If we build it, will they come?
Since the April Sustainable Energy Conference, these opinion pages offered a series of gently competing views of our North Slope stranded natural gas development projects. These projects have continued with bravado for 40 years, expended more than $1 billion to advance various quasi-state-led dreams, and confidently defied the market and producer’s own lack of interest to finance the projects. Its time to let go of the debate over who’s Letters of Intent were the most hopeful and refocus our efforts on the emerging Pacific clean-energy markets for blue and eventually green hydrogen exported from Alaska in the form of ammonia while developing our carbon capture and sequestration resources.
In the conference, speakers hinted at a startling transition when both current major LNG project leaders mentioned the option of exporting clean hydrogen fuel, in the form of our natural gas converted to liquid “blue” ammonia.
For those not familiar with ammonia, chemically NH3, it’s better known for its nitrogen content and fertilizer use; however, it happens to also be a safe way to transport hydrogen and can be burned as a fuel or converted in to the more familiar H2 gas for fuel cells and power generation. “Blue ammonia” is made from carbon-based energy such as natural gas in a way that captures and sequesters the carbon, such as in the ground, making it a “clean” source of energy. “Green ammonia” is made from carbonless energy sources and considered the preferred long-term “clean” energy, but is not as readily available.
Markets already exist for clean ammonia, such as Japan’s use in blending with coal to reduce the carbon footprint of their power production. In the future, ammonia is expected to be a primary fuel for global marine applications and feedstock for local hydrogen gas supplies. It is important for Alaskans to see that our opportunity is found in the combination of our world-class gas supply and our sequestration capacity.
Together these resources are needed for the emerging markets, and in the future Alaska can also uniquely transition to using our vast wind, tidal, solar and hydro energy resources to make additional green hydrogen and ammonia for continued export as the blue-energy sources are phased out — ending forever the concept of “stranded Alaska energy.”
We should all pay attention to the startling message of the conference keynote speaker, Tony Seba. When asked by the governor about what role Alaskan natural gas will have in the future to meet Asian energy needs, he paused and said, “None.”
Seba went on to explain that in the next 10-15 years, our natural gas will have some remaining legacy uses, but that beyond that time, the world will have moved on to new technologies that are already cheaper to build and operate than just the cost of operating a gas power plant. If you don’t believe Seba, it’s hard to argue with 40 years of trying and spending our scarce public funds.
The hard reality is that even with the war in Ukraine, we cannot supply natural gas to Asian markets in the time frame they need it, 2025-2030, in the gap years before other global projects come online that will be cheaper than our gas. What we can do is see that the demand for clean energy is growing in the north pacific region and transition to meet the emerging market needs, including trade agreements that address the need for access to our carbon sequestration reservoirs for carbon capture.
There are at least four options for exporting “blue” hydrogen from Alaska and at least two globally significant carbon sequestration reservoirs in Alaska. Each of these need attention to keep up with other projects in the world that are already focused on the future energy needs of decarbonized economies.
Alaska has a promising future to continue as an important energy producer and exporter, but its time to wake up from the LNG gas line dreams of “build it and they will come,” and align our efforts with the emerging market demands for clean blue and green hydrogen energy rather than our past hopes for LNG exports.
Ky Holland is chief operating officer of Mighty Pipeline Inc., an Alaska clean hydrogen fuel startup company.
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