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‘Green’ Hydrogen Holds Big Potential in Bid by Iowa, Neighbors for $1 Billion in U.S. Aid

By Donnelle Eller and Des Moines

A $400 million “green” ammonia plant that three Iowa natives propose building near here could play an important role in helping slash the farm carbon emissions that contribute to climate change.

Greenfield Nitrogen also is key to a multistate effort to land a $1 billion federal grantthat’s expected to create high-paying jobs and spark $4 billion in new business development in the region.

It’s one of two green hydrogen plants planned in Iowa, potentially making them the state’s first.

Greenfield Nitrogen and Verbio, a German-owned renewable natural gas company with a Story County plant, are part of the Iowa-Nebraska-Missouri bid to become a regional hydrogen hub, a highly competitive quest that has state governments, scientists and companies partnering across the country to land a total of $7 billion in investment.

Hydrogen is seen as pivotal to the nation’s transition to clean energy, providing fuel for hard-to-electrify industries, like agriculture, aviation and marine transport. President Joe Biden is pushing the U.S. to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, cutting the greenhouse gases that cause climate change.

More:Why are fossil fuels bad for the environment? Here’s what they are and how they impact our environment.

Karl Theis, who is developing the Greenfield Nitrogen project along with his sister, Linda Thrasher; Reed Kuper; and fellow agricultural investors, said Iowa and other Midwest states are “poised to lead in this new green economy.”

Greenfield Nitrogen will use hydrogen produced with renewable energy to make ammonia - NH3 - a nitrogen fertilizer widely used to grow corn and other crops. And Verbio plans to invest $90 million to build a pilot hydrogen plant to expand its renewable natural gas production.

The projects will require large investments in wind, solar or other renewable energy to power them. Verbio puts its investment at $100 million.

“We’re in exactly the right spot for hydrogen to take off,” Theis said, since Iowa combines large-scale renewable energy generation and high demand for ammonia fertilizer.

Nearly 60% of Iowa’s electricity comes from wind, the highest share nationally. And the state is the top corn producer, using about 850,000 tons of nitrogen fertilizer in 2021 to produce 2.5 billion bushels across about 12.5 million acres, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported.

Theis envisions projects similar to Greenfield Nitrogen being built across Iowa and other Midwest states, helping fill local farmers’ fertilizer needs, creating jobs and boosting rural economies. He expects hydrogen will attract local investment, much as ethanol did nearly two decades ago as Iowa became the nation’s leading producer of the renewable fuel.

So far, north Iowa farmers and residents have invested nearly $8 million to support the project.

“That’s the real challenging part,” keeping profits in local economies and not siphoned off by multinational corporations, said Michael Reese, the renewable energy director at the University of Minnesota West Central Research and Outreach Center in Morris.

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