‘Hydrogen road map’: The lightest element can play a heavy-duty role in Michigan’s clean-energy transition

September 23, 2022
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Hydrogen, the most abundant and lightest element in the universe, can play a significant role in accelerating Michigan’s clean-energy transition away from fossil fuels in the coming decades, according to a new report released today by the University of Michigan and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.

The report, “Hydrogen Roadmap for the State of Michigan,” was prepared by U-M’s Center for Sustainable Systems with funding from MEDC and the university’s Office of the Vice President for Research. It is a high-level assessment intended to help guide planning and future detailed analysis of a Michigan “hydrogen ecosystem” that encompasses production, delivery, storage and end-use applications.

The new report will inform the state’s response to the U.S. Department of Energy’s $7 billion funding opportunity, announced Thursday, to create regional “H2 Hubs” that will form the foundation of a national clean-hydrogen network. As part of a larger $8 billion hydrogen hub program funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the initial funding opportunity is expected to lead to the selection of six to 10 hubs, according to the Energy Department announcement.

“This new hydrogen road map study serves to guide Michigan’s response to the Department of Energy funding announcement and to inform the role hydrogen can play in achieving the decarbonization goals contained in Gov. Whitmer’s Michigan Healthy Climate Plan,” said lead author Greg Keoleian, director of the Center for Sustainable Systems at U-M’s School for Environment and Sustainability.

“These findings and recommendations will allow us to determine where hydrogen can most beneficially be deployed to advance decarbonization in Michigan.”

Currently, 96% of hydrogen produced worldwide is made using natural gas or coal, resulting in relatively high greenhouse gas emissions, according to the report. But low-carbon or “clean” hydrogen production—the focus of much of the report—uses electricity from renewables or nuclear power.

In the near term, Michigan’s main hydrogen-fuel opportunities are in the transportation sector, specifically medium- and heavy-duty trucks on interstate highways, according to the report. Many of those trucks are not good candidates for replacement with battery-powered electric vehicles.

In addition to medium- and heavy-duty trucks, a potential near-term Michigan application of hydrogen fuel is long-distance ferries, like those that cross Lake Michigan between Ludington, Michigan, and Manitowoc, Wisconsin, and that carry national park visitors to Isle Royale, according to the report. Battery-electric ferries are better-suited for shorter routes.

The report also recommended further exploration of hydrogen as a fuel to power Great Lakes freighters, as well as Amtrak and freight trains on Chicago to Detroit/Port Huron routes.

Other Michigan applications that can potentially use low-carbon hydrogen include the chemical industry, steelmaking, glassmaking, semiconductor manufacturing and ammonia production. Hydrogen deployment in those industries is at various stages of technology readiness.

“Michigan has a tremendous opportunity to capitalize on its rich manufacturing heritage and mobility strengths by tapping into hydrogen as a clean fuel source,” said Nadia Abunasser, federal opportunities director at MEDC. “As we work toward a clean-energy future, this report will play a critical role in strengthening our leadership as a state for businesses of all sizes to find opportunities for investment and growth.”

On Monday, seven Midwestern states, including Michigan, announced they are teaming up to accelerate the development of hydrogen as a clean-energy alternative.

“Gov. Whitmer and governors across the Midwest launched the Midwestern Hydrogen Coalition because they understand that clean hydrogen energy has the potential to create good-paying jobs, improve public health and clear a path to carbon-free transportation, agriculture, industry sectors,” said Zachary Kolodin, Michigan’s chief infrastructure officer.

“This new report illustrates the enormous potential for hydrogen investment in Michigan. The Michigan Infrastructure Office looks forward to working with the University of Michigan and the MEDC as we invest in clean hydrogen energy and Michigan’s future.”

Hydrogen delivery and storage were also examined in the road map report. It recommends further analysis of the potential to ship hydrogen on the Great Lakes to demand centers in the region, and for using Michigan’s salt caverns for large-volume hydrogen storage.

The report’s authors were less sanguine about the prospects for using hydrogen to heat and cool Michigan homes and businesses or to power appliances. In those settings, the use of electricity from renewable sources is a more efficient use of energy and offers greater greenhouse gas emissions reductions than hydrogen fuel, according to the report.

The report urges Michigan’s automotive industry to pursue the development of fuel cell-powered medium- and heavy-duty trucks. Investments should also be made in expanding low-carbon hydrogen production and fueling infrastructure.

Medium-duty trucks include small buses, moving trucks, various flatbeds, landscaping trucks and box trucks used for delivery. Heavy-duty trucks include tractor-trailers, garbage-collection trucks, large dump trucks and large buses. Many of these vehicles would be difficult to replace with battery-powered electrics due to battery weight, payload constraints, range limitations when transporting heavy loads or refueling-time concerns.

A fuel cell is a device that continuously changes the chemical energy of a fuel (such as hydrogen) and an oxidant directly into electrical energy. Two hydrogen fuel-cell buses were deployed in Flint in 2012, and the first light-duty fuel-cell electric vehicles became available in the United States in 2014.

Fuel cell-powered electric trucks can play an important dual role in Michigan: helping the state transition away from fossil fuels while simultaneously advancing environmental justice goals, according to the new report.

“Because they produce no tailpipe emissions, fuel-cell EVs that replace diesel trucks can be particularly beneficial to communities near highways—improving local air quality and providing health benefits,” Keoleian said.

Though hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, it is rarely found naturally in its elemental form on Earth. An odorless, colorless, flammable gas, hydrogen is produced either chemically using fossil fuels, thermally via nuclear energy, or through electrolysis, a process that uses electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen.

The new report is an outgrowth of the Hydrogen Roadmap for the State of Michigan Workshop, convened by U-M’s Center for Sustainable Systems in May 2020 with support from the MEDC. The 73 workshop participants represented commercial, governmental and academic organizations.

The report’s authors, in addition to Keoleian, are Geoffrey Lewis, Cailin Buchanan, Jake Calzavara and Maxwell Woody of the Center for Sustainable Systems. Lewis developed a series of maps identifying assets that could be part of a Michigan hydrogen ecosystem. The maps highlight industrial facilities and transportation corridors as potential sites for hydrogen end-use technologies and infrastructure.