In May, U.S. national laboratories Idaho National Laboratory (INL) and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) partnered with regulated utility Idaho Power to determine the viability of integrating hydrogen production with hydropower. The labs noted the prospect could launch a new critical role for Idaho Power’s 17 low-cost hydropower projects, which generate the bulk of power it supplies to a 24,000-square-mile area in Idaho and Oregon. The project will “evaluate the coupling of electrolytic hydrogen production technologies with hydropower plants to identify scenarios that could help Idaho Power achieve its goal of providing 100% clean energy by 2045,” noted Brett Dumas, Idaho Power’s director of environmental affairs.
The measure is notable because while interest in hydrogen has risen markedly over the past five years, efforts to integrate hydrogen production with hydropower have been largely muted in the U.S. Hydropower generation represented about 6.2% of total U.S. utility-scale generation in 2022. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), about one-half of total U.S. utility-scale conventional hydropower generation is concentrated in Washington, California, and Oregon.
Hydropower’s Hydrogen Production Allure
Hydropower has played a crucial role in the region, given its capacity to provide baseload power and flexibility. It includes changing both real and reactive power outputs to provide voltage support, inertial response, primary frequency response, and operating reserves. However, hydropower and pumped storage hydro flexibility can be constrained by site-specific requirements for environmental flows, irrigation, navigation, recreation, flood control, and other services that often take priority over power production.
“By capturing the off-peak energy production as hydrogen, the hydrogen can be re-electrified during peak energy demand,” said INL’s Daniel Wendt, principal investigator and researcher on the Idaho Power project. Storing hydrogen as a fuel could also help stabilize the grid and offer a cleaner alternative to fossil-fuel backup power generation, the lab noted.
However, as part of another notable objective, the project will also evaluate how excess oxygen produced as a byproduct of hydrogen generation can be utilized to address river water quality. “Reservoirs behind dams may have low levels of dissolved oxygen, particularly during summer and early fall,” INL explained. “Dissolved oxygen in a river is necessary for fish and other aquatic species.” Idaho Power is already seeing positive results from adding oxygen to the water flowing out of Brownlee Dam in Hells Canyon, said Dumas.
According to Di Wu, a chief research engineer and the technical lead at PNNL, the labs will explore hydrogen’s various deployment scenarios via advanced modeling and analytical methods. “To effectively schedule hydrogen production, advanced modeling and optimization techniques are required to account for both energy shifting opportunities and oxygen needs subject to both system- and component-level constraints,” he noted.
Several Hydrogen-Producing Hydropower Projects Already Underway
The research will add to a growing portfolio of projects already underway worldwide. European power generators, notably, are leading the charge to develop hydrogen integration into hydropower plants, driven in part by incentives to enable fuller utilization of existing hydropower assets, as well as prospects to secure a foothold as a key supplier within emerging hydrogen markets.
In April, German energy company RWE announced it would partner with infrastructure firm Badenova to build a hydrogen hub under the H2@Hydro initiative on the Upper Rhine. RWE plans to build an electrolysis plant with a capacity of 50 MW at its RADAG Rhine hydroelectric power station in Albbruck by the end of 2026. The baseload run-of-river power plant produces 660 GWh annually at the border between Germany and Switzerland. The electrolysis plant will use part of that hydropower to produce up to 8,000 tonnes of hydrogen annually.
Meanwhile, the oxygen and process heat produced as byproducts will be used in “the district’s planned health park, in the new quarter on the site of the former Albbruck paper mill (PFA) and in the neighboring sewage treatment plant,” RWE said. Badenova plans to build a new 8.5-kilometer hydrogen pipeline from Waldshut to Albbruck to reach industrial and transport customers on both sides of the Upper Rhine.
“This is a crucial initiative to keep the local business location attractive for industry, as the connection to the European hydrogen long-distance network, the so-called European Hydrogen Backbone, is not planned until the final expansion stage around 2040,” Badenova noted. “The new route is to form the backbone of the future hydrogen supply along the High Rhine, and at the same time enable the connection of Baden-Württemberg to the European and national hydrogen infrastructure.”
Earlier this year, Swiss power generator Axpo outlined plans to build a hydrogen production facility at the Reichenau hydropower plant in Domat/Ems with Swiss utility partner Rhiienergie. The project, scheduled to go into operation this fall, will produce about 350 tonnes of hydrogen annually via a 2.5-MW hydrogen production facility. Axpo is also exploring a 15-MW hydrogen production facility (producing 2,000 tonnes annually) at the Wildischachen industrial area in Brugg. Powered by the nearby Wildegg-Brugg hydropower plant, the project will deliver hydrogen to a Voegtlin-Meyer’s local gas station and be used to power buses operated by PostAuto AG.
1. Southern Germany’s largest plant for green hydrogen is being built at the Grenzach-Wyhlen. The existing 1-MW power-to-gas plant completed in December 2019, which will be expanded to 5 MW, is located beside EnBW’s run-of-river hydroelectric power plant in Wyhlen. Courtesy: Energiedienst
In April, EnBW, another German generator, began building a hydrogen production facility at its Wyhlen hydropower plant on the German-Swiss border in southern Germany. Slated to begin operations in 2025, the facility will produce 720 tonnes of hydrogen annually. EnBW subsidiary Energiedienst has already operated an alkaline power-to-gas plant (Figure 1) at Wyhlen with an electrolysis capacity of 1 MW since 2019, and the project contemplates an expansion to 5 MW.
Several European companies are also spearheading electrolysis systems. ANDRITZ, which holds ANDRITZ HYDRO, a giant hydropower solutions subsidiary, has a mission to become “a major player” in green hydrogen fueled with hydropower. While the company currently offers alkaline electrolysis and proton exchange membrane solutions, it highlights a long history—nearly 100 years old—of experience with electrolyzers.
“The first industrial electrolyzers were large unpressurized alkaline systems (AEL) installed in Rjukan, Norway, in 1929. The power was supplied by a hydropower station with an initial capacity of 108 MW (established in 1908—the largest hydroelectric power plant in the world at the time),” the company noted. “The purpose of the electrolyzers was to provide hydrogen for a Haber Bosch plant producing ammonia fertilizer. Similar installations followed, mostly in connection with hydropower (Aswan in Egypt in the 1960s, Kariba in Zimbabwe in the 1970s, Cuzco in Peru, and many more). Some of them were in operation until the late 1990s and even early 2000s.”