Ken McAvey, Vice President and General Manager, Global Foundries
A trio of prominent Vermont institutions announced a partnership Thursday to develop a carbon-free fuel source — green hydrogen — touted as vital to helping the state reach its greenhouse emission goals.
Vermont Gas Systems, the state’s largest supplier of natural gas, plans to break ground next year on a green hydrogen facility at the GlobalFoundries semiconductor plant in Essex Junction.
The pilot project, which includes research assistance from the University of Vermont, aims to create a green fuel source that can be mixed with the natural gas burned to heat buildings at the massive GlobalFoundries campus.
The utility sees the project as a crucial step to transition its fuel supply — which is mostly fossil fuel gas from Canada — to more renewable, lower carbon sources not only at GlobalFoundries but throughout its coverage area.
Vermont Gas Systems supplies natural gas to 55,000 families and businesses in Franklin, Chittenden and Addison counties, as well as renewable natural gas from farm digesters.
“This project will show the rest of the state and the world that zero-carbon thermal energy is possible,” Vermont Gas Systems President and CEO Neale Lunderville said at a press conference at UVM Thursday.
The vast majority of hydrogen is made using natural gas and coal, and is used in the petrochemical industry to make fuels and fertilizers. "Green hydrogen" describes hydrogen generated with renewable energy.
The announcement was met with skepticism in some environmental circles, however, particularly given how much energy it takes to produce hydrogen in the first place.
Neale Lunderville, Vermont Gas Systems president and CEO
“You can’t create green hydrogen with dirty electricity,” said Chase Whiting, an attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation who focuses on clean energy.
Whiting noted that while the entities claim the project would use electricity from solar and wind, those sources provide only “a tiny fraction of the total electricity production” in the state, and their contribution is growing very slowly.
It takes a huge amount of electricity to split hydrogen from oxygen molecules in water, and GlobalFoundries’s electricity consumption will likely increase significantly in order to slightly reduce its emissions from natural gas, Whiting noted.
The only way the process could be considered “green” would be if it were done exclusively with excess renewable energy, which Whiting said is actually in short supply in the state.
GlobalFoundries officials counter that in “initial stages,” the electricity will come from Green Mountain Power’s carbon-free portfolio. Adding solar power or being able to buy renewable energy directly from other power suppliers — something the company has requested of regulators — would increase GlobalFoundries' ability to produce green hydrogen, officials said.
To reduce its power costs, the company has asked the state Public Utilities Commission to become a “self-managed utility,” meaning it could ditch Green Mountain Power and buy power directly from suppliers like Hydro-Quebec.
Critics have argued this would effectively release Vermont's largest energy user from its obligation to help fund new renewable energy projects in the state.
The manufacturer notes that it has a long history of energy efficiency improvements and is committed to reducing its carbon footprint. This effort demonstrates that commitment, said Ken McAvey, vice president and general manager at the Essex Junction facility, known as Fab 9.
“This project is exciting for us to grow our environmental record in the state and be leaders across the country and in the semiconductor space specifically,” McAvey said.
Sen. Patrick Leahy praised the partnership in a recorded statement.
If utility regulators reject the request to go solo, McAvey said, the company would have to “step back and look at our entire portfolio and expenses” and see how else it could move forward.
Details of the project remain limited. Lunderville said it would entail a one-megawatt electrolyzer installed at the facility. Electrolyzers use electricity to break apart water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen can then be used on the site or compressed into gas and transported. He said the hydrogen could be mixed with the natural gas stream without the need for major upgrades of GlobalFoundries' heating equipment.
"So far, it's shown real promise," he said.
In the future, green hydrogen could be used to store excess renewable energy, helping ease some of the constraints on the power grid and opening more parts of the state to renewable energy production, he said.
Hydrogen technology is being developed to power everything from emission-free cars and buses to submarines and airplanes and long-haul trucks. Because of its energy density, some consider it to be most effective when batteries are either too heavy or not sufficiently powerful.
The technology has sharp critics. Elon Musk, founder of electric car maker Tesla, called using hydrogen to power vehicles “mind-bogglingly stupid” because of the inefficiency of using electricity to make a fuel that needs to be turned back into electricity.
While others see the technology as vital to the success of global decarbonization efforts, hydrogen-powered passenger cars remain an expensive niche vehicle, which just 31,000 worldwide compared to millions of electric vehicles.
The state’s small size and history of collaboration make it an excellent place to innovate on clean energy, he said. UVM students are clamoring for opportunities to learn more about and advance clean energy efforts, he added.
“Our goal over the next several years is to make Vermont a leader in the clean energy space,” he said.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) offered his congratulations in taped remarks played at the press conference. He said he would help bring the project to the attention of the U.S. Department of Energy.
Lunderville did not have a cost estimate for the project, but said his utility was funding it and would be seeking federal grants.