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Unit will help utility avoid negative power prices in times of surplus hydropower

Utility plans to sell the green hydrogen, but hasn't yet worked out pricing

Houston — A Washington state public utility has recently purchased an electrolyzer to produce hydrogen using excess hydropower.

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The Douglas County Public Utility District, in East Wenatchee, Washington, is purchasing a 5-MW Proton Exchange Membrane electrolyzer built by Cummins that it hopes to have operational by late fall or early next year, said utility spokeswoman Megan Vibbert on Aug. 28.

Vibbert said the utility plans to either sell the hydrogen or potentially use it as fuel for its vehicle fleet. She said the utility has yet to work out how it will price the green hydrogen.

Green hydrogen refers to hydrogen that is produced without any carbon dioxide emissions.

She added that the utility does not have plans to use the hydrogen to meet its own power demand.

The decision to purchase an electrolyzer helps solve a problem that most utilities with hydropower facilities face in the spring, she said. As snow melts, water levels in the reservoir behind a dam have to be managed, and excess water can't be spilled because it will add nitrogen to the water below the dam, which can be toxic for fish.

As a result, the excess water is used to generate electricity, which is often sold at negative prices, said Vibbert.

"So we thought rather than sell that power at a loss, to try and use it, and that is where the electrolyzer came in," she said.

Vibbert said the utility's interest in producing hydrogen required it to seek approval from the Washington Legislature, which passed Senate Bill 5588 last year allowing public utility districts in the state to produce, distribute and sell renewable hydrogen.

Hydrogen has increasingly come into focus as a powerful tool to help a variety of sectors decarbonize, but also as a way to put surplus generation capacity to work producing energy, rather than curtailing those resources or paying someone to take excess electricity.

"We continue to see interest in electrolyzer technology, especially in green grid balancing type applications," said Cummins spokesman Jon Mills in an Aug. 28 email.

Mills said Cummins is currently completing a 20 MW electrolyzer project in Becancour, Canada, using electricity from hydropower that is expected to produce 3,000 mt of hydrogen annually.

Other notable hydrogen projects in the US include plans announced by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to convert its Intermountain power plant in Utah from coal to 100% hydrogen-fired by 2045.

"If you look at reality, there is no way to get to 100% renewable energy without hydrogen in the mix; it just doesn't exist," Marty Adams, LADWP's General Manager and Chief Engineer, told the utility's board of commissioners in December of last year, according to an brief posted on the website of the American Public Power Association.

The Nebraska Public Power District is also planning to covert its coal-fired Sheldon power plant in Hastings, Nebraska, to 100% hydrogen by 2025.