The groundbreaking ceremony for Peaks Renewables' new hydrogen facility in Clinton on Jul. 6, 2022. Credit: Erin Fletcher / Summit Utilities, Inc.

Maine is exploring hydrogen as a source of energy in a national effort to create an infrastructure for clean power across the country.

Maine has signed on with six other northeast states to produce clean hydrogen and is seeking funding through the Department of Energy, which has earmarked $8 billion to help meet the country’s energy demand and work toward national decarbonization goals. If successful, it will be the first time such an infrastructure is created on a national scale to meet energy demands.  

“With the help of federal incentives in the last few months, the potential in Maine for clean hydrogen has started to feel more tangible,” Caroline Colan, a solar and storage fellow at the Governor’s Energy Office, said Thursday at an event on the state’s role in national production.

Hydrogen is already a big part of the energy economy in the United States and is used in the production of fertilizers and industrial processes. But clean hydrogen has not yet been produced on a mass scale. This new effort would seek to invest in technologies allowing the production of hydrogen and storage of excess power through renewable sources such as large-scale solar and wind infrastructure, hydropower and wood byproducts.

Hydrogen is a storable form of energy, which means it can play an important role as a backup, especially during times when there isn’t enough renewable energy from wind and solar. 

“Hydrogen is really a long duration energy storage solution,” according to Brad Bradshaw, the president and director of the Portland-based Hydrogen Energy Center, a nonprofit working to advance a renewable hydrogen energy economy. “While most batteries can be used for up to six to eight hours now, hydrogen can be used for not just six to eight hours but all the way to months at a time.” 

But producing it requires an energy source. More often than not it is produced using fossil fuels. 

Over 95 percent of hydrogen is produced through steam-methane reformation, which combines natural gas with steam through high pressure and high temperatures, Bradshaw said. But this process releases significant amounts of carbon dioxide, which contributes to climate-warming greenhouse gasses. 

Hydrogen can also be produced through the electrolysis of water, or by using electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. 

Peaks Renewables, a Maine renewable energy company, is working on decarbonizing thermal energy through renewable sources, said Katherine Birnie, a senior manager for hydrogen project development at the company. The company last year was awarded a $5 million grant from the Department of Energy to develop technologies that reduce emissions and decarbonize the thermal energy sector.    

Efforts to produce scaleable clean hydrogen were introduced as far back as the early 1990s, but did not take off because it was difficult and expensive. But renewable energy such as wind and solar have made it possible to produce the fuel source more feasibly, on a mass scale, Bradshaw said. 

The group’s concept papers are due to the Department of Energy by Nov. 7, with a more detailed proposal slated for April. 

The state “is important because of its significant on-shore and off-shore wind and solar resources,” Bradshaw said, and “it has one of the cleanest grids in the world because of its significant hydropower sources as well.”

Martin Grohman, the executive director of E2Tech, a Waterville-based nonprofit that connects startups and entrepreneurs to develop state’s environmental and energy technology industry,  believes what truly makes Maine a key player in all of this is that the state has a lot of excess renewable energy, which goes to waste otherwise and can instead be stored in hydrogen.

“Maine has the potential to be a hydrogen exporter,” Grohman said. 

Mehr Sher is a Report for America corps member. Additional support for this reporting is provided by the Unity Foundation and donations by BDN readers.

Mehr Sher reports on the Maine environment. She is a Report for America corps member. Additional support for her reporting is provided by the Unity Foundation and donations by BDN readers.