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Ocean-based carbon removal firm raises $20m Series A

The $20m Series A for California-based Ebb Carbon was raised across two closes, led by Prelude Ventures and Evok Innovations, respectively. The second close was completed at an increased valuation at the end of March.

Ebb Carbon – an ocean-based carbon dioxide removal (CDR) company founded by former Tesla, SolarCity, and Google X executives – has raised a $20m Series A to develop and deploy its technology, which enhances and speeds the ocean’s natural ability to capture and permanently store CO2 from the atmosphere.

This is the largest investment to date in an ocean-based carbon dioxide removal technology, according to a company news release.

With this funding, Ebb will begin to deploy its first systems – one with the capacity to remove 100 tons of CO2 later this year, and a 1,000-capacity system shortly thereafter.

The $20m Series A was raised across two closes, led by Prelude Ventures and Evok Innovations, respectively. The second close was completed at an increased valuation at the end of March. This adds to a previous seed funding round of $3 million, bringing the total raised to date to $23 million. Other investors in Ebb include Congruent, Grantham, and Incite.

“If we want to avoid the most drastic impacts of climate change, the science is very clear that we will need to remove billions of tons of already-emitted CO2 from the atmosphere,” said Ben Tarbell, CEO and co-founder of Ebb Carbon. “The ocean is a natural and vastly underutilized ally in this fight. Our approach combines capture and storage into one step, by accelerating naturally occurring processes that benefit from the immensity of the ocean’s surface area. This enables one of the lowest cost solutions for atmospheric CO2 removal at scale. We’re incredibly excited to have the support of our new investors and to deploy our first system in the coming months.”

“We are excited by the potential for Ebb to remove gigatonnes of CO2 annually,” said Gabriel Kra, managing director and co-founder of Prelude Ventures. “The team has previously demonstrated their abilities to build and scale industrial machinery, and has invented a technology that is a least-cost solution for ocean carbon dioxide removal.”

“What makes Ebb so impactful is its potential to address the many impacts of climate change, not just on land, but in our oceans as well,” said Mike Biddle, partner at Evok. “The company has a clear line of sight to removing billions of tons of CO2 from the atmosphere in the coming years, which will be an integral part of slowing global warming trends. At the same time, Ebb is addressing a less noticed impact of climate change on important ocean ecosystems that are integral to our collective futures. We’re incredibly excited to support Ebb as they deploy and scale their unique technology.”

Given the amount of greenhouse gas released into the atmosphere by humans, it is now not enough to only drastically reduce future carbon emissions. According to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), gigatons of already-emitted, legacy CO2 emissions must also be removed from the atmosphere in the coming years in order to meet climate targets and mitigate the worst impacts of climate change. Many CO2 removal technologies working to do this, such as Direct Air Capture (DAC), require separate methods of capture and storage — i.e. using engineered or natural substances to suck CO2 from the atmosphere and then extracting that CO2 from those materials for permanent storage in underground wells.

Using the ocean to remove atmospheric CO2 is unique from these other processes in that it combines the capture and storage of atmospheric CO2 into one step – streamlining the storage side of the equation, reducing energy consumption requirements, and creating one of the lowest cost pathways to removing CO2 from the atmosphere, the release states. Ebb has developed an electrochemical ocean alkalinity enhancement solution that is one of the most promising solutions to remove atmospheric CO2 at the gigaton scale, and has already secured commitments for the purchase of carbon removal credits from Stripe.

The ocean constantly absorbs and stores CO2 from the atmosphere. But rising levels of CO2 in the air are not only changing our climate, they are making our ocean more acidic, putting marine life and coastal communities at risk. Ebb’s solution speeds up a natural process, called ocean alkalinization, which restores ocean chemistry and safely draws down CO2 and converts it to bicarbonate where it is safe and stable. While this process naturally occurs over millions of years, Ebb’s proprietary electrochemical system accelerates it by rearranging the salt and water molecules in salt water into acid and slightly alkaline salt water solutions. Returning the alkaline salt water to the ocean mimics the natural alkalization process and creates a chemical reaction that pulls CO2 out of the air and converts it into bicarbonate, the ocean’s most abundant form of carbon storage. Bicarbonate is capable of sequestering CO2 for at least 10,000 years. The alkalinity that is returned to the ocean neutralizes the acid in seawater locally.

The Ebb system is modular and is designed to be sited near any industrial source of salty water, including desalination plants, aquaculture facilities, and manufacturing or energy production facilities that circulate ocean water for cooling. The system can also process seawater directly from the ocean.

Ebb was founded by a team of leading scientists, engineers, and seasoned climate tech entrepreneurs who collectively have over six decades of experience developing and scaling clean technologies at SolarCity, Tesla, and Google X. CEO Ben Tarbell led efforts to scale the solar industry as VP of Products at SolarCity, and led the team launching new climate technologies at Google X. CTO Dr. Matt Eisaman has spent over a decade researching and proving out the science behind the Ebb System. VP of Engineering Dave Hegeman spearheaded efforts to scale battery packs at Tesla for over a decade, and has extensive experience with maritime engineering. Chief Engineer Todd Pelman has brought hundreds of new products to market as the CEO of Manufactory, and has extensive experience with custom electrodialysis systems and maritime engineering.

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HIF, Idemitsu, and MOL to cooperate on e-fuels supply chain

HIF Global will assess demand for CO2 in its eFuels production facilities around the world. Idemitsu will study the capture of CO2 in Japan. MOL will examine the transportation and shipping of CO2 from Japan and eFuels to Japan.

HIF Global, an eFuels company, Idemitsu Kosan, the Japanese petroleum company and Mitsui O.S.K. Lines, Ltd. (MOL), the international shipping company, have reached an agreement to develop an eFuels supply chain between HIF facilities and Japan.

The agreement also outlines how the companies will explore the potential for supplying carbon dioxide (CO2) from Japan for use as a feedstock for the eFuels production process in HIF facilities under development in the USAAustralia and Chile, according to a news release.

HIF Global will assess demand for CO2 in its eFuels production facilities around the world. Idemitsu will study the capture of CO2 in Japan. MOL will examine the transportation and shipping of CO2 from Japan and eFuels to Japan.

Cesar Norton, President & CEO of HIF Global, said: “At HIF Global, we are developing a portfolio of eFuels facilities that would recycle approximately 25 million tonnes per year of CO2, equivalent to the emissions from over 5 million cars. Carbon neutral eFuels are an immediate replacement for fossil fuels across the global transport sector. Initiatives like this collaboration will bring us a step closer to fueling our world with renewable energy as we strive towards net zero emissions now.”

Hiroshi Tanaka, General Manager (Carbon Neutral Transformation Department) of Idemitsu Kosan said: “As part of our commitment to sustainability, Idemitsu is actively working towards establishing a robust supply chain for eMethanol and eFuels. We recognize the importance of these low environmental impact alternatives in our business and their versatility. Through strategic collaborations such as this, we are confident in our ability to take a leading role in reducing carbon emissions in both the energy and transportation sectors. Additionally, we see tremendous potential in the development of various business opportunities within the supply chain. We look forward to exploring and capitalizing on these opportunities together.”

Hirofumi Kuwata, Senior Managing Executive Officer of MOL, said: “Mitsui O.S.K. Lines is pleased to be working with HIF Global and Idemitsu Kosan to develop a value chain for CO2, synthetic fuel, and synthetic methanol, contributing to decarbonization throughout the lifecycle. We will establish efficient maritime transport of CO2, synthetic methanol, and synthetic fuel within the supply chain connecting Japanese and overseas projects.”

The parties will also discuss the sale and purchase of eFuels and analyze the resulting greenhouse gas emissions reduction.

eFuels are made using electrolyzers powered by renewable energy to separate hydrogen from oxygen in water. The green hydrogen is combined with recycled carbon dioxide to produce carbon neutral eFuels, which are chemically equivalent to fuels used today and can therefore be dropped-in to existing engines without requiring any modifications.

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Ballard to invest $130m in China membrane electrode facility

Ballard plans to invest approximately $130 million over the next three years.

Vancouver-based Ballard Power Systems has entered into an investment agreement with the government of Anting in Shanghai’s Jiading District to establish its new China headquarters, membrane electrode assembly (MEA) manufacturing facility and R&D center located at the Jiading Hydrogen Port.

The site is near one of China’s leading automotive industry clusters, according to a press release.

Ballard plans to invest approximately $130 million over the next three years, which will enable annual production capacity at the new MEA production facility of approximately 13 million MEAs, which will supply approximately 20,000 engines.

Ballard expects to be able to achieve significant capacity expansion of this facility in future phases with much lower capital requirements. The facility will also include space to assemble approximately 600 engines annually to support the production and sale of Ballard engines in the rail, marine, off-road and stationary markets in China, as well as for certain export markets.

In 2021, Ballard completed its MEA manufacturing expansion in Canada, which is critical as the MEA is the core technology and limiting factor for Ballard’s global fuel cell engine production capabilities. With the new MEA capacity coming online in China, Ballard now expects its global MEA capacity to support total demand requirements through the second half of the decade.

This investment is expected to reduce MEA manufacturing costs, align with China’s fuel cell value chain localization policy, and position Ballard more strongly in the hydrogen fuel cell demonstration cluster regions and for the post-subsidy market, according to the press release.

The facility is planned to be in operation in 2025 to meet expected market demand in China, including from the Weichai-Ballard Joint Venture (WBJV) for the bus, truck and forklift markets, as well as other opportunities outside the WBJV scope. The annual production capacity of the Weichai-Ballard joint venture facility located in Weifang, Shandong is approximately 40,000 stacks and 20,000 engines.

“Our global manufacturing vision for 2030 is to have scaled ‘local for local’ manufacturing of leading fuel cell engines and components in our core regional markets of Europe, North America and China to support future industry growth patterns and volumes across our verticals. In the case of China, we already have volume manufacturing capacity for fuel cell engines, bipolar plates and stack assembly at our WBJV. With our continued high conviction on long-term scaled adoption in China of fuel cell electric vehicles for medium- and heavy-duty motive applications, we are now addressing long-term capacity in that market for our proprietary MEAs,” said Randy MacEwen, Ballard’s CEO. “We believe China is a market headed for a significant demand break-out as hydrogen infrastructure scales over the coming years and as our new MEA production facility comes online.”

“To be competitive in China requires investment in China,” commented Alfred Wong, Ballard China CEO. “This new MEA manufacturing facility will significantly reduce MEA production costs, improve China market access and meet long-term market demand, including providing MEA supply to our Weichai-Ballard JV. We are thrilled to be partnering with Anting, Jiading District, which has quickly become a key hydrogen technology hub in China.”

Ballard will also be setting up an R&D and innovation center at the same site. The center will be focused on MEA research to achieve key corporate technical advancements, support cost reduction initiatives, and engage the emerging China local supply chain for fuel cell materials and components.

Ballard also announced today that it has signed a non-binding memorandum of understanding with Weichai Power whereby Weichai Power plans to make an equity investment for 2% of Ballard’s new MEA manufacturing company.

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Enedym and Toyota converting diesel tuggers

Enedym and Toyota Tsusho Canada have formed a strategic partnership to convert diesel tuggers to battery or hydrogen power.

Enedym and Toyota Tsusho Canada have formed a strategic partnership to convert diesel tuggers to battery or hydrogen power, according to a press release.

Enedym will design and develop SRMs and inverters with rated nominal power of approximately 45kW for use in North America and Japan. The magnet-free electric motors will convert small commercial vehicles, or tuggers, commonly used at airports and manufacturing plants, from diesel fuel to battery or hydrogen power.

The collaboration’s first output, an electric-powered commercial tugger, will be piloted at one of Toyota Tsusho’s affiliates located at one of Toyota Motor’s North American manufacturing plants in 2023.

Enedym’s innovative SRM motor technologies remove the need for rare earth metals, thereby reducing costs by approximately 40%.

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Feature: Why blue hydrogen developers are on the hunt for livestock-based RNG

The negative carbon intensity ascribed to livestock-derived renewable natural gas could allow blue hydrogen production to meet the threshold to qualify for the full $3 per kg of hydrogen tax credit under section 45V. The viability of this pathway, however, will depend on how hydrogen from biogas is treated under the IRS’s final rules.

Lake Charles Methanol, a proposed $3.24bn blue methanol plant in Lake Charles, Louisiana, will use natural gas-based autothermal reforming technology to produce hydrogen and carbon monoxide, which will then be used to produce 3.6 million tons per year of methanol while capturing and sequestering 1 million tons per year of carbon dioxide.

And if certain conditions are met in final rules for 45V tax credits, the developer could apply for the full benefit of $3 per kg of hydrogen produced. How? It plans to blend carbon-negative renewable natural gas into its feedstock.

“Lake Charles Methanol will be a large consumer of RNG to mitigate the carbon intensity of its hydrogen production,” the firm’s CEO, Donald Maley, said in written comments in response to the IRS’s rulemaking process for 45V.

The issue of blending fractional amounts of RNG into the blue hydrogen production process has emerged as another touchstone issue before the IRS as it contemplates how to regulate and incentivize clean hydrogen production.

The IRS’s proposed regulations do not provide guidance on the use of RNG from dairy farms in hydrogen production pathways such as SMR and ATR, gasification, or chemical looping, but instead only define clean hydrogen by the amount of carbon emissions.

In theory, a blue hydrogen producer using CCUS could blend in a small amount – around 5% – of carbon-negative RNG and achieve a carbon intensity under the required .45 kg CO2e / kg of hydrogen to qualify for the full $3 per kg incentive under 45V. 

This pathway, however, will depend on final rules for biogas within 45V, such as which biogas sources are allowed, potential rules on RNG additionality, incentive stacking, and the appropriate carbon intensity counterfactuals. 

Furthermore, a potentially separate rulemaking and comment period for the treatment of biogas may be required, since no rules were actually proposed for RNG in 45V on which the industry can comment.

Like the treatment of electricity within 45V, there appears to be some disagreement within Treasury about the role of RNG in the hydrogen production process, with some in the Democratic administration perhaps responding to the view of some progressives that RNG is a greenwash-enabling “sop” to the oil and gas industry, said Ben Nelson, chief operating officer at Cresta Fund Management, a Dallas-based private equity firm.

Cresta has investments in two renewable natural gas portfolio companies, LF Bioenergy and San Joaquin Renewables, and expects RNG used in hydrogen to be a major demand pull if the 45V rules are crafted correctly.

A major issue for the current administration, according to Nelson, is the potentially highly negative carbon intensity score of RNG produced from otherwise vented methane at dairy farms. The methane venting counterfactual, as opposed to a landfill gas counterfactual, where methane emissions are combusted as flared natural gas (therefore producing fewer GHG emissions than vented methane), leads to a negative CI score in existing LCFS programs, which, if translated to 45V, could provide a huge incentive for hydrogen production from RNG. 

“Treasury may be struggling with the ramifications of making vented methane the counterfactual,” Nelson said.

Divided views

The potential for this blending pathway has divided commenters in the 45V rulemaking process, with the Coalition for Renewable Natural Gas and similar companies calling for additional pathways for RNG to hydrogen, the promulgation of the existing mass balance and verification systems – as used in LCFS programs – for clean fuels, and the allowance of RNG credit stacking across federal, state, and local incentive programs.

Meanwhile, opponents of RNG blending noted that it would give an unfair economic advantage to blue hydrogen projects and potentially increase methane emissions by creating perverse incentives for dairy farmers to change practices to take advantage of the tax credits.

For example, in its comments, Fidelis New Energy speaks out forcefully against the practice, calling it “splash blending” and claiming it could cost Americans $65bn annually in federal incentives “with negligible real methane emission reductions while potentially driving an increase in emissions overall without proper safeguards.”

Fidelis goes on to state that allowing RNG to qualify under 45V results in a “staggering” $510 / MMBtu for RNG, a “market distorting value and windfall for a select few sizable industry participants.”

Renewables developer Intersect Power similarly notes the potential windfall for this type of project, since the $3 credit would be higher than input costs for blue hydrogen. “Said another way, hydrogen producers using natural gas and blending RNG with negative CI will be extremely profitable, such that it would encourage the creation of more sources of RNG to capture more credits,” according to the comments, which is signed by Michael Wheeler, vice president, government affairs at Intersect.

Stacking incentives

In its initial suggestions from December, Treasury introduced the possibility of limiting RNG that qualifies under 45V from receiving environmental benefits from other federal, state, or local programs, such as the EPA’s renewable fuel standard (RFS) and various state low carbon fuel standards (LCFS).

In response, the Coalition for Renewable Natural Gas said that it does not “believe it is the intent of the Section 45V program to limit or preclude RNG from participation in” these programs. 

“In particular, a hydrogen facility utilizing RNG to produce clean hydrogen as defined in Section 45V program should be eligible to claim the resulting Section 45V tax credit, and not be barred or limited from participating in the federal RFS or a state LCFS program, if the RNG-derived hydrogen is being used as a transportation fuel or to make a transportation fuel (e.g. SAF, marine fuel, or other fuel) used in the contiguous U.S. and/or the applicable state (e.g., California), respectively,” the organization wrote.

Various commenters along with the Coalition for Renewable Natural Gas stated that the incentives should work together, and that the EPA has “long recognized that other federal and state programs support the RFS program by promoting production and use,” as Clean Energy Fuels wrote.

Cresta, in its comments, noted that the 45V credit would result in a tax credit of $19.87 per MMBtu of RNG, while almost all potential dairy RNG build-out has a breakeven cost above $20 per MMBtu — in other words, not enough to incentivize the required buildout on its own.

Including this incentive plus environmental credits such as LCFS and RINs could get RNG producers to higher ranges “where you’re going to get a lot of buildout” of new RNG facilities, Nelson said.

In contrast, Fidelis argues that the ongoing RNG buildout utilizing just the existing state LCFS and RFS credits is proof enough that the incentives are working, and that 45V would add an exorbitant and perverse incentive for RNG production.

“To demonstrate the billions in annual cost to the American taxpayer that unconstrained blended RNG/natural gas hydrogen pathways could generate in 45V credits, it is important to consider the current incentive structure and RNG value today with CA LCFS and the EPA’s RFS program, as well as with the upcoming 45Z credit,” Fidelis writes. “Today, manure-RNG sold as CNG with a CI of -271.6 g CO2e / MJ would generate approximately $70 / MMBtu considering the value of the natural gas, CA LCFS, and RFS. The environmental incentives (LCFS and RFS) are 23x times as valuable as the underlying natural gas product.”

In its model, Fidelis claims that the 45V credit would balloon to $510 / MMBtu of value generation for animal waste-derived RNG, but does precisely explain how it arrives at this number. Representatives of Fidelis did not respond to requests for comment.

RNG pathways

As it stands, the 45VH2-GREET 2023 model only includes the landfill gas pathway for RNG, thus the Coalition for Renewable Natural Gas and other RNG firms propose to add biogas from anaerobic digestion of animal waste, wastewater sludge, and municipal solid waste, as well as RNG-to-hydrogen via electrolysis.

According to the USDA, “only 7% of dairy farms with more than one thousand cows are currently capturing RNG, representing enormous potential for additional methane capture,” the coalition said in its comments.

Even the Environmental Defense Fund, an environmental group, supports allowing biomethane from livestock farms to be an eligible pathway under 45V, “subject to strong climate protections” such as monitoring of net methane leakage to be factored into CI scores and the reduction of ammonia losses, among other practices.

However, the EDF argues against allowing carbon-negative offsets of biomethane, saying that “doing so could inappropriately permit hydrogen producers to earn generous tax credits through 45V for producing hydrogen with heavily polluting fossil natural gas.”

First productive use

In issuing the 45V draft guidance in December, the Treasury Department and the IRS said they anticipated that in order for RNG to qualify for the incentive, “the RNG used during the hydrogen production process must originate from the first productive use of the relevant methane,” which the RNG industry has equated with additionality for renewables under 45V.

The agencies said that they would propose to define “first productive use” of the relevant methane “as the time when a producer of that gas first begins using or selling it for productive use in the same taxable year as (or after) the relevant hydrogen production facility was placed in service,” with the implication being that  “biogas from any source that had been productively used in a taxable year prior to taxable year in which the relevant hydrogen production facility was placed in service would not receive an emission value consistent with biogas-based RNG but would instead receive a value consistent with natural gas.”

This proposal is opposed by the RNG industry and others planning to use it as a feedstock.

“Instituting a requirement that the use of RNG for hydrogen production be the ‘first productive use’ of the relevant methane would severely limit the pool of eligible projects for the Section 45V PTC,” NextEra Energy Resources said in its comments.

Nelson, of Cresta, called the “first productive use” concept for RNG “a solution in search of a problem,” noting that it’s more onerous than the three-year lookback period for additionality in renewables.

“Induced emissions are a real risk in electricity – they are a purely hypothetical risk in RNG,” Nelson said, “and will remain a hypothetical risk indefinitely in virtually any scenario you can envision for RNG buildout, because there’s just not that many waste sites and sources out there.”

The issue, Nelson added, is that if RNG facilities are required to align their startup date with hydrogen production, the farms where RNG is produced would just continue to vent methane until they can coincide their first productive use with hydrogen.

The Coalition for Renewable Natural Gas argues that the provision “would cause a significant value discrepancy for new RNG projects creating a market distortion, greater risk of stranded RNG for existing projects, added complexity, and higher prices for end-consumers.”

The Coalition proposes, instead, that Treasury could accept projects built prior to 2030 as meeting incrementality requirements “with a check in 2029 on the market impacts of increased hydrogen production to determine, using real world data, if any such ‘resource shifting’ patterns can be discerned.”

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Exclusive: Geologic hydrogen startup raising Series A

A US geologic hydrogen startup that employs electric fracking with a pilot presence on the Arabian Peninsula is raising a $40m Series A and has identified a region in the midwestern US for its first de-risked project.

Eden GeoPower, a Boston-based geologic hydrogen technology provider, is engaged in raising a Series A and has a timeline on developing a project in Minnesota, CEO and co-founder Paris Smalls told ReSource.

The Series A target is $40m, with $10m being supplied by existing investors, Smalls said. This round, the company is looking for stronger financial investors to join its strategic backers.

The company has two subsidiaries wholly owned by the parent: one oil and gas-focused and one climate-focused. The Series A is topco equity at the parent level.

Eden was one of 16 US Department of Energy-selected projects to receive funding to explore geologic hydrogen; the majority of the others are academic lab projects. Eden has raised some $13m in equity and $12m in grant funding to date.

Beyond geothermal

Eden started as a geothermal resource developer, using abandoned oil and gas wells for production via electric fracking.

“We started seeing there were applications way beyond geothermal,” Smalls said. Early grant providers recommended using the electric fracking technology to go after geologic hydrogen reservoirs, replacing the less environmentally friendly hydraulic fracking process typically used.

A test site in Oman, where exposed iron-rich rock makes the country a potential future geologic hydrogen superpower, will de-risk Eden’s technology, Smalls said. Last year the US DOE convened the first Bilateral Engagement on Geologic Hydrogen in Oman.

Early developments are underway on a demonstration project in Tamarack, Minnesota, Smalls said. That location has the hollow-vein rocks that can produce geologic hydrogen.

“We likely won’t do anything there until after we have sufficiently de-risked the technology in Oman, and that should be happening in the next 8 months,” Smalls said. “There’s a good chance we’ll be the first people in the world to demonstrate this.”

Eden is not going after natural geologic hydrogen, but rather stimulating reactions to change the reservoir properties to make hydrogen underground, Small said.

The University of Minnesota is working with Eden on a carbon mineralization project, Smalls said. The company is also engaged with Minnesota-based mining company Talon Metals.

Revenue from mining, oil and gas

Eden has existing revenue streams from oil and gas customers in Texas and abroad, Smalls said, and has an office in Houston with an expanding team.

“People are paying us to go and stimulate a reservoir,” he said. “We’re using those opportunities to help us de-rick the technology.”

The technology has applications in geothermal development and mining, Smalls said. Those contracts have been paying for equipment.

Mining operations often include or are adjacent to rock that can be used to produce geologic hydrogen, thereby decarbonizing mining operations using both geothermal energy and geologic hydrogen, Smalls said.

“On our cap table right now we have one of the largest mining companies in the world, Anglo American,” Smalls said. “We do projects with BHP and other big mining companies as well; we see a lot of potential overlap with the mining industry because they are right on top of these rocks.

Anti-fracking

Eden is currently going through the process of permitting for a mining project in Idaho, in collaboration with Idaho National Labs, Smalls said.

In doing so the company had to submit a public letter explaining the project and addressing environmental concerns.

“We’re employing a new technology that can mitigate all the issues [typically associated with fracking],” Small said.

With electric fracturing of rocks, there is no groundwater contamination or high-pressure water injection that cause the kind of seismic and water quality issues that anger people.

“This isn’t fracking, this is anti-fracking,” Smalls said.
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exclusive

Interview: Vinson & Elkins’ Alan Alexander on the emerging hydrogen project development landscape

Vinson & Elkins Partner Alan Alexander, whose clients include OCI and Lotus Infrastructure, has watched the hydrogen project development space evolve from a fledgling idea to one that is ready for actionable projects.

Vinson & Elkins Partner Alan Alexander, whose clients include OCI and Lotus Infrastructure, has watched the hydrogen project development space evolve from a fledgling idea to one that is ready for actionable projects.

In the meantime, a number of novel legal and commercial issues facing hydrogen project developers have come to the forefront, as outlined in a paper from the law firm this week, which serves as a guide for thinking through major development questions that can snag projects.

In an interview, Alexander, a Houston-based project development and finance lawyer, says that, although some of the issues are unique – like the potential for a clean fuels pricing premium, ownership of environmental attributes, or carbon leaking from a sequestration site – addressing them is built on decades of practice.

“The way I like to put it is, yes, there are new issues being addressed using traditional tools, but there’s not yet a consensus around what constitutes ‘market terms’ for a number of them, so we are having to figure that out as we go,” he says.

Green hydrogen projects, for example, are “quite possibly” the most complex project type he has seen, given that they sit at the nexus between renewable electricity and downstream fuels applications, subjecting them to the commercial and permitting issues inherent in both verticals.

But even given the challenges, Alexander believes the market has reached commercial take-off for certain types of projects.

“When the hydrogen rush started, first it was renewables developers who knew a lot about how to develop renewables but nothing about how to market and sell hydrogen,” he says. “Then you got the people who were very enthusiastic about developing hydrogen projects but didn’t know exactly what to do with it. And now we’re beginning to see end-use cases develop and actionable projects that are very exciting, in some cases where renewables developers and hydrogen developers have teamed up to focus on their core competencies.”

A pricing premium?

In the article, Vinson & Elkins lawyers note that commodities pricing indices are not yet distinguishing between low-carbon and traditional fuels, even though a clean fuel has more value due to its low-carbon attributes. The observation echoes the conclusion of a group of offtakers who viewed the prospect of paying a premium for clean fuels as unrealistic, as they would need to pass on the higher costs to customers.

Eventually, Alexander says, the offtake market should price in a premium for clean products, but that might depend in the near term on incentives for clean fuels demand, such as carbon offsets and levies, like the EU’s Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism.

“Ultimately what we need is for the market to say, ‘I will pay more for low-carbon products,’” he says. “The mindset of being willing to pay more for low-carbon products is going to need to begin to permeate into other sectors. 30 or 40 years ago the notion of paying a premium for an organic food didn’t exist. But today there are whole grocery store chains built around the idea. When the consumer is willing to pay a premium for low-carbon food, that will incentivize a farmer to pay a premium for low carbon fertilizer and ammonia, which will ultimately incentivize the payment of a premium for low-carbon hydrogen. The same needs to repeat itself across other sectors, such as fuels and anything made from steel.”

The law firm writes that US projects seeking to export to Europe or Asia need to take into account the greenhouse gas emissions and other requirements of the destination market when designing projects.

In the agreements that V&E is working on, for example, clients were first focused on structuring to make sure they met requirements for IRA tax credits and other domestic incentives, Alexander says. Meanwhile, as those clean fuels made their way to export markets, customers were coming back with a long list of requirements, “so what we’re seeing is this very interesting influx” of sustainability considerations into the hydrogen space, many of which are driven by requirements of the end-use market, such as the EU or Japan.

The more stringent requirements have existed for products like biofuels for some time, he adds, “but we’re beginning to see it in hydrogen and non-biogenic fuels.”

Sharing risk

Hydrogen projects are encountering other novel commercial and legal issues for which a “market” has not yet been developed, the law firm says, especially given the entry of a raft of new players and the recent passage of the Inflation Reduction Act.

In the case of a blue hydrogen or ammonia project where carbon is captured and sequestered but eventually leaks from a geological formation, for example, no one knows what the risk truly is, and the market is waiting for an insurance product to provide protection, Alexander says. But until it does, project parties can implement a risk-sharing mechanism in the form of a cap on liabilities – a traditional project development tool.

“If you’re a sequestration party you say, ‘Yeah, I get it, there is a risk of recapture and you’re relying on me to make sure that it doesn’t happen. But if something catastrophic does happen and the government were to reclaim your tax credits, it would bankrupt me if I were to fully indemnify you. So I simply can’t take the full amount of that risk.’”

What ends up getting negotiated is a cap on the liability, Alexander says, or the limit up to which the sequestration party is willing to absorb the liability through an indemnity.

The market is also evolving to take into account project-on-project risk for hydrogen, where an electrolyzer facility depends on the availability of, for example, clean electricity from a newly built wind farm.

“For most of my career, having a project up and reaching commercial operations by a certain date is addressed through no-fault termination rights,” he says. “But given the number of players in the hydrogen space and the amount of dollars involved, you’re beginning to see delay liquidated damages – which are typically an EPC concept – creep into supply and offtake agreements.”

If a developer is building an electrolyzer facility, and the renewables partner doesn’t have the wind farm up and running on time, it’s not in the hydrogen developer’s interest to terminate through a no-fault clause, given that they would then have a stranded asset and need to start over with another renewable power provider. Instead, Alexander says, the renewables partner can offset the losses by paying liquidated damages.

Commercial watch list

In terms of interesting commercial models for hydrogen, Alexander says he is watching the onsite modular hydrogen development space as well as power-to-fuels (natural gas, diesel, SAF), ammonia and methanol, given the challenges of transporting hydrogen.

“If you’re going to produce hydrogen, you need to produce it close to the place where it’s going to be consumed, because transporting it is hard. Or you need to turn it into something else that we already know how to transport – natural gas, renewable diesel, naphtha, ammonia.”

Alexander believes power-to-fuels projects and developers that are focused on smaller, on-site modular low-carbon hydrogen production are some of the most interesting to watch right now. Emitters are starting to realize they can lower their overall carbon footprint, he says, with a relatively small amount of low-carbon fuels and inputs.

“The argument there is to not completely replace an industrial gas supplier but to displace a little bit of it.”

At the same time, the mobility market may take off with help from US government incentives for hydrogen production and the growing realization that EVs might not provide a silver-bullet solution for decarbonizing transport, Alexander adds. However, hydrogen project developers targeting the mobility market are still competing with the cost of diesel, the current “bogey” for the hydrogen heavy mobility space, Alexander says.

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