An energetic hydrogen rush is currently occurring.
Federal funding for hydrogen technology demonstration projects is hotly contested after Congress allocated $9.5 billion in funding through the 2021 public works legislation and tax credits through a 2022 climate law.
Together, these pillars have sparked widespread interest in hydrogen, a common element that has been touted as a potential energy Shangri-La similar to nuclear fusion technology in that it would provide reliable electricity with minimal environmental impact.
“There’s a whole bunch of talk,” Laura Feinstein of Seattle’s non-profit research organization Sightline Institute told me over the phone. “Right now,” he said, “it’s kind of in that hype cycle.”
A hydrogen expansion in the United States, however, might go one of two ways: either a government-backed error that prolong the lifespan of fossil energy and diverts focus from electrification, or the elevation of a pragmatic tool to decrease planet-warming gases from heavy industry, planes, and ships.
It will either be a breakthrough or a major diversion
The Energy Department is currently reviewing proposals to build a network of hydrogen hubs in order to allocate $8 billion in funding from the infrastructure law. These hubs are intended to demonstrate the viability of the emerging technology.
The agency has indicated that it will announce funding for six to ten hubs this year. In early April, after receiving 79 proposals, DOE stopped accepting any further.
The Internal Revenue Service is working on procedures to put the 2032 sunsetting tax credits for renewable electricity-powered hydrogen production into effect.
Hydrogen, unlike fuels like wind, solar, oil, natural gas, or nuclear, must be manufactured; currently, around 98% of hydrogen is manufactured using fossil fuels; hence, an increase in hydrogen production and consumption will not make climatic sense if it is still manufactured using fossil energy.
Hydrogen can be produced by extracting it from methane through a high-temperature heating process or by using electrolysis to split water molecules with electricity, two prevalent ways for isolating hydrogen from its surrounding constituents.
Independent climate research and modeling firm Rhodium Group estimates that the process of using methane to manufacture hydrogen accounts for around 3% of annual emissions from American industry.
Shipping, flying, producing steel, and coating metals are all activities that produce a lot of waste, but hydrogen might be used to reduce these emissions. Although the market for battery-electric vehicles has overtaken the market for fuel-cell cars, with only Toyota showing major interest in hydrogen, it could be employed in vehicle transportation.
A federal database lists 62 public hydrogen filling stations for cars in the United States and Canada. It displays 61,487 charge points for EVs as a point of comparison.
According to Feinstein, hydrogen is now used by fertilizer factories to produce ammonia as well as by petroleum refineries.
“That’s the vast majority of the existing hydrogen,” she explained. To put it simply: “That’s the vast majority of it.”
The hubs, as described by Monteith, are a test for developers to demonstrate whether or not hydrogen can reduce carbon pollution by determining whether or not hydrogen can be produced with at least half the emissions of hydrogen produced using natural gas.
“They have the burden of proof,” he declared. That’s where we’ll see how things hold up over time.
The Midwest Alliance for Clean Hydrogen put in a bid to build one of the hubs, and its members include corporations, states, NGOs, educational institutions, and research facilities.
Colleen Wright, VP of corporate strategy at electric utility and corporate partner Constellation Energy Co., claimed that hydrogen has potential in the American Midwest because of the region’s large nuclear power and renewable electricity fleets.
Wright noted that the Midwest states of Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan would be ground zero for the initiative, and that the use of hydrogen in the production of biofuels and sustainable aviation fuel would help reduce aircraft emissions.
Wright also mentioned the Midwest as a transportation hub that could benefit from emission-free hydrogen.
The difficulty lies in determining which came first, she explained. We need to know, “How do you develop all these pieces at the same time?”
Aiming towards major hubs
Hydrogen technology is gaining attention in Congress, and lawmakers are lobbying the Department of Energy to locate hydrogen hubs in their home states.
In a letter to Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm dated February 27th, a group of southern senators from both parties argued that their states are “home to many of the nation’s leading transportation, logistics, energy, manufacturing, and research assets.”
Republicans Shelley Moore Capito and Democrats Joe Manchin III have both argued that West Virginia should be a regional center. As have many Northeastern politicians. Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.) suggested in February that Delaware, along with parts of southern Pennsylvania and New Jersey, would be a great place to invest in hydrogen technology.
Coons said that Delaware and the greater mid-Atlantic region are ideal locations for a hydrogen center because of the state’s “unparalleled innovation ecosystem,” skilled union workforce, robust manufacturing base, and existing infrastructure along the I-95 corridor.
In 2016, the Biden administration committed to generating 10 million metric tons of clean hydrogen by the year 2030. This is also known as “green hydrogen,” which refers to hydrogen produced from renewable resources.
Presently, the United States produces around 10 million metric tons of hydrogen annually, almost entirely from fossil fuels.
In a presentation to senators in February, Sunita Satyalpal, director of DOE’s hydrogen and fuel cell technologies office, predicted that the industry might generate as many as 700,000 new employment in the United States by 2030.
However, the United States lags behind European and certain Asian nations in hydrogen use, according to Satyalpal.
Satyalpal predicted that more hydrogen-specific pipelines would be required to transport larger quantities of hydrogen. We have a pipeline that carries hydrogen for roughly 1,600 kilometers, but that’s not nearly enough.
A recent study by the Environmental Defense Fund, published in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, indicated that leakage could reduce benefits from using hydrogen.
Compared to fossil fuels, hydrogen produced using renewable energy sources might reduce warming by more than 95%, while hydrogen produced using gas and carbon capture technology (a means of storing emissions) could reduce warming by 70%.
Hydrogen produced with gas and carbon capture would be worse for the atmosphere than doing nothing if considerable hydrogen leaks occurred (10 percent is considered a probable consequence).
Hydrogen is a warming gas, albeit a weak one compared to other greenhouse gases.
Hydrogen itself is a bigger threat to global warming than most policymakers think. “Leakage must be kept extremely low for ‘clean’ hydrogen to provide the hoped-for climate benefits,” Ilissa Ocko, lead author and EDF climate scientist, said. “Don’t act hastily; you could get hurt.”
According to Natasha Vidangos, EDF’s senior director for climate innovation and technology, the focus on hydrogen has evolved from the initial hoopla to a more nuanced examination over the past year.
I think we’re evolving to a position that’s a bit more, not circumspect, but a little bit more rigorous in terms of how we’re addressing what needs to happen next,” Vidangos said in an interview.
It takes a lot of electricity to divide hydrogen from oxygen using electrolysis, so using renewable energy to create hydrogen may end up requiring more energy than it saves, according to Morgan Rote, director of U.S. climate at EDF.
“Often the cheapest way to do that is through natural gas turbines,” Rote said in an interview, referring to the balancing of power-hungry sources like electrolyzers.
Methane emissions from hydrogen production should be factored into the IRS’s rulemaking process
According to Rote, businesses can apply for the credits if they utilize or sell hydrogen. Therefore, “you can’t just let it out.”
Union of Concerned Scientists’ climate and energy program deputy policy director Julia McNamara recommended that the IRS take into account the full scope of climate impacts from hydrogen production and consumption when crafting the new tax rule.
She feared that a “loose standard” would ensnare a new business that would boost emissions, benefit fossil fuel facilities, and undermine climate goals.
She said, “We risk expanding an industry that is just entirely misaligned with the overall climate transition of the economy.”
She argued that many people support hydrogen since it may be produced from many different sources. Hydrogen, as the saying goes, is neutral territory.