Energy production is nothing new to the Central Valley. Oil production in the San Joaquin Valley boomed after the discovery of “black gold” on the Kern River in 1899. In 2018, the City of Fresno was recognized in a report by the Environment California Research & Policy Center as the U.S. city with the second-highest solar power generating capacity per person. According to the report, the city’s total solar power generation capacity ranked fourth among the state’s big cities ahead of Sacramento, San Francisco and Riverside.
Around 10 years ago, there were proposals from a French company — partnered with California businessmen and farmers — to build a nuclear power plant in Fresno. Those plans eventually fell through. An innovative energy company has announced it will expand to the West Coast with the construction of a new, state-of-the-art hydrogen production facility in Fresno County. Plug Power Inc., headquartered in New York, is a provider of hydrogen fuel cell turnkey solutions. Plug Power plans to build the largest green hydrogen production plant on the West Coast in Mendota.
The facility will use a 300-megawatt, zero-carbon solar farm to power equipment that splits water into hydrogen and oxygen through an electro-chemical process. When fully built, the plant will produce 30 metric tons of liquid green hydrogen, able to service customers from San Diego to Vancouver. In a press release from Plug Power released in late September, local officials including Fresno County Supervisor Brian Pacheco and Lee Ann Eager, president and CEO of Fresno County Economic Development Corporation, praised Plug Power’s expansion to the area. “Green hydrogen represents the energy of the future and with this major announcement, Fresno County will soon plant its flag as the strategic center for California’s hydrogen economy,” Eager said. “This project is poetic justice for our region, which has struggled with persistent poor air quality, and will produce the zero-emission fuel needed to support the state’s renewable energy goals.”
Andy Marsh, president and CEO of Plug Power, joined the company in 2008 and is a prominent voice in the hydrogen and fuel cell industry. Marsh said the company made a commitment to be the first company to build a green hydrogen generation network across the U.S., and with California having one of the highest populations in the state — and with its aggressive environmental policies — it made sense to build here.
Plug Power’s California plant will join the company’s network of plants in New York, Tennessee and Georgia that will supply 500 tons per day of liquid green hydrogen by 2025. The plant in Mendota will cover about 20 acres. The plant will eventually expand beyond those 20 acres. “The solar farms want the plants to use their solar, and in an area like California there is going to be a lot of solar farms,” Marsh said. “In an area like the Central Valley with lots of solar, we are not going to be the only company to wants to come in and build a hydrogen plant. There will be other companies that follow us.”
Once the plant is constructed, Marsh said the company will be looking to provide hydrogen for trucks, fuel cells for forklift trucks, industrial applications, and putting hydrogen into natural gas pipelines. While there is discussion for the application of hydrogen fuel in the ag industry, Marsh said the technology is not as applicable in that arena yet. Currently, Marsh said places such as distribution centers, airports, seaports and other places where there a lot of vehicles going back and forth will be using a lot of hydrogen.
The environmental review for the plant is expected to be approved by the early 2023, with construction starting then. It is expected to be up and running in early 2024. The project will include construction of a new tertiary wastewater treatment plant in the City of Mendota, providing water for the community and supplying the full needs of the hydrogen plant.
Once in operations, there will be around 60 to 75 employees to start with, with those numbers eventually ramping up. Some of the jobs will include a plant manager, engineers, facility technicians, and truck drivers. “Hydrogen is part of California’s and the world’s efforts to reduce Co2 emissions, Plug Power has been doing it for 25 years and we are building out the first green hydrogen network for the United States and we are thrilled to be in the Central Valley,” Marsh said.