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World science community watching as natural gas-hydrogen power plant comes to Hannibal, Ohio

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There are not a lot of people living in Hannibal, Ohio. It is a tiny port stop on the Ohio River, with just 1,000 people living in Ohio Township, and just about 14,000 in Monroe County. About 35 miles upstream is Wheeling, West Virginia, and about 45 miles downstream is Marietta, Ohio.

But this tiny place in what is considered the Appalachian part of Ohio, a new power plant that is gaining the notice of the scientific world is about to open here at the end of August. Long Ridge Energy, which sits on 1,600 acres of property where an aluminum smelter closed about a decade ago, will be producing electricity that will mix natural gas and hydrogen as the power source.

Hydrogen is being “rediscovered” as a environmentally friendly energy source, though it is more simple than complicated: It is the simplest and most abundant element on earth, consisting of only one proton and one electron. But there is a catch. It doesn’t typically exist by itself in nature and must be produced from compounds that contain it.

“What we are doing is very important to the renewable energy industry, and we have somewhat flown under the radar as to being a leader in some big changes that are coming for the energy industry,” Robert “Bo” Wholey, the president of Long Ridge Energy and Pittsburgh native, said to Ohio Capital Journal.

“There have been some plants that have opened in Europe and Australia recently that are using more hydrogen, and plans to do other such plants in the U.S. in coming years, but we think this is the first operation in America to combine hydrogen and natural gas for clean energy,” he continued. “What we are doing is using what is here in this part of Ohio now — water and natural gas wells — and using them to reduce and ultimately eliminate carbon emissions.”

Some analysts are skeptical about whether these combo-plants are a viable path to decarbonization, but Wholey is optimistic Long Ridge can get a larger and larger mix of hydrogen into the energy production over the long run, perhaps even to 100%.

This is no small project being done in small town Ohio. It will produce 485 megawatts annually (which can power about 400,000 households), and it has raised $599 million in financing. And given the plant will use just a fraction of the 1,600 acres of property it sits on, plans call to draw big national companies who want clean energy at a good price to locate there.

“It is basic economics to combine the leading science with the resources available in this location,” Wholey said. “In effect we are saying let’s keep our local advantages here for our economic benefits, and not ship them out for other people to take advantage of.”

Mario Azar, president of Black & Veatch’s power business, one of the partners in the project, emphasized how the energy industry in paying attention to Long Ridge as it starts up: “Balanced energy portfolios that maximize the use of next-generation, emissions-free fuel sources such as hydrogen will be critical to managing the energy transition and `repowering the power industry,’” Azar said in a recent statement. “The first-of-a-kind Long Ridge project represents a significant step for the U.S. power industry and reflects the growing place for hydrogen as an important pillar of the global decarbonization effort.”

In order to understand the importance of this project to this economically challenged part of Ohio, one needs to go back in time a bit. The site of the plant was at one time the location of the Ormet Aluminum Corp, which started in the late 1950s and employed about 1,000 people when it closed in 2013.  Before it closed, the Ormet Aluminum Corp. in Monroe County was using the same amount of power in a day that the city of Pittsburgh did.

And that was the problem, as the high electricity use made the smelter economically obsolete. The company appealed to the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio to grant rate relief Ormet said it needed for electricity use, but they were turned down. The plant’s closing soon followed putting about 1,000 people out of work.

The closing also happened at a time when southeast Ohio communities were getting hit with both the property foreclosure mess and opioid drug addiction.

“That closure really impacted the local economy, it took a hit,” noted Ed Looman, project manager of the Appalachian Partnership for Economic Growth, around the time in 2017 when the property was sold to the Long Ridge consortium for $30 million.

But the more interesting and more complicated issue is how this odd mix of technology will be used to create renewable energy with little pollution. In some respects, it is, as Wholey notes, about the old real estate adage about “location” being the most important factor when assessing land value.

There are two type of hydrogen production, and this Hannibal location has cheap access to both. Being on the Ohio River means it can pull water from the river, and “green” hydrogen is produced by splitting the water into hydrogen and oxygen by electrolysis. The hydrogen is used by burning it with other components like natural gas (or by itself) and the oxygen is vented in to the atmosphere with no negative impact.

The location is also in the middle of the Marcellus and Utica shale areas in both Pennsylvania and Ohio. “Blue” hydrogen occurs when the chemical element is split off from natural gas by using very high temperatures. Green hydrogen is two to three times more expensive than blue hydrogen, according to recent reports.

That cost could come down as the technology adapts with more use. However, on a practical basis, Long Ridge has an advantage over others around the country as natural gas pipelines are close by.

After the startup at the end of August with just natural gas as the electricity producing component, hydrogen will be added into the production mix some time in November, Long Ridge says. In the beginning, it will be just 5% hydrogen, but over time, using a specialized GE combustion turbine, it will be burning between 15-20% hydrogen by volume initially, with the capability to transition to 100% hydrogen over time.

A lot of the reasons for doing this state-of-the-art and futuristic energy plant in such an out-of-the-way place were very practical, and came to the surface when looked at with a critical eye.

“The infrastructure situation was good,” Wholey said. “We thought, this will be a good place to have a power plant, given that the transmission lines are already in place.”

Shortly after construction began, they learned that the plant’s GE gas turbine could also burn up to 20% hydrogen without modification. That made economic sense for future growth.

“The second thing we learned,” Wholey said, “was that a lot of potential customers, like data centers, wanted green energy.” That why it made sense, he said, “because the market is changing so that these changes are not being seen as economically not an environmental novelty. It’s what the customer base is asking for.”

For some renewable energy experts, using hydrogen for energy production hasn’t met the requirements that make it more “decarbonized” that what it is replacing. Technology will have to advance further to burn hydrogen as a viable fuel rather than just as a small percentage of a natural gas blend, particularly because of nitrogen oxygen emissions from hydrogen burning, they point out.

“These types of proposals have not yet shown a path to a deeply decarbonized gas system,” Julie McNamara, senior energy analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in a recent interview. “Clean hydrogen will be constrained in supply for the foreseeable future. Blending it at a low level into a gas pipeline that should be transitioned to electrification is just not the right pathway to be taken today.”

The power plant in Hannibal, Ohio, will be “fully operational” with natural gas only in early September, with hydrogen to be introduced in November, Wholey said. A recent Moody’s Investor Service report indicated Long Ridge has long-term economic potential, especially if national and state policies such as carbon taxes are enacted. By 2035, the report says, “hydrogen is likely to play an important role in U.S. efforts to eliminate carbon emissions from the power sector.”


This story was republished from the Ohio Capital Journal under a Creative Commons license.


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