BURLINGTON — GlobalFoundries plans to produce and use “green hydrogen” to heat its manufacturing plant in Essex Junction, working with Vermont Gas Systems and the University of Vermont to pilot a fuel source that could be adopted more widely across the state.
Green hydrogen gets its moniker because the gas is extracted without producing new carbon emissions. Electricity from renewable sources, such as wind or solar, is used to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen, a process that’s called electrolysis.
Most hydrogen used for fuel today is extracted from fossil fuels, generating excess carbon emissions. This gas is known as “gray” or “blue” hydrogen.
GlobalFoundries plans to use green hydrogen to displace some of the gas in the existing natural gas lines at its “Fab 9” campus. If the pilot succeeds, the company then wants to incorporate green hydrogen into its chip manufacturing process.
The project, called the Vermont Green Hydrogen Partnership, was announced at a press conference Thursday at the University of Vermont. It’s the first of its kind in the state, representatives from GlobalFoundries and Vermont Gas Systems said.
“Green hydrogen is a key strategy in diversifying our fuel supply with renewable options,” said Neale Lunderville, president and CEO of Vermont Gas Systems. “This project will demonstrate the value of renewable fuel in high-tech manufacturing, which is a critical element of fighting climate change.”
One challenge in producing green hydrogen is its cost. Currently, green hydrogen is 2 to 3 times more expensive to produce than hydrogen from fossil fuels, according to a December 2020 report from the International Renewable Energy Agency.
Vermont Gas Systems plans to fund the project, Lunderville said, though organizers have not finalized the cost. Partnering with UVM on the project could help organizers secure federal grants and offer opportunities for students, he said.
“We know from our experience with all types of renewable energy, costs start high, and then they go down,” Lunderville said.
Construction is slated to begin in 2023, provided regulatory approval is granted by then.
Lunderville said expanding green hydrogen production could help Vermont Gas Systems meet its commitment to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. For instance, he said, the company could use the fuel to displace existing natural gas throughout its network.
And Vermont Gas Systems could one day use its network to store excess renewable electricity as green hydrogen, then convert it back into electricity when needed, Lunderville said.
8% of Vermont’s electricity
The pilot project comes amid GlobalFoundries’ proposal to make Fab 9 an independent energy utility, buying energy from the regional wholesale market rather than Green Mountain Power. That would reduce its electricity costs, the company has said.
At the same time, environmentalists contend this could allow the multibillion-dollar company to shirk its responsibility in helping the state reduce greenhouse gas emissions as required by the 2020 Global Warming Solutions Act.
GlobalFoundries, headquartered in Malta, New York, has said it uses 8% of Vermont’s electricity — more than the city of Burlington. Based on estimates from Renewable Energy Vermont, a clean energy advocacy organization, the company’s manufacturing processes contribute to 3% of Vermont’s greenhouse gas emissions.
In response to a question Thursday, Kenneth McAvey, vice president and general manager of Fab 9 for GlobalFoundries, said the green hydrogen project demonstrates the company’s commitment to reducing its carbon emissions at the facility.
The money saved by making Fab 9 an independent utility would allow GlobalFoundries to further invest in projects such as green hydrogen production, he said.
“Our ongoing initiatives will be well organized and focused on putting our state in the forefront of green energy innovation,” McAvey said.
Thursday’s press conference also included a cameo from U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
In pre-recorded remarks, Leahy congratulated the organizations involved in the project and said he would help bring it to the attention of the U.S. Department of Energy.
Disclosure: Neale Lunderville is a board member of the Vermont Journalism Trust, parent organization of VTDigger.