The dirty source of the world’s first clean-hydrogen power plant

A Venice, Italy power plant made headlines this week as the first in the world fueled exclusively by hydrogen, and rightly so. But most of the news organizations–including the Associated Press and The New York Times–that rewrote the press release from Enel, Italy’s largest electricity producer, barely noted the source of the plant’s hydrogen: petrochemical plants that manufacture plastics.
And there are no plastics in Ecotopia. Venice’s emission-free power is a byproduct, essentially, of the main ingredients of plastic shopping bags, synthetic rubber, and polyvinyl chloride (PVC), also known as “the poisonous plastic.”
The Enel plant receives its hydrogen from an adjacent ethylene cracker operated by Polimeri Europa. Ethylene crackers mix hydrocarbons with steam and heat to produce ethylene, an organic hydrocarbon that serves, among other things, as an ingredient in plastic bags; butadiene, an ingredient in synthetic rubber; and styrenics, used in such products as styrofoam and PVC. The Enel plant also receives hydrogen from a Syndial PVC plant. All are located in Porto Marghera, a notoriously polluted industrial park on the mainland side of the Venice Lagoon.
Friends of the plastics industry will be quick to point out the better accomplishments of plastics, like life-saving medical devices and the replacement of even more energy intensive forms of packaging. And perhaps using a byproduct of plastics to produce clean energy is like finding the silver lining in a dark cloud. But the great accomplishment of the Venice plant, finding that cheap hydrogen, leaves it dependent on an industry that pollutes.
The petrochemical plants previously used the surplus hydrogen to produce heat for their own operations.
Hydrogen power plants are just over the horizon in the United States. Jetstream Wind is building one now in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico that will use solar and wind power to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen will be burned to produce energy. When burned, it recombines with oxygen to produce water vapor without producing carbon dioxide. That’s why hydrogen is considered clean.
“Basically, it’s a scaled-up model of eighth-grade science,” Jetstream CEO Henry Herman told the Associated Press. “In eighth grade we took DC batteries, ran cables into water and produced hydrogen gas. All we’re doing is utilizing that on a much larger scale.”
But the energy produced at that plant will cost up to four times the amount that energy now costs in Truth or Consequences, according to the AP. Those numbers should improve over time, as the wind and solar facilities pay for themselves, but this strategy leaves hydrogen produced by renewables at a disadvantage compared to the less clean Italian model.
Hydrogen power from polluting industry: green or not green?

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