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The US wants to become a hydrogen production powerhouse

The US wants to become a hydrogen production powerhouse


The Department of Energy has a new ‘roadmap’ for building up a ‘clean’ hydrogen industry

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One of the world’s first plants for the production of green hydrogen in Wesseling, Germany, on July 2nd, 2021.
Photo by INA FASSBENDER/AFP via Getty Images

Ramping up production of hydrogen fuel is now a high priority for the Biden administration as it tries to put an end to the fossil fuel pollution causing climate change. The Department of Energy wants to produce 10 million metric tons of “clean” hydrogen by 2030, according to a draft National Clean Hydrogen Strategy and Roadmap released yesterday.

About 10 million metric tons of hydrogen is already produced in the US each year, but that’s mostly “gray” hydrogen made with dirty natural gas. The shift would be to pair that natural gas with controversial technologies that capture carbon dioxide emissions as well as make more hydrogen using renewable energy sources and nuclear energy.

“A high priority technology for this administration”

Clean hydrogen is “a high priority technology for this administration,” Deputy Secretary of Energy David Turk said in a press briefing yesterday. “I will say one word about why that is, and that is versatility.”

Hydrogen is seen as an alternative fuel to fossil fuels. It might be a cleaner fuel for planes or ships, for instance. There’s also hope that using hydrogen as fuel could potentially reduce greenhouse gas emissions from industrial processes that need to reach extremely high temperatures, something that’s harder for renewables like wind and solar to accomplish. When hydrogen is made with excess wind and solar energy, it also serves as a kind of “energy storage,” similar to a battery, so that abundant renewable power doesn’t go to waste when electricity demand is low.

Hydrogen releases water vapor when burned, which is why it’s being sold as a clean fuel. The big caveat is that hydrogen is essentially only as clean as the energy source used to produce it. One way to make hydrogen is through electrolysis, which uses electricity to separate water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. “Green” hydrogen can be made by splitting water molecules using renewable energy. There’s also “pink” hydrogen, made through electrolysis powered by nuclear energy.

But the majority of hydrogen produced today is “gray” and greenhouse gas-emitting. To make gray hydrogen, methane gas reacts with high-temperature steam under high pressure in a process that releases carbon dioxide while making the hydrogen. Now, the Biden administration wants to rely on technologies that scrub CO2 out of smokestack emissions to try to make that gray hydrogen clean.

That’s a contentious proposition since critics argue it would prolong, rather than phase out, the reign of fossil fuels. And capturing CO2 doesn’t deal with methane leaks, which are a huge problem for natural gas infrastructure. There are also worries that a new hydrogen industry could create its own problems. Citing safety concerns about leaks from hydrogen pipelines and storage facilities, several environmental groups sent a letter to US Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm earlier this week that urged the Department of Energy to drop hydrogen projects from the Biden administration’s environmental justice initiatives.

Critics argue it would prolong, rather than phase out, the reign of fossil fuels

Nevertheless, the Biden administration looks poised to push forward with its hydrogen ambitions. The roadmap issued yesterday includes clean hydrogen production goals that grow with time: 20 million metric tons of clean hydrogen by 2040 and 50 million metric tons by 2050. The Department of Energy thinks that could ultimately reduce US greenhouse gas emissions by 10 percent by 2050. The roadmap, however, is still a draft, and the DOE says it’s soliciting feedback before finalizing the strategy.

The Biden administration has already set in motion plans to develop up to 10 regional hubs for hydrogen production across the US. At least one of the hubs should use renewable energy to make hydrogen fuel, the DOE says, and another hub is supposed to harness nuclear energy. But the DOE is also looking for at least two hubs in regions with “abundant natural gas resources.” Yesterday, the DOE opened up $7 billion in funding opportunities to develop those hubs, which the agency says will be “one of the largest investments in DOE history.”