Bridgeport's fuel cell power plant. Jan Ellen Spiegel / CT Mirror

Connecticut and the Northeast came up losers Friday in the high-stakes competition for regional hydrogen hubs — part of the Biden administration’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law’s focus on hydrogen as an important clean energy source to fight climate change.

A seven-state consortium led by New York and including Connecticut and the rest of New England except New Hampshire, plus New Jersey, were not among seven hubs selected to share $7 billion. The Biden administration estimates the hubs will catalyze another $40 billion in private investment and create tens of thousands of jobs.

The decision is especially disappointing for Connecticut. The state has a decades-long history with hydrogen, a necessary component of its well-known and regarded fuel cell industry. FuelCell Energy is headquartered in Danbury, and there are expertise hubs at the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology (CCAT) and the University of Connecticut.

“While I am disappointed by today’s announcement, the Northeast’s hydrogen and fuel cell network remains a critical cluster for the development of American-made clean energy,” said U.S. Rep. John Larson, D-Conn., who has been an advocate for Connecticut’s fuel cell industry in Congress for years. “I’m proud of our efforts in Congress to secure funding for cutting-edge research in our state and enact tax credits to spur the development of clean hydrogen technologies, and will continue to advocate for Connecticut’s growing fuel cell industry.”

Gov. Ned Lamont thanked consortium members and said in a statement: “Along with our partner states and the hubs selected today, we will continue to explore the opportunity hydrogen provides to decarbonize hard to electrify sectors.”

Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Katie Dykes added: “We will keep up the momentum by continuing to work with our Northeast states and partners and the hubs selected to advance a clean hydrogen ecosystem in our region and across the country.”

Joel Rinebold, director of energy initiatives at CCAT, also called the decision disappointing while acknowledging the chosen projects were good and well thought-out.

“It does not diminish Connecticut’s position as a global leader in field,” he said. “It simply may be the Northeast hub will be positioned for a later round of projects. I don’t think this is the end of it.”

Among the hubs selected were several in swing presidential race states as well as ones with difficult senate races for Democrats looking to maintain control, including West Virginia and Montana. And many of them are in heavy fossil fuel-producing areas that face potential negative economic impacts as the country transitions towards clean energy.

Hydrogen in something like a fuel cell is part of a clean electrochemical — not combustion — process that produces electricity and leaves only water and heat behind, no greenhouse gasses. To that end, the Biden administration, governors and legislatures like those in Connecticut have viewed hydrogen not far below solar and wind for how to lower the greenhouse gas emissions.

It is seen as especially useful in hard to de-carbonize sectors such as long-haul trucking, ocean shipping, aviation fuel, large industrial operations, fleet vehicles — especially those that operate indoors that would otherwise have emissions. But the technology isn’t there yet. Nor is the technology for storing and transporting it.

Hydrogen is the most abundant and lightest element in the universe. But 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. Hydrogen is an energy carrier in gas or liquid form, which is why it’s of interest. 

But how that hydrogen is produced leaves many environmentalists far less than enthusiastic. The most common way is to make it from natural gas/methane or even from coal in a process that consumes a lot of additional fossil fuel. That’s referred to as gray or brown hydrogen.

Then there’s blue hydrogen, the same process with the carbon emissions captured and stored. The federal government considers that “clean.”

The big goal is “green” hydrogen. That’s hydrogen made from water, not methane, through a process called electrolysis that is powered by carbon-free energy like solar or wind.

The Biden hydrogen hub plan says two-thirds of the operations will have green hydrogen. The rest will be clean.

But making green hydrogen can be problematic. Right now there just isn’t enough solar or wind to go around. There’s a lot more than there used to be, but if large amounts of it are diverted to make hydrogen, then whatever was using the solar and wind will have to go back to fossil fuels.

Green hydrogen also costs a lot more to make than the dirtier hydrogen, which has environmentalists worried that industries will just settle for the cheap stuff. Part of the Biden plan is to focus on lowering the cost. There’s also not a huge market right now for hydrogen, though it is widely used in heavy industries such as steel manufacturing, oil refining and to produce fertilizers and chemicals.

Salt caverns, which may be ideal for storing hydrogen, are basically non-existent in New England. Because hydrogen is so light, blending it with natural gas may be needed to transport it, which has environmentalists worried all over again that fossil fuels will continue to be in use.

Jan Ellen is CT Mirror's regular freelance Environment and Energy Reporter. As a freelance reporter, her stories have also appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Yale Climate Connections, and elsewhere. She is a former editor at The Hartford Courant, where she handled national politics including coverage of the controversial 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. She was an editor at the Gazette in Colorado Springs and spent more than 20 years as a TV and radio producer at CBS News and CNN in New York and in the Boston broadcast market. In 2013 she was the recipient of a Knight Journalism Fellowship at MIT on energy and climate. She graduated from the University of Michigan and attended Boston University’s graduate film program.