US to evolve as Hydrogen Production Powerhouse

The Department of Energy is looking into a new ‘roadmap’ for building a ‘clean’ hydrogen industry.

The Department of Energy desires to produce 10 million metric tons of “clean” hydrogen by 2030, according to a current National Clean Hydrogen Strategy and Roadmap released yesterday.

About 10M metric tons of hydrogen are already created in the US yearly, but that’s mostly “gray” hydrogen made with impure natural gas. The transition would be to pair that natural gas with controversial technologies that capture carbon dioxide emissions and create more hydrogen using renewable and nuclear energy sources.

Clean hydrogen is “a high preference technology for this regime,” Deputy Secretary of Energy David Turk told in a press briefing yesterday. “I will state one word about why that is, and that is versatility.” Ramping up hydrogen fuel production is now a high priority for the Biden administration as it pushes to end the fossil fuel pollution driving climate change.

Hydrogen is glimpsed as alternative energy to fossil fuels. It might be a neater fuel for planes or ships, for illustration. There’s also expected that using hydrogen as fuel could potentially decrease greenhouse gas emissions from industrial processes that require reaching extremely high temperatures, something that’s harder for renewables like wind and solar to accomplish.

In addition, when hydrogen is made with surplus wind and solar energy, it acts as a sort of “energy storage,” equivalent to a battery, so abundant renewable power doesn’t squander when the electricity market is low.

Hydrogen releases water vapor when ignited, which is why it’s being marketed as a clean fuel. The big caveat is that hydrogen is only as pure as the energy source used to produce it. For example, one way to create hydrogen is through electrolysis, which employs electricity to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. “Green” hydrogen can be made by breaking water molecules using renewable energy. “pink” hydrogen is also built through electrolysis powered by nuclear energy.

But most hydrogen produced today is “gray” and greenhouse gas-emitting. It is because methane gas reacts with high-temperature steam under high pressure in a process to make gray hydrogen that releases carbon dioxide while making the hydrogen. So now, the Biden administration likes to rely on technologies that cleanse CO2 from smokestack emissions to clean that gray hydrogen.

That’s a controversial proposition since critics argue it would prolong, rather than phase out, the dominance of fossil fuels. And seizing CO2 doesn’t deal with methane leaks, which are a tremendous problem for natural gas infrastructure. There are also concerns that a new hydrogen industry could build difficulties.

Citing safety considerations about leaks from hydrogen pipelines and storage facilities, many environmental groups sent a note to US Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm earlier this week. They advised the Department of Energy to drop hydrogen projects from the Biden administration’s environmental justice initiatives.

Nevertheless, the Biden administration glimpses are poised to push forward with its hydrogen ambitions. The roadmap issued yesterday includes clean hydrogen production goals that grow with time: 20 million metric tons of pure hydrogen by 2040 and 50 million metric tons by 2050. The Department of Energy thinks that could ultimately reduce US greenhouse gas emissions by 10 percent by 2050. The roadmap is still a draft, and the DOE says it solicits feedback before finalizing the strategy.

The Biden administration has already set plans to develop up to 10 regional hubs for hydrogen production across the US. At least one of the hubs should use renewable energy to make hydrogen fuel, the DOE says, and another hub is supposed to harness nuclear power. But the DOE is also looking for at least two seats in regions with “abundant natural gas resources.” Yesterday, the DOE opened up $7 billion in funding opportunities to develop those hubs, which the agency says will be “one of the largest investments in DOE history.”