Saturday Dec 03, 2022

Here’s why one solar industry veteran is betting big on clean hydrogen – CNBC


Raffi Garabedian, then the CTO of First Solar, speaks during the National Clean Energy Summit in 2017.

Isaac Brekken | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images

Raffi Garabedian spent a dozen years developing solar panel technology at First Solar, a photovoltaics company that currently has a market value around $8 billion. The technologist then went on to co-found a clean hydrogen start-up Electric Hydrogen, which he’s currently building out as its CEO.

Garabedian’s career path may seem surprising. While solar power is almost universally accepted as a clean energy source, hydrogen production is often perceived as a shady corner of the climate space where oil and gas companies are using smoke and mirrors to invent a reason to keep their own infrastructure relevant.

But Garabedian knows all that. He also knows that not all hydrogen is created in the same way. And hydrogen is absolutely essential to life on earth and has tremendous potential to be a linchpin in critical business sectors that will otherwise be hard to decarbonize.

A decade ago, the solar industry was “an arms race” to develop the cheapest and best photovoltaics technology, he told CNBC. “Technologists like me, we were in the hot seat, which is what excites me,” he said. Now, the solar industry is in execution mode instead of quick-innovation mode.

So he asked himself, “What’s the next thing that needs to be done? What’s the biggest impact thing in decarbonization and climate tech that needs to happen? This is the thought process that led me to hydrogen.”

The promise and problems with hydrogen

Hydrogen is already essential in chemical industrial processes, including refining crude oil into useful petroleum products, and for making ammonia-based fertilizer through the Haber-Bosch process, which has helped the world feed itself through massive population growth over the last century.

“Without it, millions of people die,” Garabedian said.

Some purists argue that hydrogen should only be produced and used in chemical processes and to make ammonia, but Garabedian rejects that view.

First, he argues, hydrogen fuel could reduce emissions in some sectors of the economy that would be very hard to decarbonize with electricity, like airplanes and large boats.

For planes, the weight of the energy source is critical and hydrogen is both energy-rich and very light — and generates minimal emissions when burned, unlike jet fuel. For long-haul shipping, freight liners need to be able to travel a long time and a far distance without refueling. Ammonia made from clean hydrogen and compressed hydrogen are both contenders for shipping industry fuel sources, and cleaner burning than the “bunker fuel” most large ships use today.

Hydrogen is also a potential option for long-duration energy storage, which is vital for scaling up solar and wind renewable energy.

A lot of people are focused on battery technology for energy storage, and in fact Garabedian sits on the board of ESS, a battery company looking to develop batteries for utilities to store energy for four to 12 hours. But for ultra-long duration — 100 hours of storage or more — natural gas is the most common solution today.

For ultra-long storage, hydrogen is less efficient than some other clean technologies, like batteries or pumped hydro, but the amount of energy (capacity) you can store is much greater, according to the Energy Storage Association.

With the right technology and infrastructure, solar and wind power could be used to generate hydrogen, which could then …….


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