Hydrogen Energy: Pollution or Solution?

Proponents say a $4 billion power plant proposed for western Kern County is a cutting edge development in clean energy production. Opponents say it will bring more pollution to Kern’s already dirty air and won’t produce as much electricity as developers say.
Twenty three miles west of downtown Bakersfield sits a ranch past its glory. But peek past the overgrown brush and you can see there are big plans for the site – multi-billion-dollar plans to build what developers say will the future of power production.

"I get calls on a weekly basis for tours of the site and we haven't even broken ground," said Tiffany Rau, a spokesperson for the developer, SCS Energy.

The project itself is called Hydrogen Energy California, or HECA for short.

The concept is simple: Use a the abundant resource of coal to make clean energy.

"It's good for the state," Rau said. "It's good for the nation."

Here's the idea: Mix coal and an oil refinery byproduct to create hydrogen gas. That hydrogen will then be burned to generate electricity and, as a byproduct, make fertilizer.

"A lot of people don't realize that California imports about 90 percent of its fertilizer," said Rau.

The revolutionary part is what it would do with its carbon dioxide emissions. The plant would capture that greenhouse gas and send it via pipeline to the nearby Elk Hills oil field to enhance oil recovery and store the gas.

"This is an alternative energy project," Rau said. " … a new way to generate alternative energy, low carbon power."

Construction of the plant will cost $4 billion.

It's a concept fully supported by President Obama.

"If we can develop the technology to capture carbon pollution released by coal, it can create jobs," the President said in 2010 at a meeting of state governors.

That's why the U.S. Department of Energy is promising $400 million for the plant. It's already spent $150 million on the project. It’s one of only three power plants to receive funding nationally.

"This project has global and national attention and significance," said Rau.

But to opponents, that's the fairytale version of the story.

"It's false advertising to say this is clean energy," said Tom Frantz, an almond farmer and environmental activist.

A group called Neighbors of HECA (they pronounce it "Heck-a") says the plant will pollute the air, deplete water supplies and store millions of gallons of lethal chemicals.

"There is so much danger involved," said Chris Romanini, a landowner near the site.

That same fear was expressed by another community when the same developer, SCS Energy, proposed a plant in Linden, New Jersey. It was almost identical to Hydrogen Energy except it planned to store carbon dioxide beneath the ocean floor.

When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie came out against the proposal, SCS Energy cancelled the project and bought HECA, bringing its sales pitch to the small town Tupman, in western Kern County.

"We're exactly a mile-and-a-half away from HECA," said Don VanLue, the self-proclaimed mayor of Tupman.

The proposed site has long been farmland, formerly managed by Sam Akerman.

"It's going to be a big boom for us," Akerman said. "I don't know if you looked around in Buttonwillow or Tupman. It's kind of, I don't want to say a dying town, but it's surely on the decline."

The road sign on the edge of town says Tupman's population is 210.

"School and a post office, that's about it," said VanLue.

It also has high poverty, 21 percent, according to the Employment Development Department.

Developers say HECA – and they pronounce it "Hee-ka" – say the plan will create more than 2,000 construction jobs for four years. HECA says it has an agreement with unions that guarantees these jobs will go to local people.

"It's huge," said John Spaulding, executive secretary of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Kern.

HECA said it will also create 200 full-time jobs for 25 years with an annual payroll of $21 million.

"It's good for Kern County," said Akerman. "It's good for ‘made in America.’"

And it's potentially good for area schools and county budgets. HECA estimates it will pay nearly $30 million annually in property tax which, according to statistics from the Kern County Assessors Office, would make HECA the fourth biggest property taxpayer in Kern County.

"This is going to benefit Taft, Tupman, Buttonwillow, Shafter, Wasco. That's this community," said Joe Alvidrez, a Buttonwillow activist and HECA supporter.

Developers estimate HECA will generate 300 megawatts of electricity. But critics say it will use most, if not all, of that electricity on itself and its activities in Elk Hills, an analysis with which HECA vehemently disagrees.

According to the California Energy Commission, during its peak power production, only 51 megawatts will make it to the grid for public use. During maximum fertilizer production, the plant it will actually use 61 megawatts of power, taking away enough energy to power 33,000 homes.

"A tremendous amount of energy is going into this plant, very little is coming out," said Frantz, the farmer and activist.

That's why opponents like Tom Frantz say building the plant isn't worth it especially when it comes to emissions.

"When you have the worst air quality in the nation, a coal plant is not a good fit," said Brad Bittleston, a rancher near the HECA site.

While the plant will capture carbon dioxide, it still will release 500 tons of other pollutants into the air each year, a notion that is especially scary to the unofficial mayor of Tupman.

"The prevailing wind 99 percent of the time is right out of that direction," said VanLue. "That's northwest southwest to Tupman, one and a half miles."

Directly in that path is Elk Hills Elementary School where 200 children attend classes.

"We don't need it here in the southern San Joaquin Valley where the air is the dirtiest that it can get," said Frantz.

But is HECA any more dirty than other fossil fueled power plants?

"It is producing emissions at the same rate as a natural gas power plant," said Dave Warner, director of permit services for the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.

That is true if you use HECA's megawatt estimates. But if you base it on the California Energy Commission's numbers, the plant would be one of the dirtiest in Kern County, surpassed only by three wood-burning facilities.

That's why the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District said it required HECA to make a one-time payment of $9 million to invest in pollution reduction projects in the area.

"We've promised to preferentially use it in Kern County and the South Valley," said Warner of the air district. But he cautioned the money could be spent elsewhere in the Valley.

To further mitigate its emissions, HECA also bought air credits. Air credits are issued to companies that invest in modern, clean energy equipment. The clean company can then sell the credits to companies whose pollution levels are too high. The system is aimed at rewarding clean-energy investment while punishing polluters.

HECA bought $16 million worth of credits from companies in Bakersfield and Kingsburg, enough to offset all of its emissions.

"They're actually providing more reductions than they are creating in increases," said Warner.

But the problem for opponents is the majority of these air credits were earned 20 to 30 years ago meaning the emission reductions actually happened in 1990's, 1980's.

"If the credits weren't there the economic growth would not be there," said Warner.

That is why when HECA met all the district's requirements last fall, the district gave HECA a stamp of approval.

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