The Department of Energy yesterday began a new $8 billion program to develop a network of centers for the production of hydrogen as a clean fuel. It marks a milestone for one of the Biden administration’s most controversial strategies to combat climate change.
Hydrogen has the potential to reduce emissions from some of the most difficult industries to clean. It can replace coal used in making steel or fossil fuels that fuel diesel trucks and cargo ships. When burned, it produces water vapor rather than greenhouse gas emissions (although it can still contribute to nitrogen oxide air pollution).
The tricky part is that not all hydrogen is created equal and it can come with different benefits and pitfalls. At the moment, most hydrogen is made using gas. To produce hydrogen from gas, methane reacts with high-temperature steam under high pressure. This process releases carbon dioxide and there is the threat to the climate that comes from methane leaks throughout the gas industry. Methane is an even more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
Therefore, the Biden administration needs to clean up hydrogen production before it can use hydrogen to decarbonize other industries. The DOE laid out part of its plan to clean up this process yesterday when it filed a Notice of Intent (NOI), a document saying it plans to announce a funding opportunity in September or October to develop clean hydrogen hubs, which it calls “H2Hubs.” ”
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Act provides funding for at least four hubs; the NOI says the DOE is considering funding between six and 10 hubs to start its program. Of these hubs, at least one must produce hydrogen using renewable energy. Another center is to feed the production of hydrogen with nuclear energy. And at the very least, a hub must be able to show that it can produce clean hydrogen from fossil fuels, combining it with technologies that capture and sequester carbon dioxide emissions. But the DOE also says it will look for at least two hubs in regions with “abundant natural gas resources,” which could lead to more H2Hubs. powered by fossil fuels than renewable energy.
Clean energy experts are closely watching DOE moves when it comes to hydrogen. If the DOE isn’t careful about the types of projects it chooses, all the hype for hydrogen could give the gas industry a boost at a time when research shows the world should phase out dirty fuel to prevent further climate change. catastrophic.
Hydrogen production that combines gas with carbon capture does not create a truly clean fuel and can even lead to most greenhouse gas emissions in certain scenarios. When this type of hydrogen is used to heat buildings, for example, it can be even dirtier than the heating systems it replaces, researchers at Stanford and Cornell found in a study published last year. This is mainly because the production and use of gas is fraught with methane leaks from wells, pipelines and even appliances in homes and businesses. It’s a major climate problem that could extend to gas-based hydrogen hubs.
Because of that risk, the Department of Energy needs to tighten its standards for what is considered a clean hydrogen project, say experts from the nonprofits Union of Concerned Scientists and RMI. Its $8 billion in clean hydrogen funding comes from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act passed last year, and the law’s language only considers the climate impact of CO2 emissions at the hydrogen production site.
A safer approach, according to the nonprofits, would be to examine all greenhouse gas emissions that come from the entire supply chain and hydrogen production process. In a sign that the DOE may keep this in mind when evaluating funding applications, the NOI issued this week says the department “also intends to assess full lifecycle emissions for each application and will give preference to applications that reduce costs.” GHG emissions throughout the entire project lifecycle.”
True “green hydrogen,” in contrast, is made with renewable energy-powered electrolysis that splits water to get hydrogen. This process is less polluting, but at the moment it is still more expensive than producing hydrogen with gas and capturing carbon because electrolyzers are expensive.
The Biden administration is working to reduce that cost. President Joe Biden authorized the use of the Defense Production Act yesterday to bolster domestic supply chains for clean energy technologies, including electrolysers. The Department of Energy launched an initiative last year aimed at reducing the cost of clean hydrogen by 80% to $1 per kilogram by the end of the decade.