Energy entrepreneur: Kansas wind power, underground storage fuels optimism of hydrogen’s potential

Global race to manipulate molecule in water to lower reliance on fossil fuels

By: - August 29, 2022 8:55 am
Joe Spease, chief executive officer of WindSoHy in Overland Park, said Kansas offers clean electricity from wind power and massive underground storage caverns to create robust businesses devoted to using hydrogen as an energy source for industry and consumers. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Joe Spease, chief executive officer of WindSoHy in Overland Park, said Kansas offers clean electricity from wind power and massive underground storage caverns to create robust businesses devoted to using hydrogen as an energy source for industry and consumers. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Folks drink it every day, but a central element of that substance could eventually power manufacturing plants or fuel vehicles while shifting the nation toward a future of reduced reliance on oil and natural gas.

That’s the optimistic view of hydrogen’s potential from Joe Spease, chief executive officer of WindSoHy, an Overland Park company dedicated to blending cheap electricity from Kansas wind power, a vast network of underground storage caverns and technology to split hydrogen from the oxygen in water. The package could significantly reduce reliance on fossil fuels contributing to climate change and rising greenhouse gas concentrations, he said.

“The potential for green hydrogen for vehicle fuel and generating electricity is our greatest economic and environmental hope, because it’s going to be cheaper than all fossil fuels when it’s made correctly and is going to do more to stop climate change than any other technological source in the world,” Spease said. “There’s nothing not to like about it.”

Spease said on the Kansas Reflector podcast advances in use of nitrogen in the energy economy would lower utility costs and create millions of jobs. However, he estimated only 1/10th of 1% of people appreciated potential of hydrogen — a light, highly reactive fuel derived through a chemical process known as electrolysis. Using nature’s most abundant chemical element for energy would lower emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, but would necessitate an increase in solar and wind assets to reach environmental goals.

Companies and governments throughout the world have increased investments in hydrogen development. There’s growing interest by Congress and President Joe Biden in acceleration of research leading to affordable, abundant and clean hydrogen production and consumption in the United States.

In 2021, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Earthshot program included an initiative designed to speed deployment of hydrogen at scale. The agency plans to invest billions of dollars in lowering the cost of producing hydrogen from renewable energy such as solar and wind.


A Kansas angle

Spease said the good news was that making hydrogen with the best natural assets could result in a product cheaper than any fossil fuel.

Currently, much of the cost of producing green hydrogen was the price of power to run electrolyzers that split hydrogen from oxygen in water via electric current. A key to success of a hydrogen industry in Kansas, he said, would be the purchase of wind power generated at night when demand and cost were lowest.

Spease said this green electricity would to run industrial electrolyzers in Kansas to create massive quantities of hydrogen. The hydrogen would be stored in the state’s underground salt caverns until moved to commercial businesses through PVC pipelines.

Heavy industry — think steel or cement plants — should lower emissions by drawing hydrogen from green sources rather than the so-called gray or blue hydrogen made from natural gas or other fossil fuels that involve carbon sequestration, Spease said. He pushed back against fossil fuel advocates interested in blending hydrogen with natural gas in the nation’s existing natural gas pipeline network.

“That’s going to be a bad idea,” Spease said. “There are some people in the hydrogen industry who insist that it’s okay. All they’re doing is really trying to prolong the use of natural gas.”


Fuel pump station

At some point, he said, businesses ought to be able to install electrolyzers and underground storage tanks at fuel stations for the production and sale of hydrogen for vehicles.

Spease said cars or trucks could be converted to run on hydrogen — a strategy embraced by Amazon in a contract with hydrogen fuel cell manufacturer Plug Power for long-haul trucks. The distinction from current practice would be that hydrogen must be pumped into car or truck fuel tanks under pressure, he said.

“Because hydrogen fuel cells are really, really effective they’re far far superior to batteries. With a battery, you can go a couple 100 miles, and then you have to spend a lot of time to recharge the battery. And with a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, you will go 500 or 600 miles on with one tank,” he said.

Spease said the future of hydrogen, given economies of scale, could lead to a revolution in the way power was supplied to individual residences. The science was moving in the direction of making it possible to have electrolyzers installed wherever hydrogen was needed, he said.

“We’re gonna get to the point eventually each individual household will be able to make their own,” he said.

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International.