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Air QualityUnraveling Hydrogen: Part I

Unraveling Hydrogen: Part I

Unraveling Hydrogen: Part I

The primary in a series that examines the hype around hydrogen production.

Photo by Raymond Spekking (CC BY-SA 4.0)

For over a century, supporters of hydrogen energy have billed H2 because the fuel of the longer term. In his 1874 novel, The Mysterious Island, Jules Verne wrote that “water will in the future be employed as fuel, that hydrogen and oxygen which constitute it, used singly or together, will furnish an inexhaustible source of warmth and light-weight, of an intensity of which coal just isn’t capable.” Nearly 100 years later, General Motors unveiled Electrovan, a clunky (and very dangerous) Handi-van outfitted with hydrogen fuel cell technologies just like those deployed by the Apollo spacecraft that might eventually put the primary person on the moon. In 1970, electrochemist (and purported alchemist) John Bockris predicted a worldwide shift to the hydrogen economy, a phrase that describes widespread adoption of hydrogen to facilitate a shift to a low-carbon society. But here in 2023, how close are we to realizing these enduring guarantees of a hydrogen-powered future, and what is likely to be the policy implications of our efforts to realize this future?

Today, hydrogen technology has more momentum than ever, driven by the promise of a clean, carbon-free energy source, deployable at scales obligatory to decarbonize large sectors of the economy. In 2022, hydrogen earned bipartisan support on the forefront of the national clean-energy discussion, particularly as a vehicle for decarbonizing hard-to-electrify sectors like heavy-duty trucking and shipping, or manufacturing industries like iron, steel, and cement. The Inflation Reduction Act provides tax incentives and subsidies for “clean hydrogen” production facilities, including $8 billion for “hydrogen hubs” across the U.S. Here in California, hydrogen featured heavily (probably an excessive amount of) within the 2022 Scoping Plan, California’s roadmap to achieving statewide carbon neutrality by 2045. The California Legislature also recently passed AB 205 and AB 209, which require the California Energy Commission to undertake hydrogen demonstration projects and to oversee a hydrogen program that might fund projects related to the “production, processing, delivery, storage, or end use of hydrogen.”

Utilities and energy providers have demonstrated an excellent greater enthusiasm for the emerging potential of hydrogen energy. LA City Council recently approved LADWP’s request for $800 million in funding to avoid wasting the Scattergood natural gas plant from decommissioning by retrofitting the plant to combust a mix of natural gas and hydrogen. CPUC awarded $30 million to SoCalGas to commission an exploratory study on a hydrogen pipeline and delivery system, with most of the proposed routes originating in Nevada and terminating in Los Angeles. California also formed a public-private partnership to construct out a hydrogen hub in California, called Alliance for Renewable Clean Hydrogen Energy Systems (ARCHES), geared toward getting a share of the IRA’s $8 billion in funding for hydrogen hubs.

Despite the wave of hype that has driven recent investment and policy regarding hydrogen, I’ve found that the world of hydrogen energy is complex, nuanced, and ever-changing. So, to assist anyone who could also be serious about unraveling the dynamic landscape of hydrogen law and policy, I’ll be preparing a series of posts to assist lawyers and advocates gain a deeper understanding of this landscape. Today’s post will cover the fundamentals of hydrogen production. In later entries, I’ll discuss the assorted use applications, obligatory infrastructure, and the regulatory debates and policies which have shaped the longer term of hydrogen infrastructure and energy. I’ll conclude the series with some final thoughts on the environmental health and justice impacts related to proposed projects and the buildout of hydrogen technology, with an eye fixed toward potential projects here in California.

Before diving into our first discussion, I’ll note that I approach the conversation of hydrogen energy with some skepticism. The fossil fuel industry has been a major player in generating interest in hydrogen, particularly for technology that produces hydrogen from fossil fuels. In actual fact, the fossil fuel industry is each the USA’ largest producer and consumer of hydrogen; roughly 60 percent of the nation’s domestic hydrogen supply is deployed in crude oil refining. More fundamentally, when this much money and national attention are dedicated to a subject––particularly one which is typically marketed as a decarbonization panacea––there’s all the time a risk that marginalized voices are drowned out. With this in mind, I actually have tried to include perspectives from community-based and environmental justice organizations wherever possible.

So, where does hydrogen come from?

Experts classify hydrogen gas using a spectrum of various colours, which act as a shorthand for the method by which the gas is derived. The range and meanings of those different colours sometimes vary and might be imprecise, but you’ll find a fast overview of the assorted colours of hydrogen here. Nonetheless, for the needs of this series, I’ll concentrate on three forms of hydrogen production: gray, blue, and green. The strategy of hydrogen production makes a big difference in its climate and environmental impacts, and so this color wheel is place to begin this series.

First, gray hydrogen represents about 99 percent of the hydrogen produced today for industrial use, and usually refers to hydrogen derived from natural gas through a process called steam-methane reformation. Through a series of reactions––which normally happen at a refinery––steam and methane react to provide hydrogen and carbon dioxide. Under current conditions, it’s estimated that one kilowatt-hour of gray hydrogen production directly creates about 0.28 kg of carbon dioxide emissions. For comparison, the combustion of natural gas produces about 0.42 kg of carbon dioxide emissions per kilowatt-hour of energy produced. At a look, this comparison seems favorable; nonetheless, these estimates don’t account for methane leakage at the power level, or for the energy costs of compression and transportation. In overall life cycle emissions, it’s very likely that gray hydrogen is more carbon intensive than each coal and natural gas.

The hydrogen industry’s proposed solution to gray hydrogen’s lifecycle emissions problem lies in blue hydrogen. Blue hydrogen is an identical to gray in every respect, except that it employs carbon capture and storage (CCS). CCS refers to technologies that capture carbon dioxide emissions from point sources and transport them––normally via pipeline––to underground reservoirs. CCS, at small scale, has been around for a few years, however the industry still has a protracted strategy to go. As of last 12 months, it was estimated that only about 1 percent of total hydrogen production employs carbon capture, with only two industrial facilities within the U.S. producing blue hydrogen.

Blue hydrogen, despite emitting less carbon than gray, still has some major query marks around its efficacy, costs, and potential health and safety impacts. The technique of capturing carbon requires a variety of energy (as much as 30-50 percent of an influence plant’s energy output), which normally comes from further combustion of natural gas. Furthermore, even where CCS is powered by clean, renewable sources, fugitive methane emissions may create significant climate challenges for each gray and blue hydrogen. Unburned methane––a way more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide––may escape in any respect stages of the blue hydrogen life cycle, including upstream extraction and transportation, during stream reformation, and throughout the carbon capture process. In actual fact, depending on rates of methane leakage and efficiency of carbon capture technology, the climate impacts of blue hydrogen may be even greater than burning natural gas and coal. These leakage rates have been disputed back and forth, but under fugitive methane estimates published by the EPA, these concerns still hold true. Opponents of blue hydrogen further argue that the buildout of the requisite infrastructure will extend the lifetime of related fossil fuel infrastructure that might otherwise be decommissioned.

Illustration by ShareAlike International (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Finally, we turn our attention to green hydrogen. The definition of green hydrogen has turn out to be increasingly fraught. Just about all environmental groups argue that green hydrogen should only confer with electrolysis powered solely by carbon-free renewable energy sources. Electrolysis is a process by which electricity is passed through water, splitting it into its elemental components and drawing the newly formed hydrogen gas toward a cathode. Electrolysis is currently the one technique of creating hydrogen without emitting greenhouse gases, nevertheless it’s inefficient. Between the electricity used to conduct electrolysis, compress and transport the hydrogen, and convert it back to energy, the round-trip efficiency for hydrogen falls between 18 and 46 percent (in comparison with about 80 percent for battery storage). As such, it’s way more efficient, where possible, to expand carbon-free renewables exported to the grid, or to reap the benefits of more efficient storage methods, including batteries.

The hydrogen industry––and a few policymakers––argue for a looser definition of green hydrogen. For example, the Green Hydrogen Coalition (GHC), a hydrogen industry group, defines green hydrogen as “hydrogen produced from non-fossil-fuel feedstocks and emits zero or de minimis greenhouse gas emissions on a lifecycle basis.” The excellence here is very important. GHC’s definition includes steam-reformation of biomethane, methane produced by the decomposition of organic matter, originating from facilities like landfills and dairy farms. Industry groups maintain that hydrogen derived from biomethane is low carbon (and even net-negative), as this methane would otherwise be deposited directly into the atmosphere. Nonetheless, environmental organizations counter that crediting these operations as carbon removal––and awarding subsidies on this basis––advantages the biggest, most-polluting facilities and incentivizes the creation of methane where none would otherwise occur.

Hopefully, the above information will help contextualize the broader discussion in later entries to this series. Nevertheless it just isn’t all-encompassing. The Department of Energy recently issued guidance on its Draft Clean Hydrogen Production Standard, which will probably be used to award hydrogen hub funding, that grounds its evaluation in hydrogen’s carbon intensity, reasonably than any specific production method. Furthermore, hydrogen technology is rapidly evolving; emerging processes and technologies like autothermal reformation or highly-efficient electolyzers may change these analyses in the longer term.

In the subsequent installment: An in-depth take a look at the various use-cases for hydrogen energy

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