Oct 17, 2023 - Energy & Environment

Biden's big bet on hydrogen has potential warming pitfalls

Illustration: Tiffany Herring/Axios

The Biden administration's $7 billion push to ramp up hydrogen production signals the huge potential for this fuel to help decarbonize hard-to-abate sectors, among other uses.

Why it matters: There is agreement in the climate and energy community that hydrogen could play a significant role in the energy transition, but some peer-reviewed studies have identified red flags around exactly how to scale up production, transport and use of this fuel.

Zoom in: The plan involves creating a series of seven regional "hubs." But as critics have noted, the White House has gone for an "all of the above" strategy. The announcement includes so-called "blue, green and pink" hydrogen, each of which is made from different energy sources.

Between the lines: One of the concerns voiced by some scientists and climate advocates is — by including fossil fuel-powered hydrogen production facilities paired with carbon capture and storage — the administration is throwing a lifeline to coal and natural gas plants that might otherwise shut down sooner.

  • Carbon capture, after all, has not yet been proven to work at scale and is mainly used for oil and gas extraction.
  • "It is extremely disappointing to see the Biden administration provide funds for hydrogen hubs which will be based on fossil fuels, even with the carbon capture," said Robert Howarth, a Cornell University professor who has researched the climate effects of blue hydrogen, in a statement.
  • "It takes a lot of natural gas to make hydrogen, since the methane in the natural gas is the chemical feedstock for the process, and natural gas is also burned to power the chemical process of breaking the methane down into hydrogen and carbon dioxide. So, the emissions of carbon dioxide are quite high," Howarth stated.

The intrigue: Researchers at the Environmental Defense Fund have found that hydrogen itself is an under-appreciated, potentially potent greenhouse gas, particularly on shorter time scales.

  • However, reliable data on hydrogen emissions is lacking, according to peer-reviewed research.
  • The implication of studies is that, for hydrogen production to be a net gain for the fight against climate change, greater importance should be placed on minimizing leaks at every stage of the manufacturing and transport process.
  • It also puts even more of a premium on making hydrogen in less carbon and methane-intensive ways.

What they're saying: "Preventing leaks and unnecessary venting is essential. Hubs need both strategies and technology to prevent emissions, including a new generation of sensors coming to market to find and fix problems,"said Beth Trask of EDF in a statement.

The other side: The White House views the $7 billion investment, paired with additional private sector funding, as a vital step towards jump-starting the hydrogen economy and testing out different manufacturing and transportation methods.

  • According to the Department of Energy, the public and private sector hubs would produce nearly three million metric tons of hydrogen annually, reducing 25 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year — equivalent to taking 5.5 million gas-powered cars off the road.
  • The DOE announcement touted the potential emissions reductions in chemical and industrial sectors, along with the potential for hydrogen to be used as a long-duration energy storage tool that would pair with renewable, intermittent sources of energy, such as solar and wind power.

The bottom line: Hydrogen could play a potentially large role in the energy transition. But the devil is in the details as far as power sources, leakage potential, and other crucial factors are concerned.

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