Orlando utility to launch $9 million hydrogen system and more than double solar energy
Orlando’s electric utility is poised to develop a nation-leading, hydrogen system for generating electricity and, in a related, green-energy initiative, more than double its reliance on solar power.
The hydrogen system, including machinery to produce, store and utilize the gas to make electricity, is being financed by several partners, including the U.S. Department of Energy with a $4 million grant, for a total investment of cash, material and time worth $9 million.
The Orlando Utility Commission’s solar-energy expansion would entail two sites of 500 to 600 acres each in Osceola County. Each plant would be capable of producing as much as 74.5 megawatts of electricity, or enough to meet the demand of about 13,500 homes.
As is typical with publicly owned utilities, the two solar plants would be privately owned, with OUC purchasing a guaranteed amount of electricity for 20 years estimated to cost more than $200 million. Rates would not change because of the new solar plants, utility officials said.
“This will actually put OUC as the number one utility in Florida on a solar-watts per customer basis,” said Linda Ferrone, the utility’s chief customer officer.
The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, an environmental group advocating for greater reliance of renewable energy, published its “Solar in the Southeast” last year. The report, which includes solar power expected to come online through the end of 2022, characterizes OUC as gaining notable momentum in Florida.
Adding the two 74.5 megawatt plants to OUC’s standing in the 2018-2022 report would boost the utility to the top spot in the state. But one of those new plants is slated to start up Dec. 31, 2022, and the other Dec. 31, 2023, putting both beyond the report’s window.
“They certainly are on the path to the top spot,” said the group’s solar-program director, Bryan Jacob. However, he said, other utilities are likely to have additional solar on tap after 2022.
“This is an interesting competition we are seeing among utilities,” Jacob said. “It’s a good thing for Florida."
The hydrogen system and the solar expansion are closely aligned, OUC officials said.
As the city and its utility are pursuing goals to end reliance on coal and natural gas by 2050, greater use of solar energy poses the challenge of where to get electricity after the sun sets each day.
Lithium-ion batteries, like those in phones and other devices but far larger, are the industry’s leading solution.
OUC’s deal for two, new solar plants includes two batteries that combined will be able provide one megawatt of power for 10 hours.
The hydrogen system would perform somewhat like a battery, supplying OUC’s power grid with electricity when output from solar plants drops off because of clouds or sunset.
The key difference, according to OUC officials, would be that a hydrogen system might be able to supply electricity on a scale of weeks rather than hours as with batteries.
Few utilities in the U.S. have taken serious steps toward such hydrogen systems, but Europeans are embracing them, said Hector Maza, vice president for business development at Giner ELX, a hydrogen technologies company in Massachusetts that is partnering with OUC.
“A lot of utilities in the U.S. are looking but nobody is putting their money where their mouth is,” Maza said. “Orlando Utilities Commission is getting ahead of everybody.”
Nearly all hydrogen used for industrial purposes is extracted from natural gas in a process the produces carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas.
The system to be installed at OUC’s Gardenia Operations Center will have a Giner component called an electrolyzer that -- using electricity from solar-energy plants -- extracts hydrogen and oxygen from water.
Another participant, OneH2, will install tanks and plumbing. General Motors will install a fuel cell, a component that consumes hydrogen to produce electricity.
Also involved in the project is the University of Central Florida’s Florida Solar Energy Center.
Ultimately, OUC will take ownership of nearly $5.5 million worth of hydrogen-system equipment.
Utility officials said it will take about three years to bring the system to operational status able to provide about a quarter of a megawatt of electricity.
OUC will test the potential of hydrogen as both a way to supply the city with electricity and to power vehicles, pumps and other equipment.
The hydrogen system and solar expansion are to be reviewed Tuesday by the utility’s commission.
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