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Company execs boast future 'hydrogen hub' in North Dakota

Hydrogen has lately seen renewed interest as a possibly groundbreaking source of carbonless energy, as governments and corporations have searched for ways to clean up fossil fuel production and generate alternative forms of power at scale.

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Mitsubishi Power Americas CEO Mike Hopkins and Bakken Energy founder Steve Lebow color in a single eye on traditional Japanese dolls presented at the North Dakota Capitol on Wednesday, June 2, 2021, a traditional gesture meant to show commitment to the fulfillment of a challenging task. Adam Willis / The Forum
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BISMARCK — North Dakota officials and a heavy-hitting lineup of business executives announced plans Wednesday, June 2, to convert a troubled synthetic natural gas plant in the western part of the state into a large-scale producer of hydrogen, a recently vogue energy source with wide-ranging uses in cars, trucking and energy generation.

Gov. Doug Burgum joined executives from Mitsubishi Power Americas and the North Dakota producer Bakken Energy to disclose a potential deal to acquire the financially-addled Great Plains Synfuels Plant, currently owned by the utility co-op Basin Electric, and convert it into the "largest producer of clean hydrogen in North America" — a first step in broader ambitions to establish North Dakota as a "world-class hydrogen hub."

Timelines and costs were not disclosed, and Basin Electric CEO Paul Sukut said the deal still has "a ways to go." But state leaders and the lineup of company executives expressed optimism that they would extend the life of the plant and lay groundwork for a new energy industry in the state.

Gov. Doug Burgum endorsed the project as an important step on the road to his recently announced goal to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030, a climate plan that would preserve the centrality of the state's fossil fuel sector.

"This hub will be comprised of clean hydrogen production, storage, transportation and consumption," Bakken Energy CEO Mike Hopkins said. The executive added that the Mitsubishi-Bakken Energy partnership to create a hydrogen hub in North Dakota would proceed even if the Great Plains Synfuels acquisition falls through, describing a long-term plan to tap the state into a pipeline network reaching other proposed hydrogen projects around the country.

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If the Great Plains Synfuels deal goes through, Bakken Energy and Mitsubishi Power would use the plant for the production of "blue hydrogen," or hydrogen formed through the extraction of carbon dioxide off of natural gas, with the carbon stored underground or injected back into oil wells. That's compared to "green hydrogen," or hydrogen produced off renewable energy sources like wind.

The idea could also help North Dakota in its longstanding struggle to curb the harmful flaring of natural gas in its oil fields. Hopkins said he expects the facility would make use of both synthetic natural gas produced in the plant as well as the natural gas byproduct of oil production in North Dakota's Bakken region.

Hydrogen has lately seen renewed interest as a possibly groundbreaking source of carbonless energy, as governments and corporations have searched for ways to clean up fossil fuel production and generate alternative forms of power at scale.

Mitsubishi has also been at the forefront of this emerging hydrogen industry. The North American division of the Tokyo-based company has announced hydrogen projects in Utah and Texas in recent years and this year partnered with the city of Los Angeles in an effort to make it the first city in the country powered by green hydrogen.

President Joe Biden's administration has also looked to hydrogen as an important energy source in the national transition toward cleaner power. Hopkins said the two companies are hopeful that they can draw investment in the project from the U.S. Department of Energy, which sold Great Plains Synfuels to Basin Electric back in 1988.

A surge in attention on hydrogen in the United States is relatively recent, but a robust market has already begun to develop in other parts of the world, most notably in Asian countries like Japan and Korea. Mitsubishi Power CEO Paul Browning said many of their ambitions for supplying a global hydrogen market stretch out over several decades and will depend on the pace of government climate action.

"It all depends on the timing of, first of all, politicians setting net-zero targets," he said, referring to Burgum's 2030 carbon goal. "This is all going to play out over the next couple of decades, and it's going to be driven really by the timelines that are set before us by the powers that be."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at awillis@forumcomm.com.

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