by Jim Walsh and Mia DiFelice
Industry advocates and policymakers worldwide have heralded hydrogen energy as the “fuel of the future.” But, when you clear away the industry smoke screen, there are many reasons to be skeptical.
At closer look, it’s hard to see the hydrogen hype as anything other than a greenwashing effort from fossil fuel interests and Big Ag.
So-called hydrogen energy isn’t an energy source, but rather an energy-user. Hydrogen “energy” is inherently inefficient, expensive, and emissions-intensive. This hype will cost taxpayers and ratepayers billions of dollars, with few — if any — climate benefits to show for it.
Hydrogen’s Threat to Climate Change
Proponents claim that hydrogen is a greenhouse gas-free energy source. However, this ignores the climate impacts of hydrogen production, transportation, and use. Even so-called green hydrogen, produced with renewables, can divert renewable energy that could otherwise displace fossil fuels.
At the same time, 95% of hydrogen we use today comes from fracked methane. This gray hydrogen requires both dirty feedstocks and heat to power production. Currently, hydrogen production accounts for 2% of global CO2 emissions. Its climate impact is far greater, considering methane leakage from hydrogen production.
There’s blue hydrogen too, made with carbon capture technology built to grab CO2 emissions from gray hydrogen production. But research shows that blue hydrogen is worse for the climate than burning coal. And U.S. subsidies for carbon capture have only financed failures.
Carbon capture claims allow dirty energy companies to operate business-as-usual — just with a shiny new toy attached. This means more pollution from the fracking behind blue and gray hydrogen.
Hydrogen, green or otherwise, has a dirty little secret the industry likes to ignore: in the air, it has a climate impact 33 times greater than CO2 over 20 years. That means any leaks — which are likely, due to the small size of hydrogen molecules — would invariably harm the climate.
Moreover, hydrogen’s massive water footprint will worsen our climate-charged water access crises, including in areas already suffering from historic drought. Compared to solar and wind, which require only 20 and 1 liter of water per megawatt-hour of power produced, respectively, “green” hydrogen requires 5,000.
The “Fuel of the Future” is Less Fuel, More Farm
Though boosters call it the “fuel of the future,” we only use a bit of the hydrogen we produce for energy. The rest goes to a variety of industrial processes, like steel-making and ammonia production for fertilizers. In the U.S., almost 70% of hydrogen produced here goes to oil refining.
But worldwide, ammonia fertilizers comprise the vast majority of demand, with the industry pushing to make the U.S. a major exporter. These fertilizers have a huge climate impact, thanks to their fossil fuel feedstocks. Moreover, fertilizer escaping from soil into the air creates nitrous oxide, which has 265 times the global warming potential of CO2. The risks of ammonia are compounded by the fact it can be very explosive.
The industry suggests “green” hydrogen can make “carbon-free” fertilizer, but that only greenwashes other issues with fertilizers that need addressing. Big Ag already over-treats fields, leading to polluted waterways and public health problems. If the market expands, so will these issues, its climate impacts, and industry profits.
Hydrogen “Energy” is Expensive, Inefficient, and Harmful
Hydrogen is stored, transported, and burned as-is, but it’s also stored and transported as liquid ammonia. That ammonia is less explosive than pure hydrogen, but still dangerous. Transitioning hydrogen to ammonia, then back to hydrogen at end-use, is also energy-intensive.
At the same time, utilities are pushing plans for “hydrogen blending.” That entails mixing hydrogen with fracked gas in pipelines for home heating and energy production.
But hydrogen blending can be even more harmful to public health than methane. Burning it releases six times as much nitrogen oxide as burning methane, which worsens respiratory harms and other health impacts. Furthermore, it can require infrastructure changes that increase gas prices for consumers (and profits for private utilities).
Moreover, this practice is inefficient, emissions-intensive, and doubles down on the public health risks of fracked gas heating. Any utility or company advocating for hydrogen in our daily lives is just trying to prolong the life of their dirty business models.
Hydrogen Comes for Communities Across the Country
Hydrogen investment is growing around the world. That support will have dire consequences if we don’t have guardrails that stop polluting projects hiding under the guise of “emissions reductions.”
Right now, fossil fuel corporations are planning huge blue hydrogen projects, touting their “clean” credentials. But no one should call any of these projects “clean” when they prolong the life of polluting infrastructure, instead of shutting it down.
The Ohio River Valley faces one such project: a massive hydrogen hub spanning Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia. It stands to further harm a region already threatened by fracking and petrochemical infrastructure.
Meanwhile, in New Jersey, the fossil fuel industry is pushing legislation to define hydrogen and other petrochemicals as “renewable natural gas.” This would allow utilities to charge ratepayers for dirty energy investments, while claiming them as “renewable.”
In Los Angeles, the City Council is advancing hydrogen plans that will keep dirty power plants online, rather than shutting them down and replacing them with clean renewable energy.
We’ll Stay Vigilant as Hydrogen Hype Rises Higher
No matter the color, hydrogen is full of problems. It greenwashes and entrenches harmful industries like oil refining, fracking, and unsustainable fertilizer. And while there could be a few niche uses for hydrogen energy, there’s no reason to use it in, say, cars and home heating — other than corporate profits.
As the hydrogen hype grows, we need to stay wary of industry claims. Before making any investments in hydrogen or issuing permits, governments must evaluate the full impact of hydrogen. That includes comparing it to the tools we already have to transition away from fossil fuels, including electrification, energy efficiency, and clean renewable energy.
Warn your friends and family: Don’t believe the hype!
This article was updated December 14, 2022, to include a paragraph on hydrogen’s water footprint.