WASHINGTON — Hydrogen may be touted as the low-emission transportation fuel of the future when batteries would be too heavy or expensive, such as aviation and long-haul trucking. But which hydrogen?
Environmental advocates are raising concerns that some forms of hydrogen aren’t as clean as they’re made out to be. And they say that Congress’ plans to accelerate hydrogen production would invest taxpayer funds into energy sources that wouldn’t reduce the nation’s carbon footprint fast enough.
Hydrogen doesn’t emit any greenhouse gases itself. It takes another energy source to create hydrogen, and right now most is made from natural gas through a process that emits greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
The $1 trillion infrastructure deal brokered between Republicans and Democrats this summer would allocate $8 billion for hydrogen “hubs” to produce the fuel from an array of sources, specifically dedicating a hub each to renewables, nuclear energy and fossil fuels. Two of the hubs would be located in the largest natural gas-producing regions of the country such as West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas. It also would incentivize production of “clean” hydrogen types that recent research indicates may still release significant emissions.
“We think that it is a massive waste of public resources, and that it is going to simply lock in fossil fuel infrastructure instead of contributing to real climate progress at a time when we need to act urgently to do just that,” said Carroll Muffett, CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law.
Others, however, argue the legislation would still provide a needed opportunity to reduce emissions from hard-to-decarbonize sectors, including transportation, even if hydrogen isn’t totally emissions-free today.
“Hydrogen is going to play an important role in reaching our ultimate goals of getting to a net-zero emissions economy-wide,” said Dan Lashof, director of the World Resources Institute, United States. Medium- and heavy-duty trucks, airplanes and trains represent around 40% of transportation emissions.
“We just don’t know what the right solution is for those. So I think it makes a lot of sense for the government to be investing in these harder-to-abate sectors where it’s more difficult to get emissions reductions. And hydrogen can play a role there.”
Hydrogen is a clean-burning fuel, but it doesn’t exist in nature on its own. It has to be created by breaking down another energy source. Around 95% of hydrogen fuel cells today are made from natural gas in a carbon-intensive process that creates what’s known as gray hydrogen. Hydrogen produced from coal is labeled brown hydrogen.
Blue and green hydrogen are the focus of most climate buzz. Green hydrogen comes from renewable energy (such as wind, solar or biomass) used to draw hydrogen from water through electrolysis. Blue hydrogen is also made from natural gas, but uses carbon capture machines to store emissions instead of releasing them into the atmosphere. The spectrum of hydrogen types is known as the hydrogen “rainbow.”
Natural gas industry advocates have argued that building out gas infrastructure is still a worthwhile investment as it could be used for hydrogen fueling in the future. Industry groups have pitched the low-carbon promise of hydrogen solutions like blue hydrogen to governments around the world, including in Europe, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Most major automakers have turned to batteries as the way to decarbonize passenger cars and trucks that account for nearly 60% of emissions coming from the transportation sector. But many, including General Motors Co., Stellantis NV, Toyota Motor Corp., BMW AG and Volkswagen AG, are still investing in hydrogen fuel cells.
Most automakers are now looking at hydrogen fuel cells as a way to cut emissions in cases where batteries make less sense. Common examples are in long-haul trucks, where batteries would likely be too heavy or charging too unwieldly, or with forklifts, which run overnight indoors and in cold climates and need to be refueled quickly.
“We’re trying to make sure that everything we do is sustainable, both from an environmental perspective and a business perspective,” said Charlie Freese, executive director of GM’s hydrogen fuel cell arm, Global HYDROTEC. “Because if it’s not sustainable from a business perspective, it’s not going to take off and grow fast enough.”
Even hydrogen fuel cells made from fossil fuels have a lower carbon footprint than burning gas and diesel to power vehicles, according to research from Argonne National Laboratory. That’s good reason to invest in technology that will only stand to get greener with time, Freese said.
“Having a source that’s much greener than many of the alternatives, immediately, is something I wouldn’t want to turn my back on in the near term,” he said.
“Natural gas is a viable way to get much cleaner energy to some of these places that are some of the dirtiest uses of power today. So any step you make in that direction is cleaner. And if you wait until the perfectly green source is out there, you’ve made a lot of much dirtier emissions in the meantime by relying on other ways of providing power.”
Blue hydrogen blues
But many in the environmental community argue the federal government shouldn’t be supporting the rollout of hydrogen that isn’t fully green — or made from renewable energy sources — especially as global focus turns to the increasing speed of climate change, which the United Nations has called a “code red for humanity.”
That’s fueled in part by recent research from scientists at Cornell and Stanford universities that showed creating blue hydrogen produces much more greenhouse gas than previously thought. Carbon dioxide and methane emissions created and leaked while producing natural gas, transporting it, turning it into hydrogen and powering carbon capture technology add up — so much so that the researchers found it to emit more than just burning coal or natural gas for heat.
“The bottom line is it’s really not useful at all. We don’t need it because there’s a much cleaner form of hydrogen, which is green hydrogen,” said Mark Jacobson, an engineering professor at Stanford and one of the authors of the study. The limited needed use of hydrogen such as heavy transport or steel manufacturing can be met with green sources, he argued, while heating people’s homes or running passenger cars can be achieved with other clean energy sources.
“This whole blue hydrogen scheme is really just designed to keep the fossil fuel industry going,” he added.
Industry advocates argue blue hydrogen is currently more cost-effective than green hydrogen, and that it can pave the way for more renewable sources in the future. Dave Edwards, director of hydrogen energy for Air Liquide, said hydrogen’s emissions reductions over gasoline “is really a fantastic option” as energy sources transition. “To simply throw everything out because there’s one or two applications that aren’t as ideal as others is premature.”
Environmental advocates push back on that, but some support investments in carbon capture technology and green hydrogen production.
The infrastructure bill would set the goal of reducing the cost of green hydrogen to less than $2 per kilogram by 2026. Richard Sedano, president of the Regulatory Assistance Project, said new technology exploration can be worthwhile even if it doesn’t arrive in time to help the country reach net-zero by 2050.
“I respect that there’s an opportunity to make some investment in the technology that we think is important and strategic. But I think we also have to keep our heads and learn what we’ve had to learn — that the hydrogen economy has been coming for decades and it hasn’t arrived, and there’s still fundamental things in the way.”
The bipartisan infrastructure bill has been sitting idle for months as Democrats in Congress debate over the larger social safety net and climate package that must be passed along party lines. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said she wants to pass the bill by the end of the month to capitalize on a closing window to enact President Joe Biden’s agenda.
The bill would, for the first time, define “clean” hydrogen using a set lifetime emissions standard for hydrogen production that Jacobson said should disqualify blue hydrogen. But it would also set aside funding for hydrogen hubs that would produce, process, deliver, store and use hydrogen — including at least one demonstrating the use of fossil fuels and carbon capture, seeded first in natural gas-producing regions, with the aim of building a national network.
“We see that green hydrogen could be useful in some of the hardest-to-decarbonize sectors. But we are concerned, and what this can’t become is another giveaway to the gas industry,” said Patrick Drupp, deputy legislative director for climate and clean air at the Sierra Club.
“We can’t just be giving them more money to make this so-called blue hydrogen using carbon capture and sequestration. There’s still a lot of problems with that; it’s not clean in terms of protecting the climate.”
But Sunita Satyapal, director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technologies Office, indicated in an interview with The Detroit News that the department isn’t ignoring the warning signs.
“We recognize that depending on the hydrogen production pathway, and depending on the upstream emissions, you can have a high greenhouse gas footprint. So our focus is to get to clean hydrogen and address all the different pieces of that puzzle,” she said. “We of course are also looking at the total lifecycle emissions downstream as well. Looking at the lifecycle of greenhouse gas footprint will be important as we move forward.”
This story was originally published October 25, 2021 12:15 PM.