“Green hydrogen” seems to be the climate change solution of the moment — a not-widely-understood substance now talked up by the Biden administration, northeastern governors and Connecticut lawmakers, as well as the few people here who actually know what green hydrogen is.
Among other initiatives, the Biden administration has launched a competition for four hydrogen “hubs” that will share $8 billion in federal funds to develop, well, something. Connecticut is partnering with New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts to come up with a proposal for what one such something might be. Separately, the Connecticut legislature is considering a bill to establish a task force to study green hydrogen’s potential in the state and the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) is planning for a hydrogen component in its new Comprehensive Energy Strategy. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) includes hydrogen among the mitigation strategies in its final and alarming 6th assessment report released last week.
But the environmental community is, at best, wary of green hydrogen. Some are downright opposed to aspects of making and using it and even more worried about non-green hydrogen. Even green hydrogen’s biggest supporters admit it has limitations and is not a silver bullet for addressing climate change.
“A lot of really important questions come with this policy area,” said Katie Dykes, DEEP’s commissioner. “What is the hydrogen being produced with? What are the emissions associated with the production of the hydrogen? How is it being transported and stored? What are you using it for?
“Those are more questions than answers.”
So what is green hydrogen exactly and is its potential in mitigating climate change worth getting excited about? The answer is complicated.
The “green” in “green hydrogen” refers to how the hydrogen is made.
Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. It’s also the lightest. You have to make it because it doesn’t appear in nature on its own; hydrogen is always bonded to something. Like in water — H2O, with the H being hydrogen bonded to oxygen.
It’s also highly flammable. Think Hindenburg, the hydrogen-filled airship that went down in flames in 1937 in Lakehurst, N.J. Hydrogen plus a spark is generally blamed.
But hydrogen is also an energy carrier in gas or liquid form, which is why it’s of interest — and it’s been in use for quite some time. Connecticut has a long history with hydrogen in its non-green form; it’s a necessary component of its well-known and regarded fuel cell industry. It’s no surprise that the key legislator promoting a state hydrogen task force is Rep. David Arconti, co-chair of the energy and technology committee who also represents Danbury, headquarters of FuelCell Energy, one of the top fuel cell companies in the world.
Hydrogen is also widely used in heavy industries such as steel manufacturing, oil refining and to produce fertilizers and chemicals, none of which is prominent in Connecticut.
The actual use of hydrogen in something like a fuel cell is a clean electrochemical — not combustion — process that produces electricity and leaves only water and heat behind, no greenhouse gasses.
But making that hydrogen is another matter. You have to essentially un-hook it from whatever it’s connected to. And that’s usually CH4, better known as methane — the main component in natural gas. It can also be made from coal. Traditionally, those two options consume a lot of additional fossil fuel to de-couple the hydrogen through a process known as steam methane reforming.
So that part of the process releases huge amounts of greenhouse gasses. And the resulting hydrogen is referred to as gray hydrogen, with coal-sourced hydrogen sometimes called brown hydrogen. There is also blue hydrogen, if the carbon from methane reforming is captured and stored.
Green hydrogen is considered carbon-free start to finish. It is produced from water, so the starting product doesn’t have climate change risks. Then to separate out the hydrogen it uses renewable energy for a process called electrolysis — so again, no climate change risk.
No silver bullet
The federal hydrogen hubs are mostly after the green variety. Sounds pretty good, right?
Not to everyone.
“I think one of our concerns is that when there’s a lot of excitement, when it’s the thing of the moment, bad ideas can be swept up alongside potentially good ideas,” said John Carlson, manager of state policy in the northeast for Boston-based Ceres, a nonprofit that develops environmentally sustainable economic solutions.
Green hydrogen barely exists — in part because it costs much more to produce than other forms of hydrogen.
Another problem is that there isn’t that much renewable energy, never mind extra renewable energy, at this point. The question being raised is whether to divert the renewable power available now for the purpose of the expensive and energy-intensive process of making green hydrogen.
You might as well just burn the natural gas, said Ken Gillingham, who specializes in environmental and energy economics at Yale and was the senior economist for energy and the environment at the White House Council of Economic Advisers during the Obama administration. Making green hydrogen is “more expensive than just burning natural gas, that’s for sure,” he said.
“We’re quite a ways from green hydrogen at this point. I think it’s possible that it will play a key role 20 years from now. But it’s not going to be playing a key role in the near future. It’s just not,” he said.
Eventually, when there’s a vast increase in renewable power, he and others see green hydrogen playing a crucial role in decarbonizing certain sectors of the economy. Many are looking to the already-planned offshore wind, as well as the additional offshore wind projects that are likely. There’s also potential for more hydropower from Canada, though that continues to face access woes with states blocking construction of transmission lines.
But Connecticut and other states will be needing more power even without using it for green hydrogen. That’s due to the push for greater electrification in sectors such as motor vehicles and home heating. Older, dirtier power plants are likely to retire and the state faces the difficult mandate of entirely carbon-free power by 2040.
“There’s simply not enough electricity in Connecticut to electrify everything, and if you were to try to do that, there probably will be a good use for the offshore wind that we’re putting in,” said Ugur Pasaogullari, director of UConn’s Center for Clean Energy Engineering and a mechanical engineering professor. “It doesn’t look like we’ll be adding any more nuclear power plants. We’re struggling to keep this one [Millstone] going. That means that we’re going to have to get more renewable electricity, and, unfortunately, you cannot control when the renewable electricity is coming. So you’ll have to store significant amounts of energy to the grid. And hydrogen will be a way to do this.”
Assuming that green hydrogen will have an important role in decarbonization down the road, there’s a widespread view that it’s not too early to start planning for it.
“Comprehensive use of hydrogen is not taking over everything,” said Frank Wolak, formerly with FuelCell Energy and now president and CEO of the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association. “But the value of hydrogen is, in fact, the ability for policymakers to look at their renewable resource base, work it where they want to try to decarbonize and ask the question, where does hydrogen fit in my model to fill gaps that otherwise are going to be hard to decarbonize?”
He said there’s more than 11 million metric tons of hydrogen used in the U.S. annually, making it a more than $17 billion industry. So where else can hydrogen be used beyond where it’s used now?
The usual answer is in those “hard to decarbonize” sectors of our economy. And the list is pretty consistent: long-haul trucking, ocean shipping, aviation fuel, fleet vehicles — especially those that operate indoors, large industrial operations, and energy storage — especially from renewables that may churn out energy at times of the day when it’s not needed. Hydrogen can store that energy for longer periods than batteries can.
Pasaogullari at UConn said he analyzed the use of batteries versus hydrogen fuel in trucks. “You have to put about 60,000 pounds of batteries in a truck to actually get the same range that they get right now,” he said. There’d be no room for cargo.
The trick is coordinating the build-out of infrastructure for fueling with the development of the user technology. Hydrogen-powered trucks, ships and planes for all practical purposes don’t exist yet. Then it’s a matter of having enough renewable power to make the hydrogen so you’re just not adding to the greenhouse gas emissions problem instead of solving it.
Hydrogen-powered forklifts are in use already — though their hydrogen source may not be green. They’re a perfect fit, said Joel Rinebold, a longtime advocate for hydrogen and director of energy at the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology (CCAT), because many operate indoors in places like warehouses where you don’t want engine emissions, and many work around the clock.
“There’s no long term recharging; there’s no degradation of the batteries,” he said. “If you needed a machine that only needed to operate an hour a day, batteries would be a perfect solution. If you have to have a device operate long distances or long duration times, you’ll need to have a different source of energy, and hydrogen can provide that.”
Rinebold said in addition to the forklift industry, hydrogen buses are in some use, and there are prototypes for heavy duty trucks. Hartford was an early experimenter with fuel cell buses, adding several beginning in 2007 amid much hype. But by 2015 they were all out of service due to fueling difficulties.
What no one is suggesting is that green hydrogen should be used for cars and light-duty trucks — those vehicles are firmly in the electric vehicle battery camp. Some have suggested using it for home heating, but the environmental community has pushed back hard on that, saying it’s more efficient and less expensive to electrify heating through systems such as heat pumps. And home appliances such as furnaces generally are not suited to using hydrogen as a fuel and could be damaged.
But the first order of business for green hydrogen, most say, is to displace gray hydrogen. There are more than a few hurdles to do even that, however. And the northeast may have more than most areas.
Storage, transportation, pipelines and other problems
The process of storing hydrogen — green or otherwise — is not altogether clear. The most likely places are thought to be salt caverns or large underground mines of which Connecticut and the rest of New England have next to none.
If it’s stored someplace else, there are a couple of options to move it. One is to use more energy to turn it into a liquid, put it in a truck and transport it that way. Another is to send it as a gas via pipeline.
For those (and there are many) who think you can just use all those natural gas pipelines – nope. Pure hydrogen gas needs different pressurization than natural gas, and it can corrode the kind of pipes natural gas uses, so you’d probably need to build new pipelines or spend a lot of money retro-fitting old ones.
Another way to transport hydrogen gas by pipeline is to blend it with natural gas. That comes with a bunch of concerns. The blend can’t handle more than about 20% hydrogen. But because hydrogen is so light and its molecules are so small (which also means it can be pretty leaky in pipes), it’s not very energy-dense, so the actual energy kick from 20% hydrogen is only about 7 or 8% of the total.
The idea of blending is divisive — with some saying it’s a good first step and others dead-set against it.
“One of the concerns is that the gas utilities will use hydrogen blending as an excuse for continuing to make these investments in replacing pipes in the gas distribution system that aren’t necessarily a good investment when we’re thinking about how to decarbonize our economy,” said Ben Butterworth, senior manager of climate and energy analysis for the regional environmental group Acadia Center.
Carlson at Ceres said among the bad applications for hydrogen, blending it with natural gas has him the most worried.
“It just does not make sense on so many different levels,” he said. “And really, the only reason anyone would be promoting this at all is natural gas utilities that want to use this as a form of greenwashing.”
Joe Stekli, program manager of the low carbon resources initiative at the Electric Power Research Institute could see both sides.
“I think there’s no doubt that from a carbon emissions perspective, low level, the blending does not buy you much,” he said. “But I think in the longer term, it is something that can be utilized to help scale up these nascent hydrogen production technologies.”
Rinebold at CCAT thought blending would help prevent sticker shock on rates from a whole-system replacement. “Blending would be appropriate for incremental decarbonization. And this would provide a business opportunity to use our existing infrastructure without simply throwing it away as stranded investment,” he said.
And of course hydrogen is quite flammable.
“I certainly think that there’s a lot of work to be done on hydrogen in the safety and codes and standards areas,” said Stekli, echoing a common sentiment, especially when it comes to new applications for hydrogen. “Hydrogen is significantly different than something like natural gas in terms of its combustion characteristics and what you need to do to manage it and take care of it safely.”
Where Connecticut fits in
Some think Connecticut and New England may not be the best place for one of the federal hydrogen hubs, given the storage and transport issues and lack of heavy industry, though the massive truck traffic through the region could benefit.
Butterworth at Acadia noted that a recent study in Massachusetts on the future of gas determined that the cheapest way to get hydrogen into that state was to build an onshore wind farm in Pennsylvania, use that wind to produce green hydrogen via electrolysis, store the hydrogen underground in Pennsylvania and then build a dedicated hydrogen pipeline from Pennsylvania to Massachusetts.
“The exact same issue holds true for Connecticut and all New England,” he said.
But planning to win the hub funding is underway, and Commissioner Dykes believes the state’s experience with the fuel cell industry and the federal Department of Energy’s longstanding support for it may give the region a leg up on winning a hub designation.
“I think we are in a very competitive position to build on the partnership that we’ve had with DOE on the fuel cell industry, and to develop a business case and utilization plan for hydrogen here in Connecticut and in the northeast that that leverages everything that we know well and do well,” she said. But she acknowledged: “This is going to be a very competitive funding opportunity.”
The state legislation to authorize a hydrogen task force is proving far more divisive. While not calling it redundant, Dykes noted that its timeline is out of sync with the federal effort, which does similar work much sooner.
In comments filed with the Energy and Technology committee, environmental advocates are uniformly opposed to at least some aspects of the task force legislation. Principally, they say it is too broad — focusing on hydrogen generally, not green hydrogen specifically. And they object to the task force composition — with many players in the natural gas industry in addition to people with little knowledge of hydrogen and just too many members, period.
“I don’t think the notion of studying the potential role of hydrogen in Connecticut is a bad one on its face,” said Butterworth from Acadia Center, who also said he didn’t have a problem with the concept of green hydrogen and its role in decarbonization. “It’s in the details of how that report is put together.”
But co-chair Arconti, who is not running for re-election, said the legislation was to simply get a task force to create a hydrogen roadmap. “A report that’s going to identify regulation or legislation needed — that will guide the development of the hydrogen economy system.”
“I don’t think anyone is suggesting that you’re going to suddenly wake up in 2024 and the entire energy ecosystem is going to be hydrogen driven,” said FCHEA’s Wolak. “As you look at hydrogen, it is a fundamentally wonderful means to assist in a decarbonization that can complement a lot of resources.
“It is far better to have this wonderful resource available to be looked at than to try to decarbonize without it being available.”
Dykes agrees deployment is a long way off, but better to be working with green hydrogen than without it, which means getting things going now. And then there’s the money.
“We have a huge opportunity here, with the federal government putting $8 billion on the table to help us explore and understand how hydrogen could fit in our decarbonization strategy,” she said. “But for that federal funding, would we be able to really give this the look that it needs? Probably not.”