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Green groups cry foul on clean hydrogen hype

Riley Beggin, The Detroit News on

Published in Automotive News

That's fueled in part by recent research from scientists at Cornell and Stanford universities that showed creating blue hydrogen produces much more greenhouse gas than previously thought. Carbon dioxide and methane emissions created and leaked while producing natural gas, transporting it, turning it into hydrogen and powering carbon capture technology add up — so much so that the researchers found it to emit more than just burning coal or natural gas for heat.

"The bottom line is it's really not useful at all. We don't need it because there's a much cleaner form of hydrogen, which is green hydrogen," said Mark Jacobson, an engineering professor at Stanford and one of the authors of the study. The limited needed use of hydrogen such as heavy transport or steel manufacturing can be met with green sources, he argued, while heating people's homes or running passenger cars can be achieved with other clean energy sources.

"This whole blue hydrogen scheme is really just designed to keep the fossil fuel industry going," he added.

Industry advocates argue blue hydrogen is currently more cost-effective than green hydrogen, and that it can pave the way for more renewable sources in the future. Dave Edwards, director of hydrogen energy for Air Liquide, said hydrogen's emissions reductions over gasoline "is really a fantastic option" as energy sources transition. "To simply throw everything out because there's one or two applications that aren't as ideal as others is premature."

Environmental advocates push back on that, but some support investments in carbon capture technology and green hydrogen production.

The infrastructure bill would set the goal of reducing the cost of green hydrogen to less than $2 per kilogram by 2026. Richard Sedano, president of the Regulatory Assistance Project, said new technology exploration can be worthwhile even if it doesn't arrive in time to help the country reach net-zero by 2050.

"I respect that there's an opportunity to make some investment in the technology that we think is important and strategic. But I think we also have to keep our heads and learn what we've had to learn — that the hydrogen economy has been coming for decades and it hasn't arrived, and there's still fundamental things in the way."


The bipartisan infrastructure bill has been sitting idle for months as Democrats in Congress debate over the larger social safety net and climate package that must be passed along party lines. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said she wants to pass the bill by the end of the month to capitalize on a closing window to enact President Joe Biden's agenda.

The bill would, for the first time, define "clean" hydrogen using a set lifetime emissions standard for hydrogen production that Jacobson said should disqualify blue hydrogen. But it would also set aside funding for hydrogen hubs that would produce, process, deliver, store and use hydrogen — including at least one demonstrating the use of fossil fuels and carbon capture, seeded first in natural gas-producing regions, with the aim of building a national network.

"We see that green hydrogen could be useful in some of the hardest-to-decarbonize sectors. But we are concerned, and what this can't become is another giveaway to the gas industry," said Patrick Drupp, deputy legislative director for climate and clean air at the Sierra Club.

"We can't just be giving them more money to make this so-called blue hydrogen using carbon capture and sequestration. There's still a lot of problems with that; it's not clean in terms of protecting the climate."

But Sunita Satyapal, director of the U.S. Department of Energy's Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technologies Office, indicated in an interview with The Detroit News that the department isn't ignoring the warning signs.

"We recognize that depending on the hydrogen production pathway, and depending on the upstream emissions, you can have a high greenhouse gas footprint. So our focus is to get to clean hydrogen and address all the different pieces of that puzzle," she said. "We of course are also looking at the total lifecycle emissions downstream as well. Looking at the lifecycle of greenhouse gas footprint will be important as we move forward."

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