Hydrogen: Clean Energy Solution or Dubious Distraction?

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At first blush, hydrogen sounds like an ideal candidate for helping jumpstart the clean energy economy. This is undoubtedly the narrative of proponents. The Biden administration has thrown its weight behind the idea with its $7 billion investment into seven “clean hydrogen hubs” across the country.

Backed with stacks of cash and the bold claim these hubs are “driving clean manufacturing and delivering economic opportunities nationwide,” the devil is always in the details.

Why We (Think) We Like Hydrogen

What’s not to like? Hydrogen is abundant. The universe is swimming in it. When you burn it, it emits water.

Without hydrogen fuel cells, we would never have reached the moon in the 1960s. It is an essential ingredient in the Haber-Bosch process, a method for synthesizing ammonia to produce fertilizers and critical for the 20th-century Green Revolution.

Hydrogen is also used in industry for refining petroleum, treating metals, producing chemicals, and processing foods. Hydrogen plays a crucial role in reducing the sulfur content of fuels in petroleum refineries.

If it is abundant, has several important uses, and emits only water when burned, what’s the problem with hydrogen energy?

There are several ways to approach the question. Let’s start with those first two oft-quoted points: it is bountiful and carbon-free.

Coming Down to Earth: Hydrogen in a Clean Energy Economy

“Either way, you’ve got all this fracking and fossil fuel extraction happening.”

Hydrogen may be the most abundant element universally, but on Earth, it’s all locked up. It must be produced from other elements. There are various methods of producing hydrogen. The most common of those uses methane as the feedstock. How common?

“I’ve heard varying figures, but they’re all in this range of about 80 to 90%,” Maya van Rossum, CEO of Delaware Riverkeeper Network and author of The Green Amendment, told GlobalWarmingisReal. “I think it’s really closer to 90%. Cracking methane to produce hydrogen results in CO2 emissions.

There are cleaner methods of producing hydrogen energy. Using electrolysis, it is feasible to produce hydrogen from water. Whether through methane or electrolysis, producing hydrogen is an energy-intensive process.

“Either way,” says van Rossum, you’ve got all this fracking a fossil fuel extraction happening.”

Once it is produced, it must be stored and transported. Hydrogen’s low energy density by volume makes storage and transportation problematic, requiring high pressures, low temperatures, or chemical processes to store compactly. These conditions can present logistical challenges, especially for mobile applications such as vehicles.

The Fuel of the Future and Unintended Consequences

“Hydrogen is theoretically the fuel of the future,” said Matteo Bertagni in a recent article. Bertagni is a postdoctoral researcher at the High Meadows Environmental Institute working at Princeton University’s Carbon Mitigation Initiative. He cautions that even though hydrogen is not a greenhouse gas, it can lead to higher atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations— particularly methane.

“In practice,” said Bertagni, “it poses many environmental and technological concerns that still need to be addressed.”

Bertagni explained how a chemical reaction from increased atmospheric hydrogen emissions could lead to a tail of higher methane concentrations down the road—precisely the climate time bomb we don’t need.

Misplaced Initiative

Hydrogen is a relatively straightforward element. As a clean energy source, it is complex and risks opening up a potential rainbow-colored pandora’s box of unintended consequences. As Maya van Rossum said, the narrative and public-facing stance of the Biden Administration’s Hydrogen Hub Initiative is “misplaced.”

It is, she said, “ill-advised and will have devastating consequences for our environment, for the safety of future generations, and is a misuse of government dollars that should be helping to advance the clean energy revolution we need rather (than) hydrogen boondoggles that perpetuate dirty fossil fuels and dangerous nuclear operations.”

Maya van Rossum is a veteran, having played a central role in fending off the industry’s false public facking narrative and their government backers.

Hydrogen Distraction: A Many-Hued Pandora’s Box of Unintended Consequences

We’re in a climate time crunch. Experts warn that we must bend the emissions curve sharply by 2030 to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. The renewable energy options for electrifying most of the economy and bringing down emissions as quickly as possible do not include hydrogen, despite the billions in investment.

Residential and commercial buildings, equipment, and most ground transportation account for about 80 percent of electrical energy demand—sources easily powered by wind, solar, geothermal, and other direct energy sources.

The other 20 percent of our power demand comes from sectors and processes that are harder to electrify—some heavy industry, aviation, and a small portion of ground transportation applications like busses that operate nearly continuously with little time for recharge.

In the short term, hydrogen is a distraction. It is a viable energy solution in only a small slice of the economy. It presents technical and logistical challenges too quickly glossed over with slick, greenwashed messaging and furnishes a “back door” for propagating more fossil fuel extraction.

If we want to make the most significant impact in the shortest time, we should ignore the hydrogen hype and focus on the low-hanging fruit of the energy transition, the 80 percent of the economy where we can make a big difference.

Hydrogen can play a role in a clean energy economy, but likely not a central role, and not until we’ve addressed the apparent challenges of hydrogen-based energy. Otherwise, we risk opening up a Pandora’s box of many colors that distract us from the urgent task at hand.

Thomas Schueneman
Thomas Schuenemanhttps://tdsenvironmentalmedia.com
Tom is the founder and managing editor of GlobalWarmingisReal.com and the PlanetWatch Group. His work appears in Triple Pundit, Slate, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, Earth911, and several other sustainability-focused publications. Tom is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

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