GRAND FORKS — For Charles Gorecki, CEO of UND’s Energy and Environmental Research Center, it isn’t the science behind using hydrogen that’s standing in the way of the state moving toward a hydrogen-based economy. Instead, it’s the logistics of production, storage, distribution and end use that need to be tied together.
On June 9, the Industrial Commission of North Dakota approved $10 million for a pair of research projects to be carried out by the EERC. The first will study the feasibility of storing energy resources — including natural gas, liquified natural gas and hydrogen — in underground salt formations in the western part of the state. The second is to create a “roadmap” to develop hydrogen energy in the state.
Research from both projects is meant to tie those multiple facets together, and create plans that can lead to further development and commercialization of the state’s energy sector.
“The whole concept of a hydrogen economy is one where you're looking at decarbonizing all sectors,” Gorecki said. “For us in this particular roadmap is how would North Dakota fit into a hydrogen economy? That's what it's all about — where we produce it, transport it, how we use all of these types of things.”
The research projects, while technically separate, are, Gorecki said, tangentially related. EERC researchers know how hydrogen can be produced in the state, but storing it, and other gasses like natural gas, is another matter. Research on underground storage accounts for $9.5 million of the funding approved by the Industrial Commission. The commission is made up of Gov. Doug Burgum, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring.
The EERC has been tasked with exploring two expansive salt fields in western North Dakota. Researchers will drill and collect core samples to determine if those fields are suitable for underground storage. The idea is to create solution-filled caverns, possibly 50 feet in diameter and a quarter mile long. That solution can be pumped to surface-based storage tanks, as hydrogen or natural gas takes its place. Gorecki said similar caverns are being used on the Gulf Coast, and in Alberta, Canada.
“If you create hydrogen, you've got to put it someplace and storing it in this subterranean salt cavern is a great solution,” Gorecki said. “You just fill it up and extract it as needed.”
The EERC won’t build those caverns, but will only study the feasibility of their creation. The state and private industries will use the research to assess the economic viability of storing hydrocarbon gases underground. The research projects are set to be completed within two years.
For state Sen. Curt Kreun, R-Grand Forks, vice chairman of the Senate's Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the research projects lay the groundwork for more fully utilizing the state’s natural resources for, among other uses, power generation. Kreun stressed the need of having diverse forms of generation to maintain a stable base load of electricity, and not throwing out one source “like the baby with the bathwater.” It will be up to private industry to evaluate and follow up on the EERC’s research.
“Of course that's our public goal, to get this (research) out there so that the commercialization will take place from what we do,” said Kreun, who represents Grand Forks’ District 42.
Gorecki likened power generation to a retirement investment account : Having a diverse portfolio is the wise idea. Solar panels and wind turbines are two renewable sources, but can’t cover the gap when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. A possible use for hydrogen generated in the state could be for “peaker plants,” which come online to generate power in times of high demand. Another possible use could be as a fuel for commercial vehicles.
It’s the purpose of the roadmap for a hydrogen economy to tie those ends together. And it's the purpose of UND’s facility to lead the way in energy and environmental research, Gorecki said.
“We solve problems,” he said.