Arizona’s largest universities and energy providers have set out to create more carbon-neutral economic opportunities in the state, starting with plans for a massive regional hydrogen hub.
Leaders from Arizona State University, the University of Arizona, Northern Arizona University, Arizona Public Service, Salt River Project, Tucson Electric Power and Southwest Gas recently announced plans to come together in a new effort aimed at decarbonizing the state’s economy.
This coalition has formed the Center for an Arizona Carbon-Neutral Economy, which will be based at ASU’s Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory on the Tempe Campus. The center will coordinate efforts across the partnering groups plus involve additional stakeholders in the future.
Ellen Stechel, a longtime professor at ASU, is serving as the director of the new center. She has worked in renewable energy and biofuels for decades, including extensive experience at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico.
Stechel said scientists like her have been studying hydrogen and the role it can play in decarbonization for a long time, but there was not a sense of urgency to implement these ideas until recently.
“What’s changed is the seriousness on getting climate solutions and getting to carbon neutral,” she said. “The commitment is there, which wasn’t a couple of decades ago, especially in the U.S. I would say this has been happening around the world. There are many countries that have a hydrogen strategy, and in the U.S. — with our nice, really low-cost natural gas — it has just been really hard to think about how to get this economically viable.”
Federal funding opportunity
Part of the new sense of urgency is coming from the Biden administration and the bipartisan infrastructure legislation that became law last year.
This law set aside $8 billion for the creation of four regional hydrogen hubs through the Department of Energy, and the Arizona coalition aims to land one of them.
Other groups have formed multistate coalitions to attract federal funding, including the HALO Hub organized between Arkansas, Louisiana and Oklahoma, the Western Inter-States Hydrogen Hub organized by Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming and an East Coast group composed of New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Jersey.
Vision still in development
In order to get this federal funding, hubs will need to produce hydrogen, have consumers who will use the hydrogen and have infrastructure in place to move the hydrogen.
The vision for the Arizona hub is still in development, but Stechel said Arizona has lots of open land for an industrial project of this scale, existing solar and nuclear production in the state as well as easy access to California via I-10.
For these reasons, she said western Arizona is an appealing landing spot for a regional hub, but the group has yet to decide exactly where it will go.
Other hydrogen efforts are also underway in the state. Nikola Corp., a zero-emissions vehicle maker based in Phoenix, is developing trucks that run on hydrogen fuel cells and the company plans to break ground on its own hydrogen production facility later this year.
Additionally, Southwest Gas is working with ASU to mix its natural gas with hydrogen, resulting in a blended fuel that releases less carbon dioxide upon usage. And in Casa Grande, Air Products and Chemicals is moving forward with plans to establish its own hydrogen production facility.
Hydrogen will not be a panacea on the path to combating climate change, but its use is expected cut emissions in heavy duty transport, heavy industry, aviation and other high-pollution industries.
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