Is hydrogen clean energy?

Hydrogen can be produced using renewable energy, but most of the hydrogen proposed for our region would come from fossil fuels.

Hydrogen is portrayed as a “clean” source of energy for powering industries like manufacturing, but it’s important to distinguish marketing from facts. “Clean” has been used to describe many types of hydrogen, even hydrogen made from natural gas, which can create lots of pollution.

Nearly all hydrogen produced today is made by converting natural gas in a process that is highly energy intensive, depends on fracking, and produces carbon dioxide and other pollution. This is the type of hydrogen production that is proposed for our region, with the addition of costly and ineffective systems that try to capture carbon emissions but have not been proven to effectively capture carbon at commercial scale. 

There is a different type of hydrogen production that uses clean energy – like solar or wind power – to make hydrogen from water, called green hydrogen. Most of the hydrogen production being proposed for the Ohio River Valley would come from fossil fuels.

Regardless of how it is produced, the combustion of hydrogen creates additional nitrogen oxide, or NOx, pollution. Co-firing hydrogen with natural gas could produce six times as much NOx emissions as that of methane.

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What is a “hydrogen hub”?

A hydrogen hub is a proposed network of hydrogen producers and consumers, but this vision is unlikely to come to fruition due to high costs and operational challenges.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law set aside $7 billion to build 6 to 10 regional hydrogen hubs across the United States. Each “hub” would create a regional network of pipelines and other industrial infrastructure to produce, transport and use hydrogen. While each hub proposal is unique, the hubs proposed for our region are likely to include large industrial sites, manufacturing facilities, and power plants connected to hydrogen producers and carbon storage sites via a large system of pipelines. Both of the hydrogen hubs in Appalachia have plants to cover dozens of counties in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, meaning many communities in our region could be impacted in a variety of ways.

Federal officials and many of the companies involved characterize hydrogen as a low- to no-emission energy source, for use by energy-intensive industries like steel, cement or aviation. States and companies throughout the country, including in Appalachia, have teamed up to submit hub proposals to the U.S. Department of Energy, which is expected to start awarding money later this year. 

The hubs proposed for Appalachia would primarily make hydrogen from fracked methane gas, meaning that developing a hub would perpetuate and could even increase fracking pollution. These plans have largely been developed without public notice or community input, despite the wide range of impacts these plans could have on communities in the region. 

These hubs also depend on carbon capture and storage, or CCS,  technology to remove carbon dioxide emissions. However, CCS technology is largely unproven at scale and CCS projects have been unable to demonstrate consistently high rates of carbon capture, often performing well below targets. Even though the technology has been explored since the 1970s, billions of dollars in investment and subsidies would be needed to capture significant carbon emissions. Even if CCS did work, it does not address the other air, water, and ground pollutants caused by generating power from coal and natural gas or potential threats to water resources when carbon is stored underground.

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Hydrogen is portrayed as a “clean” source of energy for powering industries like manufacturing, but it’s important to distinguish marketing from facts.

What would hydrogen be used for in our region?

Since most proposed uses have cheaper and cleaner alternatives, hydrogen should be limited to a narrow set of strategic uses, such as hard-to-electrify steel production.

Most hydrogen produced today is used for refining and the production of methanol and ammonia, with 6% used for steel production, limited transportation, and other purposes. Although there aren’t many specifics regarding how the hydrogen produced in our region would be used, hydrogen boosters have presented an expansive vision where this fuel would find uses in most sectors of the economy, including residential heating and power generation.

However, hydrogen is unlikely to play a large role in a clean energy future since most proposed uses have cheaper and cleaner alternatives, such as electrification of the economy. Any hydrogen applications must be limited to a narrow set of strategic uses that don’t have better alternatives, such as steel production and other hard-to-electrify industrial processes.

Even where hydrogen is the best solution, green hydrogen will soon be cheaper than fossil fuel-based hydrogen, which is mostly what is proposed for our region.

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How much will a hydrogen hub cost?

The cost is likely to be substantial and would be passed on to Appalachian families through their utility bills, taxes, or both.

While we can’t assess specific impacts without knowing more about the hydrogen hub plants, the underlying economics highlight what’s at stake. In order to try to address the carbon pollution resulting from producing hydrogen from methane gas, the hydrogen hubs proposed for Appalachia would incorporate additional infrastructure to capture the carbon dioxide pollution, pipelines to transport it, and injection wells to store it deep underground. Power plants utilizing carbon-capture technology would need to dedicate around 20% of their power to running this costly equipment, meaning they’d have significantly less electricity to sell to their customers. In addition, according to an analysis from Princeton University, the cost of just the pipelines needed to transport captured carbon would be between $170 and $230 billion. This CCS infrastructure raises overall costs significantly and even supporters of the hydrogen economy acknowledge that in most cases, hydrogen produced from gas using carbon-capture technology will not be cheap enough to find customers in key sectors of the economy, even with billions in new federal subsidies.

Once carbon capture and storage infrastructure is added into the mix for the hydrogen-production facilities and gas power plants, those additional costs are likely to be passed on to families through their utility bills, taxes or both. A recent Ohio River Valley Institute analysis finds that widespread adoption of CCS in the power sector would add approximately $100 billion per year to Americans’ electric bills, a 25% increase. The study finds that a methane gas hydrogen hub in Western Pennsylvania could cost every household in the Pittsburgh region $1,000 to as much as $3,000 or more each year in utility rate hikes or increased taxes to subsidize CCS and hydrogen production. Hydrogen hub developers could also use sizable tax credits to build out carbon storage infrastructure, placing the public on the hook for billions of dollars.

These hubs would also need to transport hydrogen from production facilities to gas-fired power plants, manufacturing facilities, and other end-use sites. This transport is most likely to come in the form of specialized pipelines. New pipelines to transport hydrogen could cost between $2 and $20 million per inch-mile, well above the cost of natural gas pipelines, and converting existing natural gas pipelines for hydrogen transport would require significant—and expensive—upgrades.

Depending on how it is structured, a federal tax credit for hydrogen production could push additional billions in costs onto taxpayers, particularly as the Department of Energy aims to ramp up hydrogen production five-fold by 2050. All of these subsidies are in addition to the funding these projects are chasing through the DOE’s Regional Clean Hydrogen Hub program, which awards up to $1.2 billion to six to ten hydrogen hub proposals across the country. In short, while the proposals in our region are unlikely to create a significant amount of permanent jobs, they come with a hefty price tag and little benefit to Appalachian communities.

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Will hydrogen hubs bring jobs to our area?

If built, a hydrogen hub would create a bump in temporary construction jobs, but it is unlikely to reverse the pattern of job and population loss in the region.

Building a hydrogen hub would only artificially extend the life of the coal and gas industries, meaning that communities in the region will continue to see job and population loss. For the most part, hydrogen hubs are predicted to result in a temporary bump in construction jobs to build new infrastructure or retrofit existing facilities but not a noticeable increase in long-term jobs.

For example, a proposed $2 to $3 billion ammonia and carbon-capture facility that would rely on federal funds described as an “anchor project” of the hydrogen hub proposed by West Virginia expects it will create 2,000 construction jobs but only “a couple hundred” permanent jobs in the area.

The proposed fossil fuel-based hydrogen economy is unlikely to alter the structural factors that have resulted in job and population loss for Appalachian counties, despite the boom in natural gas production in our region. Policymakers should instead be pursuing more labor-intensive industries that leverage existing assets, such as addressing the region’s hundreds of thousands of abandoned oil and gas wells, which could create thousands of jobs for decades.

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If built, a hydrogen hub would create a bump in temporary construction jobs, but is unlikely to reverse the pattern of job and population loss in the region.

What would a hydrogen hub mean for public health?

The hydrogen hubs proposed for our region would continue our region’s reliance on gas drilling, fracking, and pipeline transport, which can contaminate groundwater and waterways with numerous health toxins

A University of Rochester study found that “every new well drilled within one kilometer of a public drinking water source was associated with an 11–13% increase in the incidence of preterm births and low birth weight in infants exposed during gestation.” Gas drilling and transportation also generates pollutants including particulates, nitrogen oxide, volatile organic compounds, and radium. 

Fracking industry pollution has been linked to increased risk of birth defects, cancer, strokes, asthma, mental health issues, and heart attacks. People who live near fuel-fired power plants are up to 17% more likely to be hospitalized for respiratory diseases than those who do not live near a power plant. In addition, the Clean Air Task Force has found that fine particulate matter from U.S. power plants is responsible for over 3,000 deaths annually. Other studies attribute as many as 50,000 premature deaths per year to U.S. coal- and natural gas-fired power generation.

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How will hydrogen hubs affect the environment?

The production of hydrogen from methane gas doesn’t stop pollution associated with gas extraction and transportation.

Fracking has been shown to increase groundwater and municipal water pollution. A recent long-term study from the University of Rochester notes “only 29 out of more than 1,100 shale gas contaminants [are] regulated in drinking water,” which suggests that true contamination levels are much higher than reported. Drilling for wells also increases noise pollution and area traffic, hurts wildlife habitat, and contributes to poor health outcomes.

Despite billions of dollars invested over 40 years, CCUS remains largely unproven and is not in use at any major power plant. Making hydrogen from methane gas would require significant advancements in CCS technology to minimize carbon dioxide pollution as large-scale CCS projects have failed to meet the industry goal and proposed federal standard of a 95% carbon capture rate. Regardless of the carbon-capture rate, recent research shows that hydrogen produced from methane actually has higher emissions than methane gas production because of how energy intensive this hydrogen production process is. And hydrogen itself, which is notoriously leaky, can worsen climate change when released into the atmosphere. Hydrogen is not itself a greenhouse gas, but it can significantly increase the climate-warming potential of other greenhouse gases.

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What are the risks of carbon capture, transport, and storage?

The capture, storage, and transport of carbon dioxide poses unavoidable risks to communities, to the environment, and to the climate.

Even if these projects could successfully capture large amounts of carbon dioxide, impacted communities would continue to be subject to the other air, water, and ground pollutants caused by generating power from coal and natural gas.

Potential health impacts from geologic carbon storage include contamination of water resources, accidental releases of large volumes of carbon dioxide, and induced earthquakes. The hundreds of thousands of unplugged orphan and abandoned oil and gas wells in our region could also lead to the migration of carbon dioxide from storage sites into water resources or even cause leaks and large releases into the atmosphere, reducing the climate benefit of geologic carbon storage. This risk is exacerbated by the potential for water to mix with carbon dioxide and form carbonic acid, which can erode both underground storage features and even properly plugged wells, resulting in the movement of carbon into areas where it might not be sequestered.

Carbon dioxide is odorless and colorless, heavier than air, and acts as an asphyxiant, which can pose great danger to communities over large areas, as seen in the 2020 rupture of a carbon dioxide pipeline in Mississippi, which led to the hospitalization of nearly 50 people and forced hundreds to evacuate their homes.

Most pipelines that currently transport carbon dioxide do so in its supercritical form. These pipelines are more susceptible to ductile fractures, which can expose long sections of pipeline, resulting in large releases and explosive ruptures.

The source of the captured carbon, which varies by industry, may also pose challenges to pipeline integrity. Existing pipelines primarily transport carbon from higher purity natural sources and while hydrogen, synfuels, and some ammonia production may have relatively pure carbon streams, carbon sourced from refineries, cement and steel production, and coal-fired power plants are less pure, increasing not only the cost of carbon capture but also the likelihood that there will be contaminants and impurities in the carbon stream. Even the presence of water could increase the risk of corrosion as water and carbon combine to form carbonic acid. The risk will likely be present regardless of the source if carbon from different industries is transported in the same pipeline network.

Leading estimates for the necessary length of pipelines to transport carbon dioxide include roughly 30,000 miles, 70,000 miles, and 96,000 miles, a significant increase from the approximately 5,000 miles that exist today. This highlights the potential impacts of widespread adoption of carbon capture, as well as the lack of practical experience regulators and operators have with pipelines that transport carbon dioxide, especially with carbon streams that may harbor impurities and contaminants since most of the carbon currently transported by pipeline is from high purity natural sources.

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