Hydrogen: Harmful or Helpful in the Clean Energy Transition?

Aug 11, 2023 | Ecolectro in the News

In the last part of this two-part article series, we took a closer look at some of the different types of hydrogen — from grey and brown hydrogen to blue, turquoise, pink and red — how they’re produced and the challenges with these methods. Today, we evaluate the differences between green hydrogen and everything else, as well as some questions to consider in proposed use cases. 

Consider life cycle analysis to evaluate types of hydrogen

Even if methane rather than coal is used as a starting point to produce hydrogen, life cycle analyses show many flaws in the system. Considering a life cycle analysis approach provides a more helpful big picture. We need to consider what it takes to drill for fossil fuels, process them, and transport them to the place where methane gets burned from CH4 into C (carbon) or CO2 (carbon dioxide) and H2 (hydrogen).

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, natural gas is the main source of methane for creating hydrogen industrially. Although methane can be captured from landfills, drilling for methane along with other hydrocarbons like oil and gas is more common.

So, how do we get natural gas? Primarily from drilling and fracking, or hydraulic fracturing of shale. Fracking creates vast amounts of wastewater, leaks methane in the process (contributing to global warming), releases toxic air pollutants and generates noise. 

As noted by the Yale School of Public Health: “Studies have shown these gas and oil operations can lead to loss of animal and plant habitats, species decline, migratory disruptions and land degradation. They have also been associated with human health risks. Studies have reported associations between residential proximity to these operations and increased adverse pregnancy outcomes, cancer incidence, hospitalizations and asthma. Some fracking-related operations have been located near lower-resourced communities, worsening their cumulative burden of environmental and social injustices.” 

Methane is an even more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide: It is 86 times worse over 20 years than CO2, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). And it leaks when: a well is drilleda well is fracked, the extracted gas is compressed into pipelines, it is transported by pipeline, and after wells are plugged or abandoned.

Using steam methane reforming for gray hydrogen ignores environmental justice 

The people most impacted by drilling for fossil fuels are poor people of color. Populations living near fossil fuel extraction sites experience elevated rates of diseases like cancer. Is this really what we want to keep doing, using fossil fuels like methane to create supposedly lower-carbon fuels like hydrogen?

The economics of green hydrogen

Green hydrogen comes from using renewable electricity to power electrolysis, a process that splits water into hydrogen and oxygen. Electrolyzers are a technology. Historically, technology gets way better — if not exponentially better — as we figure out better ways of doing things. Twenty years ago, floppy disks had 1.44 megabytes of storage on them. Now, a photo you take on an iPhone can use even more memory than that. Solar cells have also gotten way better and cheaper in the last 20 years. This is why it’s worth investing in actual green technology (read: electrolyzers) to create green hydrogen from water.

Because electrolysis requires a lot of clean energy, the European Union is requiring green hydrogen to come from newly built renewable plants, so hydrogen production doesn’t compete with other power needs.

More specifically, the EU defines green hydrogen as: “coming from water electrolysis that’s powered by newly built renewable electricity generation equipment. An electrolysis plant with an onsite solar or wind farm would count. But a grid-powered plant would need to purchase renewable electricity from a nearby source that was built no more than 36 months before the hydrogen plant came online. It would also need to match volumes of hydrogen with corresponding renewable wattage on an hour-by-hour basis.”

Another way to think about the economics of making green hydrogen is to account for the fact that fossil fuels got $5.9 trillion in subsidies in 2020 — or roughly $11 million every minute — according to a new analysis from the International Monetary Fund. Thus, the cost of using methane to create hydrogen is actually not the full cost. Indeed, 47 percent of natural gas and 99 percent of coal is priced at less than half its true cost.

How hydrogen is produced matters. The good news is that in the U.S., the Department of Energy’s Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technologies Office is focused on developing technologies that can produce hydrogen at $2 per kilogram by 2026 and $1 per kilogram by 2031 via net-zero-carbon pathways. The aim supports the Hydrogen Energy Earthshot goal of reducing the costof clean hydrogen by 80 percent to $1 per 1 kilogram in a decade (“1 1 1”).

Additionally, the Inflation Reduction Act passed in 2022 is bringing in a $3/kilogram production tax credit, making green hydrogen from electrolyzers more competitive and spurring more innovation that will help lower the cost of green hydrogen, just like solar panels. Indeed, 2022 modeling from S&P Global Commodity Insights found that “green hydrogen produced from industrial hubs on the U.S. Gulf Coast would have been cheaper than gray hydrogen made from fossil gas for over half of trading days over the past 12 months had President Joe Biden’s new maximum $3/kg production tax credit (PTC) been in place,” Recharge News reported

Where should we use hydrogen for a clean energy economy, and which type?

Let’s look to environmental organizations, not the fossil fuel industry, for what to do to address climate change. The first priority for addressing climate change should be reducing emissions. The Sierra Club, for example, only supports the use of green hydrogen that is made through electrolysis powered by renewable energy. Even green hydrogen comes with caveats, however.

One thing to note is that the presence of hydrogen in the lower atmosphere — whether it came from green sources or not — prevents atmospheric methane from breaking down, and methane is a potent greenhouse gas. The Sierra Club also recommends that these additional conditions be met for green hydrogen to be a good idea.

  • Green hydrogen is a promising solution only for uses that cannot otherwise directly rely on clean electricity, which is much more efficient. (For example, electric cars rather than hydrogen fuel cell cars.)
  • Green hydrogen should not be used to justify a buildout of facilities that otherwise increase pollution or fossil fuel use. (We need to benefit the planet, not the oil industry.)
  • If green hydrogen is being used, the goal should be to switch to 100 percent green hydrogen once the technology is available. We should not support projects that label themselves as “sustainable” because their fuel source includes a small fraction of hydrogen when most of it is fracked gas. (Again, we need to stop using fossil fuels in order to mitigate the worst of climate change.)

Question to ask when you hear about “lower-carbon hydrogen” 

  • Who is paying for the content you are reading?
  • Who is sponsoring the think tank or speaker at the conference? 
  • Does the think tank publish where they get their money from and how they spend it?
  • What economic incentives do they have to promote a specific technology?
  • Who is being left out or not considered conversations about the project and its potential harms?
  • Has the think tank consulted people typically left out, such as Indigenous peoples, people of color, women and people with disabilities?  
  • What policies or incentives can help make green hydrogen more affordable and stimulate innovation?
  • Which elected officials are supporting clean energy innovation, and which are supporting polluters? 
  • Does this project prolong the use of existing fossil fuel infrastructure? 
Note that existing infrastructure for “natural gas” or methane cannot accommodate hydrogen at concentrations higher than a few percent, which could prolong ongoing methane use without substantially reducing associated emissions. Additionally, the costs associated with building specialized, hydrogen-compatible infrastructure may point to applications that involve onsite generation and use (e.g. for steel production) rather than large-scale distribution networks. Hydrogen makes steel brittle, which can make it hard to transport.

Green hydrogen companies to watch

Here are a few companies that are creating green hydrogen from renewable-energy-powered electrolysis:

Land Acknowledgment: Katharine is a Mayflower descendant who lives and works in unceded Lisjan Ohlone territory, what is now known as Oakland, Berkeley, Alameda, Piedmont, Emeryville and Albany, California. The Sogorea Te’ Land Trust is an urban Indigenous women-led land trust that is today working hard to restore traditional stewardship practices on these lands, heal from historical trauma, and facilitate the return of Indigenous land to Indigenous people. May they be successful in their work!

Read the full TriplePundit article here!

Unleashing the Green Hydrogen Revolution