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Hampton Roads officials are betting big on a new power source: “green hydrogen.”

It’s a technology with the potential to cut fossil fuel use in certain industries and reduce the carbon emissions that drive climate change. 

But unlike the wind turbines and solar panels springing up around the region, the new industry won’t be immediately visible as it develops.

A team with the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center plans to research and produce green hydrogen fuel inside a new building at an office park in Newport News.

The $6.5 million project also includes working with local industries and developing a hydrogen workforce.

It’s part of local officials’ larger ambitions to make Hampton Roads a leader in green hydrogen in the Mid-Atlantic. They hope the new industry could attract new businesses to the region and become an economic driver.

Here’s what that means.

What is green hydrogen?

Advocates of hydrogen energy say it could play a major role in cutting U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

Hydrogen fuel is often created by splitting water molecules, a process that requires large amounts of electricity. 

It’s already used in many industries, like for treating metals, refining petroleum and producing fertilizer. But the process today mostly relies on fossil fuels.

“Green” hydrogen refers specifically to hydrogen made using renewable energy, like solar or wind. This “green” hydrogen has a lower carbon footprint.

Hampton Roads officials want to help big local industries – like maritime transport, aviation and long-haul trucking – switch from diesel fuel to green hydrogen, said Brett Malone, president and CEO of the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center, which is a science park based next to the university’s Blacksburg campus.

Malone said local officials have heard from companies in heavy industry that are looking to hydrogen as a way to fulfill upcoming clean energy goals, both voluntary and mandatory.  

“We’re really creating all the pieces to demonstrate how you can make small quantities and then show how it’s used in the infrastructure,” he said. “The idea is that we will be a destination to help people come and run pilot projects, to where they can learn about the best ways to use hydrogen.”

Hydrogen is potentially well-suited for use in industries like marine shipping, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Hydrogen can be used in liquid fuels, replacing traditional options like diesel. It can also power fuel cells that work like batteries but don’t need to be recharged.

Hydrogen fuel tanks could also allow vehicles to travel longer distances with less refueling, making them helpful for heavy-duty tractor-trailers and public buses that travel hundreds of miles at a time, the DOE says.

Green hydrogen in Hampton Roads

Local leaders first became interested in hydrogen after seeing new businesses develop around the offshore wind industry, said Matt Smith, director of energy and water technology at the Hampton Roads Alliance, an economic development organization. 

There are plans to manufacture wind turbines at the Portsmouth Marine Terminal to support Dominion Energy’s planned wind farm off the coast of Virginia Beach, for example. 

That made local officials wonder if there might be other opportunities in clean energy.

“We’ve really come to focus on the critical role that energy plays in fueling our economy,” Smith said. “There’s a real significant opportunity in the energy transition that’s going on globally and here in Virginia.”

The alliance helped facilitate a $1.5 million grant from the state earlier this year for the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center and the cities of Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Portsmouth and Newport News.

They’ll use that and another $5 million in private investments for a pilot project meant to demonstrate the viability of green hydrogen in Hampton Roads.

The core of the project will be a new lab at the Virginia Tech Newport News Center, a research and training facility within the city’s Tech Center Research Park.

At a small scale, officials will convert water into hydrogen gas by using electricity to split water molecules, Malone said. 

They’ll use some of that hydrogen to provide electricity within the office park and to the nearby Jefferson Lab.

Hampton Roads officials also plan to work with three to five businesses to help them transition to hydrogen for a specific use, such as equipping a forklift at a local warehouse with a hydrogen-powered fuel cell. 

The pilot project also includes workforce development programs to train people for jobs in green hydrogen. 

The state and other partners said in news releases that the overall project is expected to create 230 high-paying jobs.

Officials don’t have a specific breakdown of what those jobs might be, said Mallory Tuttle, associate director at the Virginia Tech Newport News Center. But she said officials anticipate the job growth as the region builds “a larger ecosystem around hydrogen.”

The debate over hydrogen fuel

Like many newer energy industries, green hydrogen is sparking intense debate at the national level.

One major question is how the federal government will define green hydrogen. That definition will determine which projects are eligible for generous new subsidies under last year’s Inflation Reduction Act

While advocates see green hydrogen as a necessary tool for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, some environmental groups worry the industry could actually increase emissions if there aren’t stringent standards.

Because hydrogen plants are energy-intensive, much of their carbon footprint depends on where that power comes from. Projects can be powered by low-carbon options like nuclear plants or renewable energy — or high-emissions options like fossil fuels.

Hampton Roads officials say they hope to power their small-scale project with energy generated by Dominion’s wind farm, which the utility plans to construct in 2026.

Once electrons enter the grid, it’s hard to say whether they’re from a traditional or green source, Smith noted.

But the group could use a power purchase agreement that ensures the hydrogen is “green” by buying enough power from the Dominion project to cover their electricity needs. 

Malone said the first priority is helping industries learn how to switch from traditional fossil fuels to hydrogen. Once a market for hydrogen is seeded, the next step would be making sure that hydrogen is made with renewable energy, ideally locally.

Transporting hydrogen fuel is expensive, and local officials want to make it available without having to build pipelines, Malone said. That could mean building small production facilities around the region rather than one central plant.

A long-term vision for Virginia

Officials hope the pilot project will grow into a larger effort, called the Mid-Atlantic Hydrogen Hub, in partnership with Maryland and Washington D.C.

The idea for the hub grew out of discussions a few years ago at the DMV Regional Congress, a nonprofit that brings together officials across the Mid-Atlantic to discuss economic opportunities. 

In 2021, Congress earmarked money for regional Hydrogen Hubs in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The hubs are funded through the federal Department of Energy, and aim to jump-start a national hydrogen industry.

The Mid-Atlantic group has applied for a grant of about $1 billion through the program, which has a total pot of $8 billion. They call their vision a “commercially viable hydrogen ecosystem across this Mid-Atlantic region.” 

Smith said they’ve made it past a first round of applicants.

The state is also strongly pursuing hydrogen energy. Hydrogen was included in Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s “all of the above” approach outlined in his Virginia Energy Plan released last fall.

“Hydrogen is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reimagine Virginia’s future and meet energy needs through an abundant, dispatchable, and zero-emission fuel source where water is the only required input,” Youngkin wrote. (Youngkin is working to withdraw the state from a separate regional program designed to cut carbon emissions.) 

Malone said he hopes the local project will help develop a “road map for the entire Commonwealth.”

As originally published in WHRO