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EIA: electrolysers are a small but growing source of US hydrogen production

Published by , Editorial Assistant
Global Hydrogen Review,

Developers in the US have plans to expand hydrogen production using technologies that make use of electricity, an early sign that hydrogen production could move away from its current reliance on hydrocarbon feedstocks in the coming years.

Planned electrolyser installations that use electricity to produce hydrogen from water, if built, would expand capacity in the US from 116 MW of current capacity to 4524 MW, according to information collected by the US Department of Energy’s Hydrogen Program Record. If all the planned projects are implemented, annual US production of hydrogen through electrolysis could total about 0.72 million t compared with the current 10 t of hydrogen currently produced from fossil fuels and as a byproduct from other industrial sources. Electrolysers that meet a threshold for low carbon intensity could qualify for a production tax credit if developers begin construction by 2033.

Hydrogen is a critical input for petroleum refining and fertilizer production, and it can also be used as a storable fuel for electric power generation to be used in hydrogen gas turbines or blended with natural gas for use in traditional gas turbines. It is the simplest element found naturally on earth and is traditionally separated out of hydrocarbons, such as natural gas and coal, through a process known as steam methane reforming (SMR). The 10 t of hydrogen produced annually in the US is almost completely supplied by SMRs or produced as byproduct hydrogen obtained from a chemical plant or other facility where hydrogen is not the main product. Using the EIA's Manufacturing Energy Consumption Survey 2018 — the most recent year for which it has data — and its Annual Refinery Capacity Report, the EIA estimates current US SMR capacity totals 7.6 tpy of hydrogen.

Electrolysers produce hydrogen through electrolysis, a process that separates hydrogen from water using an electrical current, with oxygen as the only byproduct. Because SMRs use hydrocarbons as feedstock, their byproducts include carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, which must be captured and sequestered to achieve net-zero emissions. Hydrogen produced by electrolysers is considered carbon-neutral if the electricity consumed is generated from renewable resources.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), two types of electrolyser technologies are currently commercially deployed, both of which require further improvements to stay competitive: proton exchange membrane (PEM) and alkaline. These technologies vary by construction cost, start-up times, and materials used to convert electricity to hydrogen. No matter the materials used, electrolysers can leverage electricity generated from renewable resources.

Although several electrolyser projects are planned in the US, traditional SMR technology produces most of the hydrogen commercially consumed in the US today.

The SMR process applies high-temperature steam to methane and a catalyst to produce hydrogen, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide. Industrial facilities and petroleum refineries primarily use natural gas as the source of methane for hydrogen production. SMR units can be fitted with carbon capture and storage (CCS) capabilities to reduce the carbon footprint of hydrogen production by storing carbon dioxide underground. This technology is not new; since 2013, the Coffeyville Resources Nitrogen Fertilizers plant in Oklahoma has been capturing CO2 created by hydrogen production and delivering it for enhanced oil recovery.

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