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Green groups cry foul on clean hydrogen hype

Riley Beggin, The Detroit News on

Published in Automotive News

Blue and green hydrogen are the focus of most climate buzz. Green hydrogen comes from renewable energy (such as wind, solar or biomass) used to draw hydrogen from water through electrolysis. Blue hydrogen is also made from natural gas, but uses carbon capture machines to store emissions instead of releasing them into the atmosphere. The spectrum of hydrogen types is known as the hydrogen "rainbow."

Natural gas industry advocates have argued that building out gas infrastructure is still a worthwhile investment as it could be used for hydrogen fueling in the future. Industry groups have pitched the low-carbon promise of hydrogen solutions like blue hydrogen to governments around the world, including in Europe, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Most major automakers have turned to batteries as the way to decarbonize passenger cars and trucks that account for nearly 60% of emissions coming from the transportation sector. But many, including General Motors Co., Stellantis NV, Toyota Motor Corp., BMW AG and Volkswagen AG, are still investing in hydrogen fuel cells.

Most automakers are now looking at hydrogen fuel cells as a way to cut emissions in cases where batteries make less sense. Common examples are in long-haul trucks, where batteries would likely be too heavy or charging too unwieldly, or with forklifts, which run overnight indoors and in cold climates and need to be refueled quickly.

"We're trying to make sure that everything we do is sustainable, both from an environmental perspective and a business perspective," said Charlie Freese, executive director of GM's hydrogen fuel cell arm, Global HYDROTEC. "Because if it's not sustainable from a business perspective, it's not going to take off and grow fast enough."

Even hydrogen fuel cells made from fossil fuels have a lower carbon footprint than burning gas and diesel to power vehicles, according to research from Argonne National Laboratory. That's good reason to invest in technology that will only stand to get greener with time, Freese said.


"Having a source that's much greener than many of the alternatives, immediately, is something I wouldn't want to turn my back on in the near term," he said.

"Natural gas is a viable way to get much cleaner energy to some of these places that are some of the dirtiest uses of power today. So any step you make in that direction is cleaner. And if you wait until the perfectly green source is out there, you've made a lot of much dirtier emissions in the meantime by relying on other ways of providing power."

Blue hydrogen blues

But many in the environmental community argue the federal government shouldn't be supporting the rollout of hydrogen that isn't fully green — or made from renewable energy sources — especially as global focus turns to the increasing speed of climate change, which the United Nations has called a "code red for humanity."


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