A manufacturing plant is under construction in Hallam, not far south of Lincoln, that could change the world.
Through a process of burning a byproduct made at that manufacturing plant, nearby Sheldon Power Station can eliminate coal as a fuel source for one of its generating units.
The environmental results of burning hydrogen? Heat and water vapor. Thus, Sheldon Station will be creating energy through a process that adds no carbon and no greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere of any kind.
And it’s all being made possible through a partnership between California-based startup Monolith Materials and your local utility right down the street here in Columbus: Nebraska Public Power District.
Economic development has been a major focus of NPPD for several decades now. A chance encounter between entrepreneurs from Monolith Materials and a member of NPPD's economic development team at an industry trade show a few years ago set it all into motion.
“From an economic development perspective, for a technology advancement perspective, we’ve got a neat thing going on down here at Monolith,” NPPD CEO Pat Pope said. “This is something that’s going to bear fruit for a long time.”
Through a process that involves an electric current, natural gas can be broken down on an elemental level. One result is hydrogen. That hydrogen will then be burned as fuel at Sheldon Station, a power plant owned and operated by NPPD.
Unlike coal, which accounts for more than half of the fuel used to power electricity in Nebraska, hydrogen is completely free of greenhouse gas emissions.
One of the boilers at Sheldon Station will be converted to burn hydrogen, reducing the amount of carbon the plant produces by about a million tons each year.
Pope met for an interview in January at his office in the NPPD building on 15th Street. The amount of pride he had for the project was obvious.
Not long ago, Monolith Materials discovered the process for breaking down natural gas into hydrogen and something else, what Monolith is most interested in, carbon black.
Carbon black is a chemical used as a raw material in the making of a variety of products. Tires, plastics and batteries are some of the major consumers of carbon black.
Most carbon black is made from the burning of heavy petroleum, a process that, on description alone, sounds extremely dirty.
And it is. The soot left over after the oil is burned is where carbon black comes from.
Once the new plant is up and running, Monolith will be operating a much cleaner process. It will take its electricity from NPPD, which will then, in return, buy back the hydrogen from Monolith.
“This is an example of the next-generation of American innovation and energy production that will also have a positive economic impact in Nebraska, and deliver clean and affordable energy to the state," Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts said in an NPPD press release when the project was announced in 2015.
"This private business-led solution has the potential to support 600 new jobs and hundreds of millions of new capital investment in the state of Nebraska."
Monolith's manufacturing plant broke ground in October of 2016 and is expected to be mechanically complete some time this year.
Last fall, the NPPD Board of Directors approved agreements for a preliminary boiler design and to assist NPPD in the engineering work required to convert Sheldon Station to burn Hydrogen.
“This is the first phase of the boiler conversion project,” said NPPD Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Tom Kent in a press release. “This initial work will lead to a solid foundation for NPPD as we progress through the process of converting the boiler. Eventually, Unit 2 will be the largest boiler in the country to burn hydrogen to generate electricity.”
The amount of electricity Monolith will use is comparable to the entire city of Lincoln. No other business will need as much electricity provided by NPPD as Monolith.
It’s perhaps, up to now, the most consequential result of how NPPD makes economic development a major focus of how it does business.
“There’s a real partnership between NPPD, Loup and 23 other rural power district to promote economic development,” Pope said. “The reason we do that is because it’s out-state Nebraska.”
Out-state Nebraska is considered everything, not Omaha or Lincoln. Those metropolitan areas have an advantage over everywhere else in the state because of the availability of large workforces as well as a large number of businesses and industries.
“We have a view that we’re it. We have to do everything we can to promote economic development in out-state Nebraska, otherwise, you forfeit everything to Omaha and Lincoln,” Pope said. “They’re big, and they have big economic development groups and they have big advantages to offer companies that want to come in.”
Economic development has been a goal of local utilities since right after World War II, according to Pope.
The large number of soldiers returning to civilian life meant opportunities abounded for states, counties and communities to build and expand by attracting available workers.
Utilities, in the sense of selling more kilowatts, wanted those workers settling down near their power plants and buying their electricity.
Fast forward to today and NPPD has made economic development a priority in terms of growing not only its customer base but more importantly the cities and towns in which it operates.
NPPD recognized a need for economic development outside of Nebraska’s two metropolitan areas and stepped in as the advocate for the little guy, so to speak.
“They’re not going to be able to send somebody to something like a data center convention where there are developers looking to site a data center or a plastics convention,” Pope said. “There are all sorts of gatherings where you have industries looking to expand, they’re looking for sites and they’re looking for incentives.
“Many of the small communities in out-state Nebraska, they can’t afford to send anybody to that. We’re their representative. We’re there to help them land those prospects so they can continue to have a high level of economic activity in their communities, have good-paying jobs and support the school system.”
The Hallam project was one harvested from one such trade show.
Pope has an investigator, or rock-turner-over, as he calls him, that operates outside of the corporate structure whose only duty is to find such projects for economic development.
NPPD also has an "Eco-Devo" department, as it's referred to, that partners with communities across Nebraska to seek out businesses wishing to expand or needing a location to start.
Eco-Devo attends trade shows and conventions on behalf of Nebraska towns, provides information in packets and brochures that might rightly be called a “Catalog of Communities” and organizes tours and trips to possible Nebraska locations.
And it’s all headquartered in Columbus.
“Yeah, we sell more kilowatt hours, but it’s good for enhancing life in Nebraska. That’s one of our key missions,” Pope said. “It’s a big deal for us.”
Another project that could be coming to Nebraska has the potential to revolutionize the cruise line industry.
Large, sea-going vessels operated by such companies as Royal Caribbean, Carnival and Norwegian utilize what’s known as bunker fuel. Bunker fuel is a residual oil left over after gasoline, diesel and other sources of energy provided by the combination of hydrogen and carbon are extracted from crude oil during the refining process.
Like burning petroleum for carbon black, it’s not the cleanest way to power a ship.
A partnership with a company in Finland that builds the giant engines used on cruise ships could potentially provide one such engine to Hallam where testing can be done on methanol.
NPPD and the technology group Wartsila, Finland’s Lappeenranta University of Technology signed a memorandum of understanding for a study exploring the use of alternative fuels in a business case.
One of these alternative fuels is methanol.
Methanol can be produced from the hydrogen NPPD takes from Monolith and adding carbon dioxide.
Methanol burns much cleaner and more efficiently than bunker fuel.
Whatever that could mean for more economic development in Nebraska, NPPD will be right in the middle of it all.
“Our objective is to make that process as seamless as possible for those folks that want to come here to Nebraska,” Pope said.
“It’s kind of like college football right now. If you’re not building a new stadium or installing new, fancy facilities, practice fields, state of the art locker rooms, things like that, you’re not going to get the recruits.
“If you don’t do these kinds of things in your state, whether it’s economic development incentives pushed by the governor or the legislature, if you don’t have ready-to-go industrial parks where folks can build and get up and running and if you don’t have a trained and available workforce, they look elsewhere.”
Nate Tenopir is the sports editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at email@example.com.