An interview with Q Hydrogen: Creating a ‘world’s first’ in New Hampshire’s North Country


Published: 05-11-2023 1:38 PM

Editor’s Note: This story was first published on New Hampshire Bulletin.

On its way to opening in New Hampshire’s North Country is “the world’s first power plant completely fueled by clean, affordable, clear hydrogen.” 

That’s what Utah-based Q Hydrogen says of its major investment in the Northumberland, N.H., village of Groveton, where the company has repurposed a former paper mill on the Upper Ammonoosuc River.

Construction began in 2020 but was delayed by the pandemic. The company expects to start producing hydrogen in the Granite State this summer, if it obtains all remaining permits from the state. 

Q Hydrogen will commercialize a new method of creating the colorless, odorless gas for power at its Groveton location, one that’s not currently done elsewhere, the company says. 

The New Hampshire Bulletin interviewed Q Hydrogen’s CEO Whitaker Irvin Jr. about hydrogen, the hype surrounding it as a potential “fuel of the future,” and why his company selected New Hampshire.  

What is Q Hydrogen? 

Based in Park City, Utah, Q Hydrogen has a global patent portfolio of technologies developed through the work of Irvin’s father, Whitaker B. Irvin Sr., who is the company’s founder and chief technologist. 

Irvin Jr. said the company decided years ago to focus its efforts on hydrogen as the commodity it would commercialize first. Its operational test facility in Park City has been open since 2016 and can produce 10,000 to 50,000 kilograms of hydrogen per day — enough fuel to generate 12.5 megawatts of electricity, or power roughly 7,500 homes.

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The Groveton plant will be Q Hydrogen’s first commercial implementation, using water from the Upper Ammonoosuc River to start producing fuel for around 10 megawatts of energy each day, with the possibility of growing to 100 megawatts. 

“This is a new method of producing hydrogen,” Irvin said. “A totally different way of doing it.”

Why hydrogen?

Europe has experienced a “hydrogen hype,” and many countries are putting in massive investments. Spain, for example, wants to become the European leader in hydrogen exclusively produced from renewable energy.

It’s starting to catch on in the U.S., too. The federal government, for example, is offering $8 billion through the Inflation Reduction Act for the creation of regional hydrogen hubs, as well as subsidies specifically for clean hydrogen production. 

Not all hydrogen is created equal, in that it can be extracted from either fossil fuels or renewable energy, and stored, transported, or burned to provide power. 

It’s an attractive fuel in terms of decarbonization goals because it doesn’t produce carbon dioxide emissions when burned. But the most common methods to produce hydrogen today rely on fossil fuels, meaning carbon can be emitted during the production process. 

Green hydrogen, however, is created using renewable energy, water, and electrolysis, a process that doesn’t create any carbon. According to reporting from the Associated Press, less than 0.1% of global hydrogen production is currently created that way. 

“Hydrogen, generally speaking, has been something people have talked about for the last several decades as a possible harbinger of the clean energy revolution, and it hasn’t happened because the cost to produce was too high or the manner in which it was produced was too carbon intensive,” Irvin said. 

Q Hydrogen’s way of producing hydrogen, he said, makes it both “affordable and environmentally friendly at the same time.” 

Asked if Q Hydrogen’s product will be considered “clean hydrogen,” Irvin said yes. He said the method created by his father converts water into renewable hydrogen using a new turbine technology. It doesn’t involve any natural gas or electrolysis.

How will Q Hydrogen provide power?

The Groveton plant will serve a dual purpose. First, Q Hydrogen will look to facilitate direct and cost-favorable power connections for users building on the remainder of the site. The former paper mill and industrial property has approximately 140 acres available for new facilities or businesses to set up shop.

Ultimately, Q Hydrogen wants to connect to the regional electric grid via ISO New England to provide power on a larger scale. 

New energy resources that wish to connect to the regional grid have to go through ISO New England’s interconnection process. ISO New England publicly lists the current status of requests for connection of new or increased capacity generating facilities. 

“We are going to work initially as a direct provider to (commercial) users on the site,” Irvin said. “The end goal will be to produce electricity for the New England market.”

Why did Q Hydrogen pick New Hampshire?

A Babson College graduate who for years resided in the Boston area, Irvin was very familiar with New England and noted the region was the first to deregulate its energy market. 

“We wanted to be in a regulatory environment where the idea of bringing out something new could be a bit more of a streamlined process,” he said. “A collaborative environment between regulators, politicians.” 

The company originally started looking in Massachusetts, as there were several power plants going offline that would be good deals on the purchase side. But Irvin ultimately went north, meeting with Gov. Chris Sununu and stakeholders “on both sides of the aisle.” 

In 2017, Q Hydrogen decided to focus on the Granite State for its commercial rollout. 

“I found that the environment made a lot more sense for us,” he said. “It really has been a great place to start. It is the right place to bring this out, and our hope is to become an even more significant aspect and employer in New Hampshire into the future.”

Workforce opportunities in Groveton

Irvin said his company liked the idea of bringing economic renewal to an area that “had been badly affected by the loss of a main employer,” referencing the paper mill that closed in 2007 and left 300 without jobs. 

A lot of the “lifeblood” of that area left when the mill shuttered, Irvin said. At its peak, the mill employed 800 people. 

Q Hydrogen found the existing power lines and access to water attractive, and reusing a brownfields site would make it easier going through the state approval process, he said. 

During construction, the existing facility’s footprint — roughly 10,000 square feet — has expanded to 30,000 square feet across three buildings. 

Irvin anticipates the plant itself will employ 10 to 20 full-time workers, but he sees the bigger employment impact being jobs that will come as a result — through transmission, distribution, and commercial users who can directly connect to the property. That, he estimated, could create more than 1,000 jobs. 

“There’s a general hope for the community that more employers can be brought in as a result of what we’re doing,” Irvin said. 

Hydrogen ‘greenwashing’

The term “greenwashing” is often mentioned when talking about hydrogen. Some worry that oil and gas companies will utilize hydrogen created in a carbon-intensive manner, and burn it as a tactic to appear more environmentally conscious. Though it doesn’t emit carbon dioxide when burned, hydrogen does produce large amounts of nitrogen oxide, an air pollutant that can damage the human respiratory system.

There will be “direct combustion of hydrogen” on the Groveton site, Irvin said, but the facility will be unveiling “innovations.”

In working with environmental consultants and the state’s Department of Environmental Services, he said, “We are confident our method of combusting will produce, if any, almost no (nitrogen) oxide.”

Irvin sees greenwashing in the hydrogen conversation being most prevalent in terms of the carbon intensity of the method in which it’s produced. Many current methods of hydrogen production do emit carbon because they utilize fossil fuels.    

Irvin said he’s excited by the hydrogen emphasis included in the Inflation Reduction Act because the federal push will spur innovation, creating more economic and environmentally friendly ways to produce “the energy we need.” 

NH sits out on federal hydrogen hub proposal

The Bulletin asked Irvin his thoughts on New Hampshire sitting out on a $3.6 billion proposal to make the Northeast a clean hydrogen hub, as part of funding offered by the federal government. More than 20 hub proposals across the country are currently competing for a share. 

New Hampshire was the only New England state not to sign onto the Northeast proposal, which includes New York and New Jersey. Irvin said he is a “fan and friend” of Sununu, and that the governor has been supportive of Q Hydrogen’s Groveton project. 

“New Hampshire as a state is usually very pragmatic,” he said. “Sununu is correct in that (the state) doesn’t have stereotypical hydrogen or the types of resources you typically have with that.”

However, Irvin said, “It would have been nice for them to be a part of it, especially since we are really focusing on New Hampshire. But in the end, that won’t change what we do.”

Because Q Hydrogen will look to expand its portfolio outside of New Hampshire, he said, it’s likely the company will be involved in a regional hydrogen hub in one way or another.