The Dirty Side of “Green” Hydrogen

Published Oct 24, 2022


Climate and Energy

Proponents laud green hydrogen as a new zero-carbon energy in the fight against climate change. But "green" hydrogen is not that simple — and not that green.

Proponents laud green hydrogen as a new zero-carbon energy in the fight against climate change. But "green" hydrogen is not that simple — and not that green.

The City of Angels is abuzz with what proponents hail as the new frontier of clean energy: hydrogen. This year the region’s utility, SoCalGas, unveiled plans to develop green hydrogen pipelines attached to a regional hydrogen hub.

Los Angeles is only one city of many that have announced their intentions to build hydrogen infrastructure. The buzz comes after the Biden Administration announced an avalanche of cash to develop it; notably, through the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act

The industry depicts hydrogen as a miracle power source that will help us fight climate change while keeping the lights on. However, it hasn’t mentioned the massive obstacles ahead, nor their costs to us.

But we know a pivot to hydrogen stands to harm vulnerable communities on the frontlines of the climate crisis, while siphoning resources from proven climate technologies.

Green Hydrogen Isn’t So Green

Companies like SoCalGas insist that their hydrogen will be clean, but that’s a lofty promise to make when currently 95% of hydrogen energy comes from fracked gas. The other 5%, called “green” hydrogen, comes from splitting water molecules with electricity from renewable energy.

But even if industry could produce “green” hydrogen at scale, it would still be wasteful and inefficient. Compared to renewable-powered batteries, which are 80% efficient, hydrogen fuel cells are only 30%. That makes hydrogen far more expensive than renewable-based electric power.

What’s more, hydrogen is a thirsty power source. Throughout its life cycle, each megawatt-hour of “green” hydrogen consumes at least 5,000 liters of water. Compare that to solar, which uses 20 liters per MWh, or wind, which uses just 1 liter per MWh.

Climate change already threatens our water supplies. L.A. and the rest of California is in the midst of a megadrought. A huge hydrogen buildout will only make things worse.

We can’t even be sure that “green” hydrogen will actually create no emissions. Hydrogen is a very small molecule, making it more likely than methane to leak. But if it does, we are in trouble. Hydrogen molecules have a global warming potential 11 times greater than carbon dioxide. 

Moreover, SoCalGas, the utility behind L.A.’s hydrogen plans, has a scary track record when it comes to leaks. In 2015, it subjected L.A. to the largest methane leak in U.S. history.

The utility’s Aliso Canyon storage facility leaked for 100 days. SoCalGas failed to monitor the facility properly or immediately report the leak to officials, leading to the evacuation of thousands of residents. Now consider this: hydrogen leaks are even less regulated than methane leaks.

Green Hydrogen Risks Dangers in Our Homes and Backyards

Hydrogen poses other health and safety risks to communities. It’s volatile and flammable, even more so than fracked gas. Hydrogen pipelines have already caused explosions, posing major dangers to communities near that infrastructure. Moreover, hydrogen is currently stored as ammonia, a hazardous chemical that can cause death in high concentrations.

Public health risks go beyond pipelines and facilities and into homes. Utilities have proposed blending hydrogen with methane in power plants and utility lines to burn for home heating. 

Not only is this wildly inefficient compared to electric heating — burning hydrogen can lead to nitrogen oxide pollution six times greater than burning fracked gas. Such pollution is an ingredient for particulate matter and ozone, which cause respiratory illnesses that already plague frontline communities. 

These communities, disproportionately home to people of color, have been sacrifice zones for decades of industrial activity. Hydrogen will only entrench this environmental racism. 

Dirty Energy Companies Hide Behind Green Hydrogen

It’s no coincidence that some of the dirtiest polluters are heavily investing in “green” hydrogen. Too often, they use these projects to greenwash the expansion of pipelines or power plants. 

There’s no way we can take these companies seriously when they say they’re fighting climate change. Dirty energy utilities have hidden the dangers of climate change for decades. SoCalGas even spent ratepayer funds to lobby against climate action. And utilities are widely stalling on their climate promises: all talk, no walk. 

We can’t trust companies like SoCalGas with our clean energy future. If allowed, they’ll gobble up our tax dollars through hydrogen subsidies and raise rates to help cover the expensive projects, too.

Green Hydrogen: Coming to a City Near You

In May, Los Angeles began applying for hydrogen hub funding from the U.S. Department of Energy. The City Council’s motion to authorize the applications initially included guardrails to ensure hydrogen infrastructure wouldn’t support dirty energy. 

However, these guardrails disappeared before the motions was even introduced. As our senior organizer Jasmin Vargas warned: “Hydrogen is being used by fossil fuel interests to maintain their dangerous pipeline and energy infrastructure.” 

In New York, construction on a “green” hydrogen plant has already broken ground. Huge hydrogen projects are heading for Texas, Louisiana, Florida and beyond. 

We can’t let hydrogen continue to grow. Instead, we should be investing in community-driven solutions and shutting down this dirty infrastructure in a just transition to 100% clean energy.

We Know How To Fight Climate Change. We Don’t Need “Green” Hydrogen to Do It.

Hydrogen power may make sense for a few niche uses, but using it for power is a non-starter. We are facing a massive buildout that aims to make hydrogen a major U.S. power source. That buildout means sprawling new facilities and pipelines — and more of the community sacrifice zones that always follow. 

These projects are multi-billion-dollar distractions from the clean energy deployment we’ve been calling on for decades. We know that demand response, energy efficiency, and wind, solar, and geothermal electrification will fight climate change. Not only will they do so more cheaply, more efficiently, and with far less public health risks — they will create thousands of new clean energy and climate jobs.

The truth is, the climate crisis is here, and dirty energy companies want to make billions pretending to be part of the solution. We can’t let this happen. We must fight for a 100% renewable energy transition, in which no one gets left behind.

Spread the word: “green” hydrogen could be headed for a city near you.

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