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Renewed excitement for wind-powered green ammonia production

Portrait of Lissa Pawlisch, author of this blog

Lissa Pawlisch

This blog was written by Lissa Pawlisch, the Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTs) Director for the University of Minnesota Extension’s Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships. Over the past fifteen years she has guided CERTs—a unique program partnership designed to connect individuals and communities to the resources they need to identify and implement community scale clean energy projects. Lissa is passionate about working directly with communities to help them understand their energy options, the values that drive their projects, how technologies and practices can be deployed, and how to harness community capacity to affect change. 

This blog is related to a grant awarded as a result of IonE’s Agriculture Climate Solutions Workshop

 

I first learned about hydrogen as an energy carrier over 20 years ago when folks were talking about hydrogen fuel cell cars. I had a professor who was rather dismissive of the concept, but there was real development happening in Iceland, and it seemed to me this was a promising technology. It was all the more exciting because it could be a way to use Minnesota’s local renewable energy resources to power our cars. One could imagine wind turbines in every community set up to power electrolysis (a process that would split water into hydrogen and oxygen) to produce hydrogen for local cars. However, it didn’t really take off. 

But then, a project team at the West Central Research and Outreach Center (WCROC) in Morris started a wind-to-hydrogen-to-ammonia project in 2007. It proved that wind could be used to produce fertilizer! Imagine: wind turbines in every county, affiliated with the local farm cooperative and owned by local farmers, locally producing fertilizer for their own fields! The project got up and running and showed it was possible, but the model didn’t come to fruition in subsequent years. 

Fast forward a decade: The folks at the WCROC have kept plugging along and in 2020, they started to get more traction and attention. Excitement was building, though maybe only in some niche “energy nerd” circles. It was at that point that my colleague, Fritz Ebinger, got together with a few folks through a series of conversations (the Agriculture Climate Solutions Workshop), hosted by the Institute on the Environment, about greenhouse gas emissions in the agriculture sector. The team proposed to look at scenarios for what it might take to make wind-to-green ammonia production viable in a distributed, community-scale fashion.

Arrive at today: Since I would consider myself an energy nerd, my exposure to media is slightly skewed, though I would still be surprised if you readers out there have not heard something about hydrogen or green hydrogen in the past year. Even in just the past six months, references to the new clean hydrogen incentives have been everywhere in discussions of the Inflation Reduction Act

It’s these incentives that make me think that perhaps we finally have what it takes to bring green hydrogen and green ammonia for energy—and fertilizer—prime time. The economic analysis conducted by Luca Zullo of the Agricultural Utilization and Research Institute (AURI) as part of this wind-to-green-ammonia project supports that assessment. 

Here in Minnesota, using renewable energy to produce green ammonia in distributed facilities could offer multiple benefits:

  1. Because agricultural areas of Minnesota are also rich in wind energy, a key agricultural input could be produced locally, perhaps freeing up areas of congestion on the grid to use local energy resources that are otherwise curtailed,providing economic benefits to Minnesota’s rural communities.
  2. Colocation of green ammonia facilities with ethanol production facilities would enable the use of the CO2 (a waste product from ethanol production), in combination with the green ammonia, to create urea, a preferred fertilizer.
  3. Our agricultural sector would reduce its dependence on fossil fuels (and accompanying emissions), while also becoming less vulnerable to external shocks and supply chain issues. 

The potential of green ammonia extends beyond its current use as fertilizer. Ongoing research at the WCROC and elsewhere suggests possible uses of ammonia as a carbon-free fuel for engines (such as tractors), and thermal applications (like grain drying). In addition, because ammonia (NH3) costs less to store and transport than pure hydrogen (H2), it has potential applications as a hydrogen carrier (such as for use in fuel cells). The possible applications for ammonia as energy storage are thus wide-ranging: transportation, mining, home and commercial heating, maritime applications, and non-wires solutions to local supply challenges. 

This flexibility of ammonia uses—as fertilizer and as energy storage medium—presents a shared opportunity for the electric and agricultural industries. If a viable business model is developed for the distributed production of green ammonia for fertilizer, it has the potential to support resilience in Minnesota’s agricultural sector and rural communities, while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing efficiency in the energy sector. 

I think it might be time to get excited again!

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