figure this out,” Wilson said. “Literally every utility in the country is trying to figure this out.”

Wilson said utilities do not need to choose between lithium ion battery storage or hydrogen storage. Both can store wind or solar energy. But the time frame for each varies.

Lithium ion batteries are ideal for storing energy up to 12 to 24 hours, Wilson said. Hydrogen is effective for longer amounts of times and can also be used as a jet fuel.

“A freightliner that’s going to go 1,000 miles in the next 10 hours, you’re not going to put a battery in that thing,” Wilson said.

“There are so many things that are not going to have batteries in them.”

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In the meantime, Van Beek is trying to teach people about hydrogen, just as he needed to do with solar panels.

“The first thing that comes up is the Hindenburg,” Van Beek said.

“But then you just have to fill them in on how it’s all around them and they didn’t even know it,” Wilson said.

Comments: (319) 398-8394; john.steppe@thegazette.com

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