The Key to 20% Hydrogen Is 100% Teamwork
A recent breakthrough test of hydrogen in an advanced class gas turbine reveals that forging the frontier of the energy transition requires collaboration at a whole new level.


In early June 2022, a team of more than 30 mechanical engineers huddled around computer screens, radioing between two rooms at a power plant near Atlanta. Some of them had relocated to the area for a month in preparation for this moment. After completing the final safety checks, they gave the command to open a valve and send a mix of hydrogen and natural gas to an advanced class gas power turbine.

The engineers were attempting a first for the industry: Producing electricity with an advanced class gas turbine fueled by 20% hydrogen. It was the highest hydrogen fuel mix tested so far on a turbine of this caliber. If all went well, the only indication of success would be the numbers on the control room screens indicating the percent of hydrogen.

As the valves opened and hydrogen entered the system, the numbers crept up … 5% … and then 10%. Near the pipes, two engineers conducted periodic leak tests to ensure the system remained airtight. They had little doubt that everything would run smoothly because they knew how rigorous the preparation had been. For an outsider watching the hydrogen levels rise just as planned, it might have been easy to overlook the six months of work that led to this much-anticipated moment.

Six months of close collaboration across a diverse team of experts from eight organizations, led by Georgia Power, Southern Company, EPRI and Mitsubishi Power.

Six months of planning for countless what-ifs to ensure safety amid the innovation.

Six months of creating a new path for hydrogen – and an example for the industry to follow.

The need for green hydrogen

Green hydrogen has long been expected to play a substantial role in the transition to a net zero carbon future. But much of today’s power generation fleet is built to run on natural gas, which means a shift to 100% hydrogen-powered electricity would require equipment that hasn’t been installed yet – from the turbines capable of running on hydrogen alone to the infrastructure that would deliver the volume of green hydrogen needed.

“Retrofitting the existing gas turbine fleet would be a huge step toward further accelerating the shift to net zero energy,” says Prasanth Thupili, senior vice president of power generation services at Mitsubishi Power Americas.

In recent years, Mitsubishi Power has pursued its vision of a hydrogen-supported world on multiple fronts, from supporting the infrastructure for storage and transportation to developing the technologies that will allow hard-to-decarbonize industries to use hydrogen instead of the carbon-intensive fuels they currently use.

“We tested 20% hydrogen successfully in laboratory conditions. But before we could allow a customer to use it, we needed to validate it under real-world conditions.”

The goal of demonstrating a 20% hydrogen fuel mix sprang from the belief that running today’s natural gas turbines on a mix of natural gas and hydrogen – the latter produced through increasingly renewable methods – could reduce emissions while easing power producers’ concerns about having to fully replace their infrastructure to meet sustainability goals.

The industry needed proof. “We tested 20% hydrogen successfully in laboratory conditions,” says Ben Thomas, product line manager for hydrogen at Mitsubishi Power. “But before we could allow a customer to use it, we needed to validate it under real-world conditions.”

Such tests have real-world consequences. A failure in a test rig sends the engineers back to the drawing board. But a system failure in a working power plant could put human lives and critical infrastructure at risk.

Georgia Power’s Plant McDonough-Atkinson facility, in Smyrna, Ga., operates six Mitsubishi Power M501G advanced class turbines. It offered the perfect setting for these bold tests.

Testing in a working facility

The accelerating effort to reach net zero is putting pressure on power producers to explore new solutions.

“One of the items on our list of options for reducing carbon emissions is converting our gas turbines so they can run on hydrogen,” says Jeff Wilson, fleet modernization R&D manager at Southern Company, the parent of Georgia Power.

Mitsubishi Power intended to demonstrate under real-world conditions what its lab tests had promised: That it was possible to operate its turbines with a hydrogen mixture while maintaining best-in-class reliability — and even operate at a lower minimum power level without exceeding emissions guidelines. For Southern Company and Georgia Power, this would ensure that its billions of dollars’ worth of equipment would play a major role in delivering cleaner energy to millions of homes and businesses as the world raced to decarbonize.

By December, Mitsubishi Power and Georgia Power were ready to move forward. But first, they needed to assemble a team capable of designing and building the fuel delivery system to even make the tests possible — without risking safety or putting equipment at undue risk.

Designing for the unknown

One inherent challenge of innovation is operating without a roadmap – in fact, you have to create it.

Because hydrogen is lighter than natural gas, it couldn’t be injected into the Plant McDonough turbine without modifying the existing fuel-delivery system. And with an unprecedented 20% hydrogen mix, the team needed to go back over every inch of the existing infrastructure to ensure it was engineered to work safely and effectively. Safety wasn’t just a concern for this particular test: The team’s groundbreaking work will underpin a whole new set of best practices to handle and deliver hydrogen as the power industry broadens its use.

“The only way to get a project like this done safely is to have open communication without concern about asking the hard questions.”

With stakes this high, Mitsubishi Power and Georgia Power knew the entire energy industry would pay close attention to the record-setting test. So early on, they brought in EPRI, an industry research and development partner that provides technical expertise for groundbreaking projects. EPRI’s ability to act as an objective sounding board was essential.

“The only way to get a project like this done safely is to have open communication without concern about asking the hard questions,” says Neva Espinoza, EPRI’s vice president of energy supply and low-carbon resources.

The group’s participation could also move the industry forward more quickly and efficiently, as EPRI could incorporate what it learned into future work evaluating and consulting on other projects.

Sourcing hydrogen

Although some power plants use limited hydrogen, they generally do not source the volumes necessary to run a turbine. Recognizing that sourcing hydrogen in larger volumes would be critical not only to this project but also to future tests of higher-proportion hydrogen blends, Mitsubishi Power stepped in to source the gas. They selected Certarus, which specializes in the delivery of low-carbon fuels, to safely transport 4,000 kilograms of hydrogen to the Georgia site over the course of the four single-day tests.

“Safety is our number-one core value,” says Richard Cheng, vice president of hydrogen at Certarus. “We all know that if there were a safety incident, we’d move the entire industry backward on the energy transition. That was very much in the forefront of everybody’s mind to support the four days of the tests.”

Reinventing fuel delivery

Getting the hydrogen on-site was just the first step. Mixing the fuel and preparing it for the system also required novel solutions. To build the skid — a system that mixes hydrogen and natural gas before delivering it to the turbine — Mitsubishi Power tapped Met Weld, a company with experience in hydrogen blending.

“This project put data out into the marketplace, demonstrating hydrogen blending as a safe and viable path,” says Steve Kilmartin, senior technical advisor for Met Weld.

Mitsubishi Power brought in Control Southern and Emerson to manufacture, test and automate the control, shutoff and safety relief valves to mix the gases. “The testing requirements we had to support on this project were unique,” says Unay Onate, an account manager at Control Southern. “On a proof of concept, they need to ensure the valves are ready to go and perform when they start the unit, which required a lot of hard work.”

Unprecedented Collaboration

The team behind Plant McDonough’s hydrogen blend demonstration represented a depth and breadth of knowledge and experience to conduct first-of-its-kind tests.

Coordinating partners, turbine expertise, testing and design

Coordination, plant oversight and operation, test integration

R&D coordination, plant oversight and operation, test integration

Third-party expertise on design and execution

System engineering, hydrogen handling, pressure control and delivery to the plant

Gas blending mixing and flow-control skids

Precision valves and control automation

Detailed design and modeling of the hydrogen fuel delivery system

Getting the fuel to the turbines

Even after mixing the fuel, reaching the turbine safely presented additional challenges. To overcome them, the team tapped technical consultancy and detail design firm SNC-Lavalin to design the piping and ventilation systems needed to ensure the hydrogen and natural gas combination remained well-mixed when it reached the turbine.

“Hydrogen is about 14 times lighter than air,” explains Abey Emmanuel, senior project engineering manager at SNC-Lavalin. “It’s quite a challenge to make sure you contain it and have safety provisions.”

As a final precaution, the team ran helium through its piping to make sure there were no leaks and the system operated as designed. With that step completed, the system was done.

In June, after six months of venturing into the unknown together, asking the hard questions of each other and triple-checking their work, the teams from these eight organizations were ready to test.

A critical step toward a hydrogen-powered future

In the control room at Plant McDonough, the engineers watched the hydrogen level tick up…beyond 10%…and 15%. Finally, it reached 20% and held steady. The team was ecstatic — but only cautiously so. Over the next few days, it would follow the same process three more times under varying conditions. By the end of the testing, their unprecedented collaboration had produced a groundbreaking proof of concept: a M501G advanced class gas turbine with no modifications ran on a 20% hydrogen mix while generating full-load, partial-load and minimum emissions-compliant loads of electricity.

The tests showed it was possible to run the turbine below 50% power output, more than 10 percentage points below its previous minimum. Not only could many of the advanced turbines installed throughout Georgia Power’s network run on 20% hydrogen, but their operators could have the flexibility to run them at lower outputs rather than having to shut them down and restart them, a process that consumes time and energy.

“Georgia Power has long worked to advance the industry and help provide innovative solutions to benefit our customers, community and company,” said Eric Johnson, Manager of Georgia Power’s Plant McDonough-Atkinson. “Our team was very proud to host this historic test and look forward to what it means as we help build the future of energy for our customers.”

And the demonstration at Plant McDonough was a huge step forward, not just for the participants, who gained more experience with hydrogen, but also for the industry. “Hydrogen blending will give us a head start on curbing emissions,” says Mitsubishi Power’s Ben Thomas, “even as we begin to create the hydrogen economy of tomorrow.”