NextEra Energy is closing its last coal-fired power unit and investing in its first green hydrogen facility.
Through its Florida Power & Light utility, NextEra will propose a $65 million pilot in the Sunshine State that will use a 20-megawatt electrolyzer to produce 100 percent green hydrogen from solar power, the company revealed on Friday.
The project, which could be online by 2023 if it receives approval from state regulators, would represent the first step into green hydrogen for NextEra Energy, by far the largest developer and operator of wind, solar and battery plants in North America.
“We’re really excited about hydrogen, in particular when we think about getting not to a net-zero emissions profile but actually to a zero-emissions carbon profile,” NextEra Energy CFO Rebecca Kujawa said on Friday's earnings call.
“When we looked at this five or 10 years ago and thought about what it would take to get to true zero emissions, we were worried it was extraordinarily expensive for customers,” Kujawa said.
“What makes us really excited about hydrogen — particularly in the 2030 and beyond timeframe — is the potential to supplement a significant deployment of renewables [and energy storage]. That last amount of emissions you’d take out of the system to get down to zero could be most economically served by hydrogen.”
Green hydrogen plans taking off around the world
Although still in its infancy as a market, the concept of green hydrogen is rapidly catching on globally as a potentially viable way to fully decarbonize energy systems, taking them beyond where simple renewable power generation alone can go even at very high penetrations.
The green hydrogen produced by Florida Power & Light’s electrolyzers would be used to replace a portion of the natural gas that’s consumed by the turbines at FPL's existing 1.75-gigawatt Okeechobee gas-fired plant, Kujawa said. The electricity will come from solar power that would otherwise have been "clipped," or gone unused.
If the hydrogen economy scales up and green hydrogen becomes economic, Florida Power & Light would likely retrofit some of its gas facilities to run wholly or partially on hydrogen, Kujawa said.
Most of the vast quantities of hydrogen produced globally today use fossil fuels as a feedstock, generating substantial emissions in the process. In contrast, green hydrogen is made using renewables to power the electrolysis of water, throwing off no CO2 emissions.
Whichever way it's produced, hydrogen can be used for a variety of purposes, from swapping in for natural gas in thermal power plants to powering fuel cells used to move cars and ships. (For more background, read GTM's green hydrogen explainer.)
The EU recently set a target of installing 40 gigawatts of electrolyzers within its borders by 2030 to produce green hydrogen, as it charts a path to net-zero.
Air Products, the world’s leading hydrogen producer, recently announced a massive green hydrogen plant to be built in Saudi Arabia, powered by 4 gigawatts of wind and solar. And last week California-based fuel-cell maker Bloom Energy sent its shares soaring by announcing its launch into the commercial hydrogen market.
For NextEra, hydrogen represents not only an opportunity to help decarbonize its FPL utility but also a potential new market for the wind and solar power it generates across North America.
NextEra will start with the same “toe in the water” approach it took with solar and batteries, Kujawa said. “While the investments are expected to be small in the context of our overall capital program, we are excited about the technology’s long-term potential, which should further support future demand for low-cost renewables as well as accelerating the decarbonization of transportation fuel and industrial feedstocks.”
Florida Power & Light’s push into green hydrogen comes just weeks after the utility announced it plans to exit its 847-megawatt portion of Georgia’s Plant Scherer, the largest operating coal-fired power plant in the U.S. — and the last remaining coal unit in NextEra’s portfolio.
CEO Robo's thoughts on the election
NextEra CEO Jim Robo was asked on the earnings call what impact could come from November's election, with Joe Biden pledging to push policies aimed at fully decarbonizing the U.S. power supply by 2035 and the Democratic platform promising a near-term surge of renewables.
NextEra will be "positioned really well regardless of who wins in November," Robo said.
"You can remember back close to four years ago ... there was some turmoil around our stock when President Trump was elected. We've managed to completely be fine under this administration in terms of being able to continue to grow our renewable business, because you know: it's all about economics."
"The time for renewables is now and that kind of transcends politics, frankly," Robo said. "Obviously, we watch [political outcomes] closely. We think good clean energy policy is important and the right policy for America in the future."