Five hydrogen conversations to bridge community, policy, and industry perspectives
Hydrogen’s buzz vibrates ever louder as Western states prepare public-private applications responding to the Department of Energy’s Hydrogen Shot due in April 2023 and developers propose increasing numbers of pilot projects across the U.S., including at state utility commissions. Though hydrogen holds promise in our toolkit of decarbonization options, is it the panacea some propose?
Along with the rush of investment, hydrogen has been touted by some proponents as a key solution for everything from home heating to electricity generation to a fuel solution for hard-to-decarbonize transportation sectors. But while hydrogen may be a solution for some emission-intensive industries, it also presents health and safety risks for communities where production and transportation routes are located and use of the fuel also has safety risks of its own. Those most impacted by hydrogen’s production, transportation, storage, and final combustion are the people and communities who sleep, eat, play, work, and breathe near our industrial facilities.
Our hydrogen policy solutions will be incomplete unless discussions involve all impacted and otherwise interested groups by bridging communities, industries, and sectors through targeted, facilitated engagement.
Before we shoot too far for hydrogen, Gridworks proposes we huddle to have these five conversations:
1. Industrial and end use expectations: Can we reduce the need for hydrogen end uses even as we plan to replace carbon-intensive hydrogen with non-carbon-intensive hydrogen?
Conversations about hydrogen as a clean energy resource necessarily draw in the sectors for which hydrogen is already a regularly featured character. Oil refining, chemical manufacturing, and steel production along with other industrial uses account for the bulk of hydrogen consumption to-date, and they’re supplied with a type of hydrogen that is neither green nor decarbonized.
More than 95 percent of the hydrogen currently produced is developed through a process called steam methane reforming, or “SMR” (also called “gray hydrogen“), which means that hydrogen as it is used today is primarily a product derived from fossil fuels. Another common term is “blue hydrogen,” which is gray hydrogen paired with carbon capture and storage technologies intended to mitigate emissions. As we explore the use of “green hydrogen”—electrolytic hydrogen made from water and renewable electricity—as an energy resource, we must also ask how existing use cases for hydrogen will decarbonize and which use cases, new or old, to prioritize.
To-date, quite a bit of hydrogen literature agrees that green hydrogen is best reserved for replacing carbon-intensive hydrogen in industrial processes and for hard-to-decarbonize industries like shipping and air travel. Oft cited examples of industrial processes for which we could replace carbon-intensive hydrogen with green electrolytic hydrogen are refining petroleum, treating metals, producing fertilizer, and processing foods. According to the Dept. of Energy, almost all the hydrogen produced in the U.S. each year is used for these processes.
To start the conversation, we must ask ourselves:
- How much petroleum do we plan to refine? How much ammonia fertilizer will we produce? Are there more sustainable options for these industries other than continued reliance on hydrogen?
- Can we reduce our need for these hydrogen use cases, even as we green them up?
- Might we find less costly, easier to produce alternatives to green hydrogen, which currently costs up to twice as much as carbon-based hydrogen to produce?
- Do we seek to invest in green hydrogen as a clean energy resource first and a replacement for carbon-based hydrogen use cases second, or is the opposite true? Or are there third and fourth options?
Targeted, facilitated discussions should peek behind the curtain of research and development to seek out cost impacts and stress-test use cases compared to other alternatives.
2. Impacts on community: Will green hydrogen development exacerbate, maintain, or ameliorate marginalization?
Current gray hydrogen production has damaging air quality impacts. Green electrolytic hydrogen is still a highly combustible element, and it’s expensive to make, transport, and store. Hydrogen’s use as a home heating resource is suspect given its cost and potential safety risks, not to mention leakage risks and GHG reduction potential. Communities wonder whether the potential, costs, and risks of hydrogen as a decarbonization solution are worth its impacts to their daily lives.
In discussing costs and end uses for hydrogen as a potentially climate-friendly energy resource, hydrogen proponents and skeptics alike must meet with communities where hydrogen is currently produced and those where it is being considered. Policy makers and communities need to work together to understand the full impacts communities face in hosting industrial infrastructure built for and around a product that is highly combustible.
To start the conversation, facilitated discussions should work to understand not just the immediate impacts to communities hosting hydrogen infrastructure, but also the likely upstream and downstream community impacts of any continued reliance on pipeline infrastructure and the gas system, local water use and quality implications, and safety and leakage concerns. Hydrogen development of any sort must avoid the harms that so many of our national, state, and local energy equity priorities seek to address. Our efforts should support co-learning and education. We should explore green hydrogen’s potential as a decarbonization tool as well as its drawbacks to enable community-led decision-making about whether to support any phase of hydrogen’s lifecycle in or near neighborhoods.
3. Resource intensity: How much renewable energy and water do we need?
Creating green electrolytic hydrogen is resource intensive, requiring a lot of renewable energy for the process of electrolysis. According to one analyst, just replacing the carbon-intensive hydrogen used mainly in chemical production and oil refining globally with green hydrogen made from renewable energy would require 143 percent of all the wind and solar installed globally to date. That’s just the energy needed for existing hydrogen use cases, ignoring industries seeking to hydrogenize. Further, electrolysis uses water as the main input to make hydrogen. There doesn’t seem to be an industry standard yet on how much water is needed, but one study estimates it takes 9-18 kg of water to produce 1 kg of hydrogen. Can drought-stricken Western states afford to use water in this way?
To start the conversation, we must convene communities, governments, and businesses in neutral venues to understand whether all involved are willing or able to co-locate the additional renewable resources needed to power green hydrogen production at scale or otherwise ensure that the electricity used to create hydrogen products is renewable.
- Will hydrogen production facilities rely on renewable power imported via transmission lines?
- How much excess renewable power do we have to dedicate to electrolysis, and are other developing end users also claiming that excess electricity?
- What use cases for additional renewable energy generation might we forgo to pursue green hydrogen development?
4. Leakage and pipeline safety: What are our assumptions about GHG mitigation and safety precautions?
Hydrogen itself is an indirect greenhouse gas and is not without its climate impacts. Indirect climate impacts may be twice as high as previously studied. What’s more, hydrogen is leaky. The molecule is small, prone to escape, and can leak up to 3 times faster than methane. When transported through pipelines, especially steel pipelines, hydrogen’s interaction with the metal can lead to embrittlement, which means the pipelines become more brittle and susceptible to damage. In turn, this increases the risk of explosions and injury, which are already a fairly large safety concern given hydrogen’s high combustibility.
To start the conversation, communities, industries, and governments must ask themselves how much they are willing to invest in pipeline reinforcement as well as leak detection and leak repair technologies and practices to reduce safety and leakage risks. Current assessments of safe hydrogen blending limits suggest nothing more than a 5 percent blend rate, which would greatly reduce hydrogen’s potential to decarbonize the natural gas system. Are the limited emissions reductions worth the costs to ensure safety and invest in leakage reduction?
5. Full life-cycle costs: How much, really, are we interested in paying to produce, store, and transport hydrogen at scale needed to meet our decarbonization goals?
Green electrolytic hydrogen is not widely produced or cheap to make, though the Dept. of Energy’s Hydrogen Shot, among other government-level investments world-wide aim to change that. DOE’s investment of public dollars in the U.S. alone will reach billions in funding for hydrogen research and pilot projects. But green hydrogen still has a long way to go in terms of its efficacy for fairly novel uses, such as blending with the natural gas system, particularly in comparison to alternative solutions that may also see rapid technological advances.
To start the conversation, we can ask:
- How much are communities, governments, and industry, especially end-users of hydrogen, willing to pay for an end product that has been produced, transported, and stored in ways that effectively mitigate its risks and impacts to our stated standards?
- When we consider these costs, are we also considering the full public investment needed to get green hydrogen to a level it can scale? Have we considered all potential externalities?
- What alternatives exist, and have they been tested at scale?
These questions are impossible to answer for the collective without an inclusive discussion facilitated between diverse, impacted parties. In taking the time to holistically answer these questions, we will more fully understand the potential of a burgeoning system that could replace our fossil fuel-based economy and begin mapping pitfalls to avoid on our path to an equitable, decarbonized future.