The coal plant is shutting down. Hundreds of workers will be laid off in this tiny Utah town surrounded by cattle, alfalfa fields, and scrub-lined desert highways over the next few years as a result of environmental regulations and competition from cheaper energy sources.
Yet, beneath dusty fields across the street from the coal piles and furnace, another transformation is taking place that could play a critical role in providing clean energy and replacing some of those jobs.
Developers in the rural Utah desert plan to excavate caverns in ancient salt dome formations underground in order to store hydrogen fuel on an unprecedented scale. The project is one of several that could help determine how important hydrogen will be in providing reliable, round-the-clock, carbon-free energy in the future.
The project differs from other renewable energy ventures in that it focuses on seasonal storage rather than energy production. The salt caves will act as massive underground batteries, storing energy in the form of hydrogen gas for later use.
The US Department of Energy announced a $504 million loan guarantee in June to help finance the “Advanced Clean Energy Storage” project, one of the first since President Joe Biden revived the Obama-era program known for lending to Tesla and Solyndra. The funding is intended to assist in the conversion of a 40-year-old coal plant to a facility that burns cleanly produced hydrogen by 2045.
In the midst of polarizing energy policy debates, the proposal stands out for garnering support from a diverse group of stakeholders, including the Biden administration, Sen. Mitt Romney and the five other Republicans who make up Utah’s congressional delegation, rural county commissioners, and power providers. Biden was scheduled to announce new climate change actions Wednesday at an event in Massachusetts at a former coal-fired power plant that is transitioning to a renewable energy hub.
Advocates for renewable energy see the Utah project as a potential way to ensure reliability as more of the electrical grid is powered by intermittent renewable energy in the coming years.
The plant’s initial fuel will be a mix of hydrogen and natural gas in 2025. It will then switch to running entirely on hydrogen by 2045. Skeptics are concerned that this could be a ruse to extend the use of fossil fuels for another two decades. Others say they support investments in clean, carbon-free hydrogen projects, but are concerned that doing so will increase demand for “blue” or “gray” hydrogen. These are the names given to hydrogen produced through the use of natural gas.
As utilities transition to and rely more on intermittent wind and solar, grid operators face new challenges, such as producing more power in the winter and spring but less in the summer. Fears of potential blackouts have arisen as a result of the supply-demand imbalance, as has apprehension about moving further away from fossil fuel sources.
This project converts excess wind and solar energy into a storable form. Proponents of clean hydrogen hope to store energy during seasons when supply exceeds demand and use it when needed later.
Though Michael Ducker, Mitsubishi Power’s head of hydrogen infrastructure, acknowledges that green hydrogen is more expensive than wind, solar, coal, or natural gas, he believes the price of hydrogen should be compared to storage technologies such as lithium-ion batteries rather than other fuels.
Intermountain Power Agency’s hydrogen plans are the culmination of years of discussions about how to adapt to the coal plant’s top client’s efforts to transition away from fossil fuels — liberal Los Angeles and its department of water and power. Now, resentment toward California is sweeping the Utah community, as workers are concerned about the local effects of the country’s energy transition, as well as what it means for their friends, families, and careers.
The coal plant was built in the aftermath of the 1970s energy crisis primarily to supply energy to growing southern California cities, which still purchase the majority of coal power today. However, battles over carbon emissions and the future of coal have pitted states against one another, resulting in lawsuits. Laws in California to transition away from fossil fuels have sunk demand for coal and threatened to leave the plant without customers.