Welcome back to The Planet You Save May Be Your Own, a weekly newsletter on local & state climate action.
In fairly big regional energy news, the Biden administration announced the selections of seven hydrogen hubs across the US, some covering parts of multiple states. The negotiations are ongoing and funding is dependent on certain milestones, but it’s a big investment — $7 billion total — from the 2021 infrastructure law.
Hydrogen itself burns without greenhouse gas emissions, and is being considered for things that can not easily be electrified. But hydrogen on an industrial scale has to be made, and that can happen in a whole variety of ways. However, a significant chunk of the hydrogen hubs are planning to make at least some of their hydrogen “blue” — i.e. using fossil gas with carbon capture. That has not gone over well, E&E reports:
Four recipients — the Appalachian, Gulf Coast, Heartland and Midwest hydrogen hubs — include blue hydrogen in their plans, though the infrastructure law only mandated one.
That has drawn the ire of environmentalists, who argue blue hydrogen is not emissions-free, partly because of the potential for methane leaks during the production process.
“This is worse than expected,” Clean Energy Group President Seth Mullendore said after the recipients were announced Friday. “The fact that more than half the hubs will be using fossil gas is outrageous.”
How emitting are blue hydrogen processes? The short answer is: “Nobody is really sure.” The long answer depends on a whole host of factors, including the gas supply chain, the success (or not) of capturing carbon from the process, the emissions of underlying electricity powering the process and what fuel the hydrogen is replacing. A lot of these factors for these hubs are unknown or unproven.
In late 2021, I spoke to Cornell researcher Robert Howarth about a different subject, but as I questioned if there wasn’t anything else I wasn’t asking, he immediately starting talking about blue hydrogen. In this story from Canary Media, I see why:
“They still claim, sometimes, that blue hydrogen is low-emissions or zero-emissions,” said Robert Howarth, professor of ecology and environmental biology at Cornell University. But there isn’t “anything in the peer-reviewed literature to support those claims at all.”
After spending several years searching for evidence, Howarth teamed up with Mark Z. Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, to conduct their own research. The results, published in August 2021, indicate that in almost all cases, blue hydrogen ends up emitting more greenhouse gases compared to simply burning fossil gas directly for heating and industrial processes. …
It’s important to note that not all blue hydrogen projects will necessarily be operating under the conditions used to inform Howarth and Jacobson’s report. Nor is making green hydrogen from electricity and water necessarily a lower-carbon option. In fact, using grid power generated by coal or fossil gas plants can yield a “green” hydrogen output with a greater carbon-intensity than gray hydrogen, according to multiple analyses…
“The carbon-intensity of any particular hydrogen pathway is very dependent on the individual project-level decision making,” said Emily Kent, U.S. director of zero-carbon fuels at the Clean Air Task Force, a nonprofit environmental organization. “For a blue hydrogen facility, that’s going to depend on carbon capture rates, the upstream methane leaks,” and the carbon footprint of the electricity used to power its carbon capture equipment, she said.
I will spare you the rest of the many, many details about the production and economics of hydrogen, but one hub application that didn’t get the nod was notable to me: New Mexico (along with partners Colorado, Utah and Wyoming). Building out hydrogen production has been a huge debate in New Mexico, with those in favor arguing its could be a way for the state to diversify from its boom-and-bust fossil fuel industry.
In a statement, New Mexico’s governor Michelle Lujan Grisham argued that the snub wasn’t the end for their regional hub. “I spoke with every project partner this morning and we agree: our bullish outlook has not changed and we will continue to move forward.” But the state faces strong local opposition as well.
Last week I had a wide-ranging interview with Sandra Goldmark, the author of Fixation: How to Have Stuff Without Breaking the Planet.
Next week, in the monthly bonus edition for members, I'm going to a small forest in search of very local food. Support the newsletter and get the bonus editions by becoming a TPYS member.