How Much of This Hype for Hydrogen “Energy” is Just Smoke and Mirrors?

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Climate and Energy

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.

The Dirty Side of “Green” Hydrogen

Categories

Climate and Energy

by Jasmin Vargas and Mia DiFelice

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.