Using Berkeley Pit water to power Los Angeles? It's actually being talked about

Using Berkeley Pit water to power Los Angeles? It's actually being talked about

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Using Berkeley Pit water to help power Los Angeles with renewable energy?

A global leader in power systems is talking with state and local officials about doing just that.

Mitsubishi Hitachi Power System America Inc. has met with Montana Resources, Atlantic Richfield, NorthWestern Energy and Butte-Silver Bow officials in recent months. Last week, the company made a presentation to the Governor’s Council on Climate Solutions.

The vision they set out is massive — a plan that would go a long way toward decarbonizing the power grid in the West.

As part of that, the company has discussed taking treated water — basically, Berkeley Pit water after it has been through water-treatment and polishing plants — and building a new plant in Butte that would electrolyze the water, extracting the hydrogen. The only byproducts of that process would be oxygen and water vapor.

The hydrogen would then be sent via a 450-mile pipeline to Delta, Utah, where it would be stored in massive salt caverns — literally across the street from the massive coal-fired Intermountain Power Plant, operated by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

Los Angeles is under a mandate to dump coal as an energy source. The Intermountain plant produces nearly one-fifth of the city’s electricity.

The DWP has pledged to close the current coal-fired plant by 2025, replacing it with a plant that uses 70 percent natural gas and 30 percent hydrogen. Two weeks ago, DWP executives told the agency’s board that over the next two decades, that ratio would continue to shift toward hydrogen until 2045, when the plant would run on 100 percent renewably sourced hydrogen.

According to a story in the Los Angeles Times, DWP General Manager Marty Adams told the board, “We will do everything we can to accelerate this.”

The global market, said that Los Angeles Times article, for renewable or “green” hydrogen — generated by using renewable energy to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen in a process called electrolysis — is small but growing.

The market for renewable hydrogen isn’t just power plants. Eventually, hydrogen could fuel heavy industry and even automobiles. Costs of producing it are expected to drop rapidly, fueling the kind of development Mitsubishi Hitachi (MHPS) is considering in Butte.

“I can’t say too much … we did have one meeting” a little over a month ago, said Karen Byrnes, Butte-Silver Bow’s economic development director. “It’s extremely interesting, very exciting, particularly because of this company, which is a global leader. We are very interested to talk more.”

Jon Sesso, Butte-Silver Bow’s Superfund coordinator, said the county and MHPS have discussed locating the electrolyzing plant at the Montana Connections industrial park. At least some of the infrastructure needed to bring large volumes of water from the polishing plant to the industrial park is already in place, he said.

“It’s impressive that a company of this size and investment capability is as serious about this as they appear to be,” he said.

“This project is on a scale that is not necessarily common in Montana,” Sesso said. "They came and recognized that we have a source of water, and that we would also have a good spot for them to build a plant.

“Any way you look at it, this could be a big win,” Sesso said. “Talk about lemons to lemonade — making renewable energy from Berkeley Pit water is a heck of a concept with a lot of merit.

“We hope next steps are imminent.”

Gov. Steve Bullock "met briefly with Mitsubishi Hitachi Systems for the first time last week ahead of the group’s participation on a panel at the Climate Solutions Council meeting on the topic of innovation and the deployment of new technologies that can reduce emissions and prepare the state for climate impacts," Bullock's spokesperson, Marissa Perry, said. "The brief meeting offered a chance for the governor to learn about Mitsubishi Hitachi’s efforts to develop a renewable hydrogen energy storage project that would involve a mix of generation, transmission and storage facilities in Utah, Idaho and Montana.

"While in early stages of conceptual development, the project offers a potentially significant regional solution to energy storage that can complement greater expansion of renewable resources across the West."

Mark Thompson of Montana Resources also called the project “an exciting possibility,” but cautioned that “there are lots of questions that have to be answered and a lot of steps that would need to be taken before it became reality.”

He said MR’s most recent conversation with MHPS was “a couple of months ago.”

Both Thompson and Sesso said there have been no shortage of schemes to take advantage of Berkeley Pit water over the years, but what separates this one is the stature of the company.

Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems competes globally with companies like General Electric and Siemens on large power plants.

The 150-year-old company has 21,000 employees and 57 companies within the overall group. It has booked more than $20 billion in orders for 2020, and its goal is to become the global leader in power generation.

After initially preparing to answer about a dozen questions about the project from The Montana Standard, a Mitsubishi Hitachi Power System America spokesperson said last week the company had decided not to issue any comments or answer questions because the project is in such preliminary stages.

But here is a look at what we know about the various pieces of the puzzle:

Intermountain Power Plant

The Delta, Utah, plant is owned by the Intermountain Power Agency, a cooperative comprised of 23 municipalities in Utah and six in California, and operated by the Los Angeles Department of Power and Water.

One of the largest power plants in the country, its production capacity, as currently equipped, is 1,900 megawatts. The first unit was built in 1981 and the second in 1987, at a cost for both of $4.5 billion. The plant was initially designed for four units, but only two were built. A third unit was projected to be added in 2012 but Los Angeles canceled it because of carbon concerns, prompting a lawsuit from the power agency.

ACES (Advanced Clean Energy Storage)

Over the past 50 years, Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems has been developing “significant expertise” in designing turbines that can operate with fuels with from 5 to 90 percent hydrogen content. Often, these fuels have been refinery off-gas, blast-furnace gas and syngas produced from gasification.

The company says it is the “world leader in hydrogen combustion technology.”

The ACES project in Utah pairs that expertise with salt-dome storage, something usually seen in the Gulf Coast area, where three current projects involve hydrogen storage in salt domes. (Many other such caverns contain hydrocarbons, like the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which consists of 570 million barrels of crude stored in salt domes along the Gulf Coast.)

The Utah salt-dome formation is enormous. Five current caverns are currently in use in the ACES operation; approximately another 100 are available.

Using this storage for “green” hydrogen would make a project like the renovated Intermountain plant sustainable long-term. Adams, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power general manager, said this month that hydrogen is a key solution in the city’s renewable energy plans.

ACES is projected to be the world’s largest renewable storage project.

MHPS says its technology eventually will lead to the ability to use 100 percent renewable hydrogen as a fuel source, resulting in gas turbines producing electricity “with zero carbon emissions.”

De-carbonizing the Western Grid

State policies across the West vary, but — with the notable exception of Montana — many have ambitious de-carbonizing goals that are moving closer and closer.

For instance, Washington state is aiming for zero coal use by 2025 and zero carbon by 2035. Oregon wants to get to zero coal by 2035 and 50% renewable by 2030.

Idaho is simply aiming at 100 percent “clean energy” by 2035. Nevada, like Oregon, wants to hit the 50 percent renewable mark by 2030 and be carbon free by 2050.

California has mandated 100 percent renewable by 2045, and the city of Los Angeles wants to reach 100 percent clean energy by 2035. So this project fits perfectly into the city’s (and California’s) rigorous self-imposed de-carbonization deadlines.

Despite several efforts in the Legislature in recent years, there are no articulated official policy goals for de-carbonization in Montana. When Bullock created his Council on Climate Solutions, one of its goals was to come up with a plan for net greenhouse gas neutrality by 2035, but that carries no legal weight, and whether the council itself will even survive under Montana’s next governor is uncertain at best.

Nevertheless, the four-unit Colstrip coal-fired power plant is deeply affected by the goals of other states in the West, and a plan like Mitsubishi’s would inevitably have a ripple effect in Montana.

Others have confirmed that NorthWestern Energy met with Mitsubishi representatives. Asked about the potential project, utility spokesperson Jo Dee Black said only, “NorthWestern Energy encourages innovation. If this could result in a capacity source, it may be proposed in the RFP that will be issued by NorthWestern Energy soon.”

Hydrogen pipeline

The hydrogen pipeline is a key step, the way to get the hydrogen that could be produced from Berkeley Pit water to the salt-dome storage in Utah. It’s a 450-mile pipeline, which sounds daunting, but a 310-mile hydrogen pipeline between Texas City, Texas and Lake Charles, Louisiana, is currently in use, so it’s not experimental in nature.

Butte electrolysis plant

Similarly, the process of removing hydrogen from water using electrolysis on a commercial scale is more than half a century old — the first large-scale electrolysis system began operation in 1940 — and the process has become much more efficient in recent years. About 5% of hydrogen gas produced worldwide is created by electrolysis, according to MHPS.

The two primary technologies available on the market are alkaline and proton exchange membrane (PEM) electrolyzers. Alkaline electrolyzers are cheaper in terms of investment (they generally use nickel catalysts), but less efficient; PEM electrolyzers, conversely, are initially more expensive (they generally use expensive platinum-group metal catalysts) but are more efficient and can operate at higher current densities, and can therefore actually become cheaper if the hydrogen production is large enough.

Cost is key to the sustainability of the process. If hydrogen can be produced on a large enough scale, it becomes economically competitive as a fuel for projects like MHPS envisions.

The construction and operation of such a plant would be a significant economic driver for Butte. How many jobs it would provide is not known.

Joe Willauer, Butte Local Development Corp. president, said he is “uncomfortable saying too much” about the potential for such a facility, “because it’s very preliminary, but it’s definitely on our radar.” Like Butte-Silver Bow’s Sesso and Byrnes, he said the attractiveness of such a project for Butte is undeniable, and made all the more interesting by MHPS’ stature.

Berkeley Pit water

The reason the Berkeley Pit water is so attractive in the scenario MHPS lays out is that there are very few places in the West where such a large water right might be for sale — and the recently completed polishing plant and a mandate for perpetual pumping and treatment mean lots of water will be available for a long time.

The current Pit “plumbing” — MR's Horseshoe Bend Treatment Plant and the polishing plant recently built by Atlantic Richfield — is capable of putting out some 10 million gallons a day. The currently operating pilot project is putting about 6 million gallons a day into Silver Bow Creek.

Also, Atlantic Richfield announced in May it was considering a plan to build a new treatment plant because of concerns that Horseshoe Bend could be in the path of a tailings dam failure at Yankee Doodle tailings pond. In concert with that, the company said it is interested in drawing down the level of the water in the Pit by 50 to 150 feet. Those two decisions would make a lot more water available.

Atlantic Richfield did not respond last week to questions about the project.

If the water level in the Pit did drop, for reasons of this project or any other, the what-next possibilities are intriguing, to say the least. Water would continue to flow to the Pit, from groundwater and flooded mine shafts, so pumping will continue in perpetuity. But if the Pit were dewatered, options could include using it for tailings storage, potentially significantly lengthening the life of active mining. And, mining experts say, one of the richest remaining ore bodies on Montana Resources property is the area between the Berkeley and Continental pits. Dewatering could potentially open new areas for mining.

The other intriguing question about a potential electrolysis operation is: Who actually owns the 53 billion gallons of water in the Pit?

MR might make a case that because it controls the source point for the water, the water right would go to them. Also, because it owns the Horseshoe Bend treatment plant, that might give the mining company rights to water from that plant. MR is currently extracting a significant amount of metals from the water being treated.

Ownership of the Pit water could be quite lucrative if a large-scale customer for the water like MHPS were to emerge.

Certainly, in the case of such a project, “the water right situation with the Pit water would have to be sorted out,” MR’s Thompson said Friday.

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