Raffi Garabedian, then CTO of First Solar, speaks at the National Clean Energy Summit in 2017.
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Raffi Garabedian spent a dozen years developing solar panel technology at First Solar, a photovoltaic company that currently has a market value of around $8 billion. The technologist then co-founded a clean hydrogen start-up electric hydrogen, which he is currently developing as CEO.
Garabedian’s journey may seem surprising. While solar power is almost universally accepted as a clean energy source, hydrogen production is often seen as a shady corner of the climate space where oil and gas companies are using smoke and mirrors to invent a reason to keep their own infrastructure relevant.
But Garabedian knows all this. He also knows that not all hydrogen is created equal. And hydrogen is absolutely essential to life on earth and has enormous potential to be a mainstay in critical business sectors that would otherwise be hard to decarbonize.
A decade ago, the solar industry was in “an arms race” to develop the cheapest and best photovoltaic technology, he told CNBC. “Technologists like me, we were in the hot seat, that’s what excites me,” he said. Now, the solar industry is in execution mode instead of rapid innovation mode.
So he wondered, “What’s the next thing to do?” What is the biggest impact on decarbonization and climate technology? It was the thought process that led me to hydrogen.
Hydrogen is already essential in chemical industrial processes, including the refining of crude oil into useful petroleum products and the manufacture of ammonia-based fertilizers through the Haber-Bosch process, which helped feed the world with to massive population growth over the past century.
“Without it, millions of people die,” Garabedian said.
Some purists argue that hydrogen should only be produced and used in chemical processes and to make ammonia, but Garabedian rejects this view.
First, he argues, hydrogen could reduce emissions in certain sectors of the economy that would be very difficult to decarbonize with electricity, such as airplanes and large boats.
For aircraft, the weight of the power source is critical and hydrogen is both energy-rich and very light – and generates minimal emissions when burned, unlike jet fuel. For long-haul transportation, freight carriers need to be able to travel long and long distances without refueling. Ammonia made from clean hydrogen and compressed hydrogen are both contenders for the shipping industry’s fuel sources and cleaner burning than “bunker fuel” that most large ships use today.
Many people focus on battery technology for energy storage, and in fact Garabedian sits on the board of directors of HSE, a battery company that seeks to develop batteries for utilities to store power for four to 12 hours. But for ultra-long duration – 100 hours of storage or more – natural gas is the most common solution today.
For ultra-long storage, hydrogen is less efficient than some other clean technologies, like batteries or pumped hydro, but the amount of energy (capacity) you can store is much greater, according to the Energy Storage Association.
With the right technology and infrastructure, solar and wind power could be used to generate hydrogen, which could then be stored and burned later when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. It can also be shipped around the world to where energy sources are most needed – hydrogen can be converted to liquid at a super cold temperature and stored and transported in cryogenic tanks on special ships, similarly way that liquefied natural gas is currently moving.
But there is a big caveat to using hydrogen to make the energy sector cleaner.
The cheapest ways to make hydrogen today use natural gas. The process produces carbon dioxide, which contributes to climate change. In addition, the collection and distribution of natural gas inevitably leads to methane emissions. fugitive leaks — and methane is an even more potent and dangerous greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
This so-called “grey” hydrogen and its cousin, “blue” hydrogen, which is produced in the same way but with an attempt to capture and sequester carbon dioxide emissions, are non-starters for Garabedian.
“Fundamentally, I think most oil and gas companies see blue hydrogen as a way to perpetuate their business model,” he said. He doesn’t think they can delay him indefinitely.
“The end of natural gas is near,” he said. “And having been through more than a decade in solar, I have a feeling these transitions can happen a lot faster than the entrenched industry would like to believe.”
The answer, according to Garabedian, is to find a cost-effective way to generate hydrogen without the climate-warming byproducts.
A clean way to generate hydrogen is to use clean energy sources such as solar and wind power to power electrolysis – splitting water, H2O, into hydrogen and oxygen.
Raffi Garabedian during a tour of a hydrogen electrolyzer research lab at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s Energy Systems Integration Facility in Golden, Colorado.
Photo courtesy of National Renewable Energy Laboratory
Electrolysis is expensive today, but Electric Hydrogen aims to solve this problem by building “very dense” electrolyzers to operate inside gigantic, super-efficient power plants that can generate up to 100 megawatts of electricity, where conventional power plants operate at around 5 megawatts.
“The type of plumbing here isn’t cheap — think high-pressure stainless steel like you might see in a chemical plant,” Garadedian told CNBC. Electric Hydrogen’s approach aims to reduce the cost of each plant by minimizing plumbing and other infrastructure costs.
That’s the idea, anyway – Garabedian wouldn’t share details of the chemical technology involved for fear of leaking trade secrets.
It is important to note that this is all in its infancy and the business has no revenue or customers today.
The company is just over two years old. In 2019, David Eaglesham, the first CTO of First Solar, was an entrepreneur-in-residence at Bill Gates’ climate investment fund, Breakthrough Energy Companies, where he was studying how to produce hydrogen at a lower cost. Eaglesham learned that Garabedian was interested in working on new technology and the two decided to work together to start a hydrogen business based on some ideas Eaglesham had in his residence. Two other key players on the team are Derek Warnick, who has spent the past decade and a half working in clean energy finance, and West Dorian, who has 25 years of engineering experience, 15 of them with Tesla.
The company was officially incorporated in December 2019 and was self-funded until March 2021 when Electric Hydrogen raised funds for the first time. In June, the company announced $24 million led by Breakthrough Energy Ventures.
Garabedian knows that success will only come if its solution reduces the cost of energy.
“The key point is the price. These are raw materials. We don’t sell Teslas, which you buy not only because they are clean, but also because [they’re] really fun to drive,” Garabedian said.
The cheapest hydrogen today is gray hydrogen made from natural gas near Henry Hub, Louisiana, where it costs about $1.50 a kilo, according to Garabedian.
“That’s our goal. Our goal is to turn renewable energy into hydrogen at $1.50 a kilo or less, making it an economical alternative to the dirty gray source,” Garabedian said.
If blue hydrogen becomes the industry standard, then the base price should be between $2 and $2.25 per kilo, which “will make it much easier for me to enter the market,” he said. -he declares.
Garabedian learned the hard lesson of economics during his decade in the solar industry.
A dozen years ago, the solar industry was supported by subsidies and regulatory mandates, and around 2015, solar power reached “grid parity,” meaning it costs the same as the wholesale price of electricity produced on the network.
These incremental economic decisions made on a company-by-company, day-by-day basis, will drive the energy transition forward, according to Garabedian.
“It’s the economy that wins. It’s not that people don’t want to do the right thing. But it’s not that people want to do the right thing either. Companies make economic decisions. “