Hydrogen — can it help decarbonize the US economy? The White House thinks so and announced on October 13 it is prepared to put $7 billion into funding seven regional hydrogen hubs across America to “accelerate the commercial scale deployment of low cost, clean hydrogen — a valuable energy product that can be produced with zero or near-zero carbon emissions and is crucial to meeting the President’s climate and energy security goals.”
Those hubs will kickstart a national network of clean hydrogen producers, consumers, and connective infrastructure while supporting the production, storage, delivery, and end-use of clean hydrogen, the Department of Energy said. The seven selected projects are the Appalachian (West Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania), California, Gulf Coast (Texas), Heartland (Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota), Mid-Atlantic (Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey), Midwest (Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan), and Pacific Northwest (Washington, Oregon, and Montana) hydrogen hubs.
“The H2Hubs are expected to collectively produce three million metric tons of hydrogen annually, reaching nearly a third of the 2030 U.S. production target and lowering emissions from hard-to-decarbonize industrial sectors that represent 30 percent of total U.S. carbon emissions. Together, they will also reduce 25 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions from end uses each year — an amount roughly equivalent to combined annual emissions of 5.5 million gasoline powered cars — and create and retain tens of thousands of good paying jobs across the country while supporting healthier communities,” according to the Energy Department.
Energy Secretary Janet Granholm said, “Unlocking the full potential of hydrogen — a versatile fuel that can be made from almost any energy resource in virtually every part of the country — is crucial to achieving President Biden’s goal of American industry powered by American clean energy, ensuring less volatility and more affordable energy options for American families and businesses. With this historic investment, the Biden-Harris Administration is laying the foundation for a new, American-led industry that will propel the global clean energy transition while creating high quality jobs and delivering healthier communities in every pocket of the nation.”
Clean hydrogen is a flexible energy carrier that can be produced from a diverse mix of domestic clean energy resources, including renewables, nuclear, and fossil resources with safe and responsible carbon capture, the Energy Department said. Its unique characteristics will allow the H2Hubs to substantially reduce harmful emissions from some of the most energy intensive sectors of the economy, such as chemical and industrial processes and heavy duty transportation, while creating new economic opportunities across the country.
“It could also be used as a form of long duration energy storage to support the expansion of renewable power. By enabling the development of diverse, domestic clean energy pathways across multiple sectors of the economy, clean hydrogen will strengthen American energy independence and accelerate the American manufacturing boom that has already created more than 815,000 jobs since President Biden took office.”
Hydrogen For The Win
Well, that all sounds quite wonderful, doesn’t it? And it is, sort of. There is a lot of chest thumping and heavy breathing by hydrogen advocates, many of whom are fossil fuel companies. They see an opportunity here to further bamboozle people with the wonders that hydrogen can make possible while keeping very, very quiet about the climate impacts of making hydrogen from methane, which we at CleanTechnica like to call “unnatural gas.”
Our own Michael Barnard has written extensively about the distinction between so-called “green” hydrogen and the “blue” hydrogen touted by fossil fuel groups. Suffice to say, the dirty little secret of “blue” hydrogen is it requires effective, affordable carbon capture technology in order to work, neither of which is within the realm of possibility any time in the foreseeable future — if ever.
Another concern is that some of the companies which have tried using hydrogen for transportation in the real world have found it is impractical and switched back to using batteries and electricity from the grid instead. Michael Barnard has also weighed in recently in how unlikely it is that hydrogen will become a fuel for zero emissions aircraft.
What we all can agree on is that hydrogen can play a crucial role in reducing the enormous carbon emissions from making steel. For that reason alone, if no other, pursuing the development of green hydrogen resources is worthwhile.
Blue Hydrogen Critics Abound
The announcement this week has many detractors and they haven’t been shy about expressing their displeasure. “At face value — and according to the Biden playbook — the hydrogen hub grants aim to help transition the United States to clean energy. In reality, they amount to another corporate scam, one that preserves and extends the life of the extractive economy and prevents the frontline communities most impacted by climate disaster from having input,” said Marion Gee, co-executive director at the Climate Justice Alliance, according to Common Dreams.
“Hydrogen development is energy intensive to produce, could present a public safety risk in transit, can produce health-damaging air pollution when combusted, and is a play by the fossil fuel industry to extend its viability and profits. We must work to move capital and power into the hands of local communities who will center traditional ecological and cultural knowledge and create a pathway toward a regenerative future. The fossil fuel industry is working to continue our nation’s reliance on fossil fuels by any means necessary — and hydrogen offers yet another possible inroad for Big Oil and Gas,” Gee added.
Earthworks policy director Lauren Pagel said, “prioritizing hydrogen hubs across the United States is more about extending the life of oil and gas companies than addressing the climate crisis. These hubs are a dangerous distraction from the obvious consensus solution that the world must stop expanding fossil fuels that are warming the atmosphere.”
Food & Water Watch policy director Jim Walsh was similarly critical, declaring that, “the massive build-out of hydrogen infrastructure is little more than an industry ploy to rebrand fracked gas. The Biden administration has clearly fallen for this scam hook, line, and sinker. This multi-billion dollar bet on greenwashed dirty energy will undermine efforts to address the climate crisis, while increasing pollution of our air and water, and milking taxpayers for billions in new fossil fuel subsidies.”
“Even the cleanest forms of hydrogen present serious problems — most notably the massive amount of water that would be waste. As groundwater sources are drying up across the country, there is no reason to waste precious drinking water resources on hydrogen when there are cheaper, cleaner energy sources that can facilitate a real transition off fossil fuels,” he added.
According to the New York Times, not all of the $7 billion in funding will be spent at once. As a first step, the Energy Department will give awardees initial grants to create more detailed proposals for their hydrogen hubs. If the agency deems the projects viable, it will disburse more money over time — but that money is not guaranteed if any of the hubs prove unworkable.
Even groups that support green hydrogen raised concerns over funding longtime polluters. Sierra Club executive director Ben Jealous warned that “the fossil fuel industry is working to continue our nation’s reliance on fossil fuels by any means necessary — and hydrogen offers yet another possible inroad for Big Oil and Gas to lock in polluting and noneconomic uses of gas for decades to come. Decision makers in the administration and at the local level must be wary of these attempts and ensure as much hydrogen-specific funding as possible goes to green hydrogen and its most efficient end uses to ensure this investment actually addresses climate change.”
All Of The Above
The favorite tactic of the fossil fuel industry is to play the “all of the above” card and its corollary, the “government should not be picking winners and losers” argument. They are elated if in fact the government makes losers of their competitors but scream bloody murder if their interests are hampered in any way.
It may be that this program is designed to appease the fossil gas crowd by throwing them a bone so they won’t go running to their friends on the Supreme Court to protect them. Clearly, it’s put up or shut up time for all participants. If any of these technologies can’t perform as advertised, the funding will be cut off. Joe Biden and his crew may be playing it smart by giving the methane mullahs just enough rope to hang themselves.
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