Hydrogen State

UM College of Technology dean Paul Williamson wants to turn Montana into the first hydrogen economy in the nation. But is the state ready to take its first major step into new technology since the dawn of mining?



The car stereo computer responds to your voice command as you say, “Stereo, Oldies, Prince, 1999.” Seconds later, as you cruise south on Higgins Street in Missoula, the speakers blare: “I was dreaming when I wrote this, forgive me if it goes astray…”

It’s a lazy summer’s day and the year is 2033. You pass dozens of cars and trucks, but the street is quiet, save for Prince’s feminine vocals. Without an internal combustion engine, your hydrogen-fueled vehicle is mechanized stealth. You might be able to sneak up on someone, if it weren’t for the tires squeaking on the pavement. You roll down your window and take in a deep breath. The air tastes clean; you think back to the old days when the smell of exhaust greeted you at each stoplight, when power plants sent toxins into the air, rather than oxygen and water vapor. Passing over the Higgins Bridge, you look to the “M” of Mount Sentinel and notice the summer breeze spinning the propellers of the university’s windmills, which are generating the charge necessary to activate electrolysis, which separates hydrogen and oxygen from water. You know that the hydrogen feeds into the university’s power grid, lights the classrooms, and powers the buildings with electric heat or air conditioning, depending on the temperature.

After a long day, you pull into your garage, the roof of which is covered with solar panels that produce another electrolysis-enacting charge, ushering forth hydrogen power to charge a fuel-cell generator in your home. You step out of your car and plug it into your home’s generator for a fill-up; your house doubles as your gas station. While you’re at work and not using any home appliances, the solar panels are still producing energy, and you sell this energy.

You stop at your mailbox. Inside, there’s a check from the utility—a payment for the excess energy you’ve been feeding back into the grid.

You set the check down on your kitchen table and pick up the phone. You call your cousin, who lives east of Yellowstone. After a brief discussion about the weather, your cousin tells you that the trucks came by today to pick up the hydrogen that he has been storing in his farm’s silo. He still ranches and plants crops, but now his main source of income is the hydrogen fuel he generates from wind, water and solar power. As he describes the trucks, you dig deep into your memory for an image of the propane carriers that you passed on the highway some thirty years before. Your world is cleaner because most energy emissions are limited to oxygen, water and water vapor. Your world is safer because your government no longer needs to befriend Middle East tyrants with oil under their sand. Your world is not a utopia; it remains a capitalist world in which some sink and some swim. Still, your world is better.

This is not the opening chapter to a Ray Bradbury or Kurt Vonnegut novel; it’s a reality that’s already emerging on the horizon. And it all starts with a humble model in the humble office of Paul Williamson, dean of the University of Montana’s College of Technology. The model rests on his windowsill, where the sunlight hits a two-inch by two-inch solar panel. The solar panel creates a charge separating liquid hydrogen and oxygen into separate test tubes. The hydrogen is stored in a fuel cell that powers a small fan. The fan isn’t even large enough to provide a pleasant breeze for a fly, but it works. This is the simplest way of making hydrogen, and Williamson admits it’s not yet “as economical as it needs to be” for use on a mass scale.

But next to the hydrogen-powered fan is another model—a diorama of a Hydrogen “Futures Park”—which Williamson hopes to build in Missoula. The Futures Park would be an entirely hydrogen-powered complex where Montanans could come to learn and be trained in hydrogen production and maintenance, and it’s one of several proposals that will be discussed at Missoula’s first Hydro Forum on April 2, 2003 on the UM campus. Previous Hydro Forums have been held in Boston and San Francisco, but this will be the first such event in a primarily rural state. The forum will draw everyone from Sen. Conrad Burns to representatives from Chevron-Texaco to a pioneer of the hydrogen battery to the public at large.

Given the enormous changes that Williamson envisions growing from the Forum, it’s almost comical to look at his two models—ready for entry in a middle-school science fair—and think: Our whole world is going to change based on these little dioramas you’ve built?

But Williamson is dead serious. He’s excited about the possibilities of hydrogen power in Montana, and now his job is to spread that excitement all across the state.

The Traveling Salesman
The town didn’t have a swimming pool. With a population hovering around 1,200, DeSmet, S.D.’s claim to fame is that it had been the home of Laura Ingalls Wilder, who based six of her Little House on the Prairie books on the town and the surrounding area. It was and is a town where everyone knows everyone else and children go to school with the same group of friends from first grade through high school. The people of DeSmet enjoy a rich quality of life, though they often can’t afford all the material goods they might desire, according to Williamson, who grew up there. As a child, Williamson noticed that DeSmet had an abundance of churches, but no swimming pool, and one day, he decided to do something about that.

Williamson, a scrawny eight-year-old boy at the time, built a lemonade stand with his best friend. They squeezed lemons into a cool, tart drink that the people of DeSmet could enjoy on a hot summer’s day. After raising $7.75, Williamson gave the money to his father, who was on the town council. His father took the money downtown but came back with it later the same day, telling his disappointed son, “Well, we don’t have a swimming pool fund in DeSmet.”

Williamson recalls this story as he speaks to members of the Bitterroot Pachyderm Club at the Frontier Café in Stevensville. He pauses only to adjust his glasses. He wears a suit and tie, the only one in the restaurant not dressed casually. The Pachyderm meeting began with the selling of raffle tickets and the old joke from club president Grant Wheeler about how a liberal is someone who tells you how to spend your money. A tiny gold elephant rests on a table beside a coffeepot. As Williamson tells his story, the Republicans enjoy thick beef stew, occasionally dipping warm biscuits into their bowls. Their first priority appears to be the lunch in front of them, but Williamson is not flustered. He has delivered this talk to groups all across the state of Montana, and he is used to preaching to the unconverted.

Only a year ago, Williamson himself was among the unconverted. Williamson is not a scientist and has engaged in none of his own hydrogen research. But after 30 years in higher education, he has learned to prick up his ears at the sound of a new idea. Williamson initially learned about hydrogen power while getting his doctorate at the University of West Virginia. Upon moving to Montana, he tuned in to a talk radio program that dealt with hydrogen power and put two and two together.

He tells the Pachyderms the story of his lemonade stand not just to establish the bond that he is “good people” from a small town, just like them, but also because the tale serves as a metaphor for Montana’s economic situation.

For Williamson, Montana’s lemons are its abundant natural resources: coal, platinum, water, sun, wind, methane. The lemonade that Williamson would like to see squeezed out of these resources is hydrogen power.

The Pachyderms appear skeptical, which is only natural. For years, they have operated on the principle that environmentally-friendly ideas are bad for business, and Williamson announces that hydrogen is environmentally-friendly right off the bat. He’s energetic in his speech, clearly excited about his subject matter and he’s at risk of coming off as an environmentalist in a crowd where such is often considered a four-letter word. Soon enough, though, Williamson gets to the part of his PowerPoint presentation that details the potential economic benefit of Montana investing in hydrogen power.

“Montana has the most unbelievable opportunity here,” he says. “Right now, we mine 40 million tons of coal a year here…But we sell that for $6.43 a ton, which nets about $250 million a year. Which, for Montana, that’s a pretty good chunk of change. We could take that same amount of coal, and we could make almost two trillion cubic feet of hydrogen…which would sell on the commercial market for $7.4 billion a year. Now I’m not a great economist and I’m not that good at math, but the difference between $250 million and $7.4 billion is substantial.”

The Pachyderms focus all their attention on Williamson from here on in. The beef stew seems less important now.

The Montana Opportunity
Montana needs something. New businesses. New ideas. Something. Almost any legislator dealing with the current budget crunch agrees on this.

Williamson’s idea to reverse the state’s economic woes doesn’t fall in line with Republican moves to cut social spending or raid the Coal Tax Trust fund. It doesn’t fall in line with Democratic suggestions to raise taxes. Williamson’s idea is a new one. He wants Montana to develop the first hydrogen-based economy in the United States of America, and his rationale is based not on desperation. Williamson’s vision is based on the anticipation of future world energy demands.

“We are the only state in the nation that has all the natural resources required to make it a hydrogen state,” he says.

Most importantly, no other state in the U.S. has platinum underneath it. Other states have some of the resources, but none has the complete package as Montana does. Hydrogen can be extracted from Montana’s coal through steam pressure, leaving coal’s pollutants in the coal. It can be extracted from methane, platinum, carbon and biomass through chemical processes, again without releasing pollutants. Solar, wind and water power can be used to trigger electrolysis, which can send hydrogen into fuel cells. Montana has an abundance of all of these resources, so while any one might be singled out as the hydrogen source of the future, says Williamson, Montana is the only state in a position to be able to shift as the market moves.

Jim Ohi, a senior project leader with the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, agrees with Williamson’s assessment.

“I think Montana is fortunate,” Ohi says. “It has a lot of land area and an abundance of conventional and renewable resources, and the idea is to bring all of that together into a coherent approach that would rely on fossil resources for a while but then eventually move toward a renewable resource future.”

For Williamson, the first step in moving toward such a future is securing funding and land for the building of his Missoula Futures Park. For funding, Williamson is looking to federal grants, private businesses and state bonding modeled on the funding of previous Montana aerospace projects.

The bonding idea is being discussed by the Legislature, which is now considering two hydrogen bills, both introduced by House Majority Whip Cindy Younkin (R-Bozeman). One bill, House Joint Resolution 26, merely seeks the Legislature’s support for developing a hydrogen economy in Montana. That bill is important to Williamson so that he can demonstrate state government support when attempting to obtain federal grants. House Bill 377 is more substantive. It seeks bonding to begin construction of the Futures Park. The bill is currently tabled in the House Appropriations Committee, and may have trouble passing, as the Legislature struggles to keep existing programs running, let alone launch new projects. Still, the joint resolution has been met with strong bipartisan support from the Legislature, indicating that the bonding bill might resurface with greater force in the future, should more funding streams become available.

“I don’t think that this particular proposal has a partisan dimension to it at all,” says House Minority Leader Dave Wanzenreid (D-Missoula), one of the bill’s co-sponsors. “If this serves as one more way to diversify our economy without any impact on the environment…it looks to me like this could be one of those so-called win/win situations. More good jobs, more energy independence, less reliance on fossil fuels because of that and a clean environment? Yeah, we need to take a good look at it.”

Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas (R-Stevensville) is also a supporter of developing a statewide hydrogen economy.

“I think there’s hardly anyone who’s been exposed to this idea that doesn’t come away from it excited about it,” Thomas says. “We need to develop value-added products coming out of Montana and hydrogen could be one of those future products.”

The idea of the “value-added product” is a cornerstone of Williamson’s vision. Rather than shipping resources abroad for processing, as the logging industry does, Williamson sees the state producing hydrogen at in-state facilities, thus creating in-state jobs.

If the Legislature, grants and private businesses help Williamson fund the Futures Park (which would cost an estimated $60 million), he is confident that he will be able to lure more businesses and grants into Montana’s hydrogen economy based not only on the state’s resources, but also by graduating a class of students who will be able to take off their caps and gowns and step right into a hydrogen plant uniform.

“We want to create the best-educated hydrogen workforce in the nation,” Williamson says. “That is sellable. If I go out to a business and say, ‘We have the best hydrogen-trained workforce in the nation,’ guess what? We’ll have the only hydrogen-trained workforce in the nation. Because nobody else is doing it.”

Other states, however, are moving ahead with hydrogen production, if not with hydrogen education. Ohio, Hawaii, North Dakota and Florida are all working to develop hydrogen infrastructures. Williamson says that Montana is already behind the curve in developing its hydrogen economy, but he believes the state can pull into the lead if it moves quickly toward developing in-state hydrogen plants and skilled hydrogen workers.

With the university behind him, Williamson plans to establish a UM hydrogen curriculum within the next year, and says “I would think that in three or four years we’ll be able to graduate some people.”

Ultimately, the Futures Park model would be replicated all over the state, says Williamson. He hopes Montana will create an intricate statewide hydrogen infrastructure to link rural communities in an energy distribution program so vast and expansive that the likes of it have not been seen since electricity was first introduced to Montana’s farmers and ranchers.

Moving Forward
Regardless of whether Williamson receives the funding he needs to make his Futures Park a reality, other Montanans are already following his lead. Karen Myer, the chairwoman of the board at Missoula’s Target Range School, a K-8 school on 40th Avenue, is currently seeking a federal grant to help it become the first completely hydrogen-powered school in the U.S.

“With energy rising so much, our natural gas bill used to be about $1,300 a month, but last month it was $2,200. That’s just for gas. With [hydrogen], we’d be making money instead of paying bills.”

Myer explains that the school could make money by sending excess hydrogen power back into a generator and then selling it on the open market. She explains how this would work using an example of a hydrogen-fueled car.

“Say you have a car that is fueled by hydrogen power,” she says. “Just because you turn it off, that doesn’t mean the energy stops. It keeps producing energy. So you could take that, you could plug it into an outlet and then that power could go into a generator area and you could sell that extra power.”

This is similar to what Myer hopes to do at the Target Range School, and fellow Target Range board member George Bailey, who is also assistant to the vice president for research and development at UM, has been making frequent trips to NASA’s Office of Biological and Physical Research to turn this hope, as well as the hope for a Futures Park, into realities.

“They’re very interested in the concept [of a Futures Park],” Bailey says of NASA. “They think it’s a really good idea because part of where this is going is you’re going to need a trained work force not only to develop the next generation of hydrogen fuel cells but also to maintain the ones that are operating cars and buildings. That doesn’t really exist in a big way yet. There’s not another place that I know of that’s proposing to go to a whole hydrogen-powered campus park.” One of the discussed locations for the Futures Park is the vacant land behind the Target Range School.

“Larry Hiller, our head of maintenance at Target Range, is so excited about this also, because number one, it’s less work and less maintenance than electricity and natural gas,” Myer says. “We have a boiler right now that’s about to shut down and it’s so old that you can’t even get parts for it anymore to fix it. And we have two boilers, but I hope that one can hang on until we get all of this done. So we’re looking seriously at doing this two or three years down the road, which is exciting.”

Another group looking into hydrogen is Native Americans on the Dull Knife reservation. They hope to build a series of wind turbines on the hills in order to produce hydrogen with which they can power a community center and other buildings, along with creating hydrogen jobs and technological training for Dull Knife’s young people. The project is in the planning stages.

Further along is UM’s project to derive hydrogen from wind power. Williamson obtained two wind turbines from Montana Tech to create a five megawatt generation plant using wind in the Missoula area (five megawatts is as much energy as the entire University of Montana-Missoula campus uses in one year). The turbines will be installed on campus as soon as the weather allows for the work in the spring.

“So we can generate our own electricity for the university through wind and we can produce hydrogen from that wind power also,” Williamson says, eyes twinkling with the wonder of a child with a chemistry set.

As individual projects move forward, Williamson sees a need to bring all of these groups and their efforts into a single coalition.

“We need to take the individual opportunities that are going on around the state and make it a statewide process so that it has sustainability…If we do that as a state, we’ll have a lot more potential…It’s going to take all of us working together.”

Risky Business
Another group that Williamson foresees getting involved with his hydrogen vision are the state’s agricultural producers.

“We lost 1,000 family farms in this state last year,” Williamson says. “Why did we lose ’em? Because they can’t afford to operate in drought conditions. But the wind doesn’t stop in drought conditions. We could put in hydrogen production farms on ranches and farms all over the state that could produce another source of income for these people and save some of those family farms. They could produce hydrogen, bottle the hydrogen and sell it just like you would chicken and eggs.”

The bottled hydrogen could then be shipped to building maintenance plants for their energy needs or to hydrogen filling-stations to power cars, says Williamson.

Ralph Peck, Montana’s director of Agriculture and Resources in Helena, also sees a hydrogen future for some of the state’s farms, but says that he will advise farmers and ranchers to proceed with extreme caution and be aware of the risks.

“I think that the industry of agriculture and producers themselves will listen. They’re going to be interested in it,” Peck says. “But I would tell them to be cautious and define your market. And the reason for that caution is that you just can’t afford to make a mistake in today’s marketplace. With our prices the way they are and expenses the way they are and the drought conditions that we’ve been facing in Montana, those guys are just hanging on now. So we’re all striving to get a better return and to find new ideas and concepts and this is one that we all hope will work, but I think it’s still in the conceptual stage…That doesn’t mean this isn’t coming at us 1,000 miles per hour. I mean, look at the world—how we change so fast. For $3.95, you can now get U.S. News on your cell phone every day and read it non-stop. I mean, jeez, this is phenomenal where we’re going. So I think the hydrogen market could go that way, too.”

Like any new technology, hydrogen power not only holds great promise, but also poses great risk. Aside from market concerns, Peck wonders about the safety of hydrogen power.

“Hydrogen is as safe as any other fuel and also as dangerous as any other fuel,” says Jim Ohi. Speaking on behalf of National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Ohi says, “We know how to engineer safe systems using hydrogen. It’s a matter of bringing all that knowledge down to the consumer level, and we’re doing a lot of that work right now so that we’ll have all the codes and standards in place when hydrogen becomes more of a consumer item.”

Sterling Burnett, though, is concerned with the wisdom of government officially supporting any new technology. A senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis, a conservative think tank based in Dallas with an office on Capital Hill in Washington, D.C. Burnett lived in Bozeman until 1995. “I think we will waste fewer scarce resources going up blind alleys if we allow the market to decide this stuff rather than some geniuses in Washington, D.C.,” Burnett says.

Of Williamson’s vision for a hydrogen-based economy in Montana, Burnett states, “I see this as he’s sitting there talking about technology that may be—and he may be way ahead of the curve—but if what they’re going to do is pour a lot of public funding into it, it seems to me like it’s a big gamble. The odds might be better in Vegas and the house rarely loses. If he’s right, the payoff could be big. But it could be big 20 or 30 years from now.”

A Modest Visionary
If it takes 20 or 30 years for Williamson to see his vision come to fruition, the dean will be pleased. He is not so much concerned with immediate, tangible results as he is with leaving a legacy for future Montanans.

“I like to think that I have a good feel for the future. I’m sure that I’ve got a long way to go to compete with others who are more intellectual or much more accomplished than me, but I try to do the best with what I’ve got.”

The story of young Williamson’s lemonade stand and DeSmet’s pool doesn’t end with Williamson’s father telling the boy that the town had no swimming pool fund. When his father returned with the sorry news, Williamson replied, “Well dad, we raised this money. We’ve got to do something with it.”

Williamson’s father went back downtown and started the swimming pool fund himself at the People’s State Bank with $7.75. Ten years later, when Williamson was a freshman in college, the town dedicated DeSmet’s public swimming pool.

“And it all started with two kids saying, ‘Hey, this isn’t right,’ you know?” says Williamson.

As the sharp winter light beams through the windows and off the silverware in the Frontier Café in Stevensville, Williamson asks the Pachyderms, “You know how many times I swam in the swimming pool there in DeSmet, S.D.?”

The Bitterroot Republicans study Williamson, unsure if they are supposed to venture a guess.

“Zero,” Williamson says. “But they got a swimming pool, by golly…And I don’t care whether I’m around to take advantage of this.”

As the presentation ends, waitresses clear bowls with remnants of beef stew and biscuits from the tables and the meeting soon disperses. The raffle drawing proceeds and an older gentleman wins thirty dollars. After several minutes of pleasantries, the Pachyderm Club treasurer approaches Williamson.

“We don’t get a whole lot of visionaries here in Montana,” he says.


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