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The Clean-Hydrogen Transition

Katie O’Shea used her MSES education to pivot from working in the oil and gas industry to helping build a multi-billion dollar regional hub for clean hydrogen.   

Katie O'Shea (MSES '22) spent more than a decade working on oil and gas mega projects everywhere from Nigeria to Papua New Guinea to Canada. Today, she is assisting in the global transition to a cleaner form of energy.  

O’Shea is a project manager for hydrogen hubs within the Department of Energy's Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations (OCED). At the foundation of her career pivot was the education she received from Northwestern's Master of Science in Energy and Sustainability (MSES) program, which is jointly offered by Northwestern Engineering and the Paula M. Trienens Institute for Sustainability and Energy. 

Katie O'SheaO’Shea is now playing a key role in the implementation of historic investments in clean energy infrastructure authorized under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which included an $8 billion plan to build seven regional clean-hydrogen hubs around the United States.  

“Through the MSES program and course work, I immersed myself in understanding what was going on in the United States and abroad with the key drivers for the energy transition,” O’Shea said. “This was required to succeed in the program, but this practice also set me up for success working in the energy transition.” 

That transition, which is playing out on a global scale, involves moving away from an overreliance on fossil fuels toward a more balanced mix of cleaner energy sources, including hydrogen. The October 2023 announcement of $7 billion of funding outlay for seven hydrogen hubs signaled a commitment from the Biden Administration to clean-hydrogen projects and aims to take some of the risk away from those who might invest in that transition.  

O’Shea’s role is to serve as the federal project manager for the development of one of the seven regional hubs – the Pacific Northwest Hydrogen Hub. The hub will produce clean hydrogen exclusively via electrolysis — using renewable energy to power electrolyzers that split water into its molecular components of hydrogen and oxygen.  

"Hydrogen is a proven technology often referred to as the Swiss army knife solution because it can be applied across various industries for decarbonization," O'Shea said. "This funding is being distributed to regional hubs across the US that include production, distribution, and end use, which reduces the risk that is holding back some of the more typical financing avenues." 

The Biden Administration committed up to $1 billion to this hub, which is forecast to create more than 8,000 construction jobs and 350 permanent jobs once it is operational.  

“We are making history by setting up new hydrogen ecosystems across the United States,” O’Shea said. “It is exciting because it’s a unique opportunity to join an organization at a time where we are not only selecting the industry projects that will help shape a new market, but also at a time where we are establishing the way this office will be operating into the future.” 

O’Shea joined OCED in January. She said the MSES program did a great job of preparing her for the transition to the work she is doing today.  

Her focus during her time in the program was on project finance for clean energy infrastructure like the hydrogen hubs. Courses such as Energy Project Finance and Development, Energy and Sustainability Economics, Government Incentives, and Financing in the Energy Transition were directly applicable to the future she wanted to create for herself, she said. 

“The significance in these classes is that I truly use them in my current job,” she said. “They also meant I was way up the learning curve on topics like current policy, finance, and economics.” 

O’Shea knows she has a busy time ahead of her as the clean-hydrogen hubs go from concept to reality. She said she’s well-prepared for the challenge because of the MSES program.  

“The program is very condensed and fast paced but you finish in 10 months, and that is extremely attractive,” she said. “If you truly want to pivot your career or deepen your knowledge, you couldn’t ask for a more effective program.”