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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

As the world seeks to rebuild from the coronavirus pandemic, support is pouring in for hydrogen energy to cut carbon emissions and create jobs.

Why it matters: The obscure energy source could help tackle climate change in the thorniest parts of the global energy system, like shipping and power storage. But it’s prohibitively expensive and would need lots of government support to get off the ground.

Where it stands: Of the $54 billion in economic stimulus funding approved in countries around the world (but mostly Europe) that’s going toward clean energy, 19% of that is for hydrogen. That’s second only to electrified transportation, according to BloombergNEF.

In just the past month…

  • The European Union, which is proposing an additional $500 billion or more for green energy as part of its recovery, unveiled a sweeping hydrogen strategy and targets for hydrogen made from renewable energy.
  • The U.S.-based conglomerate Air Products & Chemicals announced plans to build in Saudi Arabia what it says will be the world’s largest hydrogen plant powered by renewable energy.
  • The U.S. Energy Department announced $64 million worth of funding for hydrogen projects earlier this month and plans to invest up to $100 million over five years for two new research efforts on hydrogen.
“I have rarely seen, if ever, any technology that enjoys so much political backing around the world. Countries who have completely different views on energy and climate all join in saying that hydrogen is a key clean energy technology.”
— Fatih Birol, International Energy Agency executive director

Flashback: When you think of hydrogen, perhaps what comes to mind is bombs or the Hindenburg explosion of 1937, wherein an airship buoyed by hydrogen exploded and killed dozens of passengers — and the future of airships like that.

How it works: But in fact, experts say hydrogen’s infamous past is not its main problem right now, because its intended uses are far different. The biggest hurdle is the cost of transforming the light, odorless gas into usable formats.

  • “In my view, hydrogen is today where solar was 10 years ago,” Birol said. He expects costs to decline as governments grow policies supporting it like they did with solar.
  • Hydrogen produced from natural gas is already in use for industrial processes and a small subset of cars, which was all the rage in the 2000s and backed by then-President George W. Bush. But electric cars appear to be pulling away as the winner in that category.
  • What we’re talking about now is using hydrogen derived from cleaner methods, especially with renewable energy and natural gas with carbon dioxide captured. The uses would be as varied as storing electricity and fuel for big trucks and ships.

The intrigue: Everyone from Joe Biden, the Democrats’ presumptive presidential nominee, to Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil company, is ostensibly on board with hydrogen.

  • Biden’s recently expanded climate and energy plan supports using renewable energy to make “carbon-free hydrogen” at the same cost it does from making it with natural gas.
  • The Hydrogen Council, a consortium launched at the 2017 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, started with 13 members and now has more than 80 members. They include Saudi Aramco and a hodgepodge of auto, oil and gas and other industrial companies.

But, but, but: Environmental scrutiny awaits, and the jobs benefit is not coming any time soon.

Although the Sierra Club doesn't have an official position on hydrogen (yet), its director of global climate policy, John Coequyt, says the group would likely only support hydrogen made purely with renewable energy, not natural gas with captured CO2, which is where a lot of support from industry lies.

  • Experts in this area use different colors to describe how clean hydrogen is. (Green is cleanest to denote that it’s coming from renewable energy, gray is dirtiest, etc.)
  • “People don’t understand hydrogen, let alone the six colors we are using to describe it,” Coequyt said (it’s actually four colors). “It would be very possible to see a situation where people think they’re getting one thing, but for a very long time they get a different thing even if eventually it gets transitioned.”
  • Coequyt cited a power plant in Utah as an example of a hydrogen project that will be predominantly powered by natural gas for many years, if not decades, before it could in theory be transformed to renewable-energy hydrogen.

Jobs won’t immediately be created with hydrogen either, according to Esben Hegnsholt, global energy transition team leader at the Boston Consulting Group. It’s a longer term economic strategy, which is generally good, but not particularly helpful today with jobs lost in the pandemic, he says.

  • “Those who get hydrogen right will be able to get a long-term competitive edge on a state or country level, but it’s not going to immediately create millions of jobs,” said Hegnsholt. “There will be jobs created this decade, but we’re counting years not months.”

Go deeper

Ben Geman, author of Generate
Oct 26, 2020 - Energy & Environment

Trump reaches for oil lifeline

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

President Trump's campaign is making energy policy a prominent part of its closing swing state attacks against Joe Biden — especially in Pennsylvania, a state critical to Trump's reelection effort where he's trailing in the polls.

Driving the news: Trump's efforts include a new ad in Pennsylvania alleging that his Democratic presidential rival would crush the state's gas industry, and his campaign has aggressively deployed surrogates talking about energy in recent days.

Ben Geman, author of Generate
Nov 3, 2020 - Energy & Environment

Trump ramps up fossil fuel tweets ahead of Election Day

Data: Trump Twitter Archive; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios

Trump's tweeting habits are one sign of how much the president hopes his strong support for fossil fuels will help get him over the top today.

Why it matters: Pennsylvania, a state critical to Trump's re-election chances, is the nation's second-largest natural gas producer. And polls show Texas, which is at the top in oil and gas production, is also in play this year.

Focus group: Red flags for Biden infrastructure plan

Illustration: Rae Cook/Axios

Some swing voters say President Biden needs to better explain who'll pay for his $2 trillion infrastructure plan — and they'll only back bipartisan legislation that's paid for by corporations, not the middle class.

Why it matters: These takeaways from our latest Engagious/Schlesinger focus groups offer crucial context for an administration basing much of its legislative strategy on polls showing Americans notionally favor spending on roads, bridges, job training and broadband access.