It was just a few days ago that the President Biden issued an executive order invoking the Defense Production Act to give a big boost to clean energy and lower carbon emissions in America. That order prioritizes solar energy, heat pump production, building insulation, electrical grid components, and hydrogen production. Here’s the part of the order that focuses on hydrogen:
“Electrolyzers, fuel cells, and platinum group metal (PGM) catalysts are vital for increasing domestic production and utilization of clean hydrogen, a versatile energy carrier. Clean hydrogen produced through electrolysis is projected to contribute significantly to achieving U.S. decarbonization goals. President Biden’s actions supporting domestic supply chains for electrolyzers, fuel cells, and PGM catalysts will enhance national and energy security by reducing U.S. reliance on imported fossil fuels, particularly Russia (the world’s second-largest producer of PGMs) and China. Consumers will benefit from clean hydrogen’s price stability relative to fossil fuels, cost reductions as the hydrogen economy scales up, and resilient domestic supply chains.”
Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks issued a statement after the executive order was announced that said, “Reducing America’s dependence on gas and oil is critical to U.S. national security. In conflict, fossil fuel supply lines are especially vulnerable. The actions President Biden announced today will help strengthen our supply chains and ensure that the United States is a leader in producing the energy technologies that are essential to our future success. They will also help accelerate DoD’s transition toward clean energy technologies that can help strengthen military capability while creating good jobs for American workers.”
Support for Biden’s latest executive order was universally positive among the CleanTechnica community. It accomplishes many of the goals of the administration’s Build Back Better legislative package that has been torpedoed by Despicable Joe Manchin in the Senate. But now it appears that what the Biden administration giveth with one hand, it taketh away with the other.
Clean Hydrogen, Dirty Hydrogen
The allure of hydrogen is understandable. When oil, coal, or natural gas are burned to create energy, they produce a slew of nasty emissions — carbon dioxide, fine particulates, and oxides of nitrogen and sulfur — that poison people and contribute to global heating. When hydrogen is used as a fuel, its waste products are heat and water. It’s no wonder that people think of hydrogen as a clean fuel.
But the dirty little secret behind hydrogen is, it doesn’t exist in nature. It is locked up in compounds like water and a dizzying array for hydrocarbons. While it is possible to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen by passing a strong electric current through it in a device known as an electrolyzer, that process takes a lot of electricity and costs more than making it from natural gas at the moment. Part of this week’s executive order is intended to make production of clean hydrogen more affordable.
Hydrogen advocates claim we can simply use the excess electricity that comes from grid-scale solar power plants during the middle of the day and they have a point. Much of it is wasted or “curtailed” as the industry likes to say. But to sustain a clean hydrogen industry would require massive new amounts of solar power. There is not enough solar power today to meet all our needs, so we have to make a choice between powering the electrical grid or powering electrolyzers. We can’t do both, at least not yet.
In some countries that have an abundance of hydroelectric power, electrolyzers are used to make hydrogen that is truly “green.” But in the United States, the vast majority is made by reforming so-called natural gas, which isn’t really all that natural. It make no more sense to say “natural gas” than it would to say “natural coal” or “natural oil.” It is mostly methane and much of that methane escapes into the atmosphere at wellheads or in pipelines and compressor stations as it wends its way to customers. Even when it gets to a hydrogen production facility, it has to be split into its component parts using pressurized high temperature steam. One of the byproducts of that process? Carbon dioxide, and that doesn’t even account for the energy needed to create that high temperature pressurized steam in the first place.
And so, environmental advocates are both cheered and chagrined to learn the Department of Energy intends to make $8 billion available to create a number of hydrogen hubs across the country to make the hydrogen needed to lower emissions in such critical industries as steel and cement making. The Verge reports the Notice of Intent issued by the US Department of Energy this week will provide funding for between 6 and 10 hubs initially. Of those, one is supposed to make hydrogen using renewable energy. Another is supposed to power hydrogen production with nuclear energy. A third is expected to show it is possible to make clean hydrogen from fossil fuels by using technologies that capture and sequester carbon dioxide emissions.
Now here’s the kicker. The DOE says it will locate at least two additional H2Hubs in regions with “abundant natural gas resources,” which could lead to more of them running on fossil fuels than renewable energy. In other words, the administration potentially could bestow a big, wet, sloppy $8 billion taxpayer funded kiss on the “natural gas” industry at a time when almost everyone who isn’t a fossil fuel industry lobbyist or a Republican senator knows it is imperative to stop using fossil fuels altogether.
Hydrogen production that pairs natural gas with carbon capture doesn’t create a truly clean fuel and could even lead to more greenhouse gas emissions in certain scenarios. Carbon capture schemes, to date, don’t work or are far more expensive than predicted. The Union of Concerned Scientists and RMI point out the $8 billion in funding for clean hydrogen comes from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed last year. The language in that law only considers the climate impact of CO2 emissions at the site of hydrogen production but takes no account of emissions that occur as methane leaks on the way to the production site.
They say a safer approach would be to scrutinize all greenhouse gas emissions that come from the entire supply chain and the process of making hydrogen. In a sign that the DOE might keep that in mind as it assesses applications for funding, the NOI it issued this week says the department “intends to also evaluate full life cycle emissions for each application and will give preference to applications that reduce GHG emissions across the full project life cycle.” If in fact that is true, none of the natural gas reformation hubs will pass muster.
Methane Is Killing Us
Somehow, methane doesn’t get as much attention as carbon dioxide. It doesn’t stay in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide but it is a far more powerful greenhouse gas while it is there, and the world dumps billions of cubic feet of the stuff into the air every year. If you want a clearer understanding of how much the fossil full industry has the US government by the cojones, you only need to recognize how even the most aggressive climate initiatives somehow wind up being riddled with carve outs for fossil fuels.
Perhaps the answer is to shrug and say, “It’s politics. You gotta give a little to get a little.” That might be fine in general, but during a time of a 5-alarm global emergency (much of the United States will experience dangerously high temperatures this weekend and the entire Southwest is facing critical water shortages with no end in sight), is there any excuse to spend taxpayer dollars to reward those who got us into this mess in the first place? Something to think about the next time you step into a voting booth.
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