The hydrogen money is here, just in time for the hype

the hydrogen money is here, just in time for the hype

The hydrogen money is here, just in time for the hype

There’s always someone in the room objecting to this fuel or that technology, Fatih Birol, the executive director of the International Energy Agency, said on Thursday.

But not hydrogen. “Everybody loves hydrogen.”

In a conference filled to the brim with announcements, the U.S. Department of Energy used the occasion of the Global Clean Energy Action Forum to start the race for $7 billion in hydrogen funding.

The money, part of the infrastructure bill passed last year, is intended to establish clean hydrogen hubs across the country. Concept papers are due by Nov. 7, and full applications by April 7, 2023.

Pennsylvania, and specifically southwestern Pennsylvania, has been waiting for this moment for months. It has assembled numerous coalitions and, on Wednesday, Team PA Foundation released the a road map for the state to pursue hydrogen made from natural gas with carbon capture and sequestration.

Shell and Equinor, and possibly U.S. Steel — it’s still deciding — have said they’ll apply for the money.

“Nothing gets more attention than hydrogen hubs,” DOE Deputy Secretary David Turk said during a panel on clean hydrogen on Thursday.

Hydrogen’s versatility — it can be used to make electricity, to power transportation, to store energy — accounts for its recent popularity, he said.

“When I look at energy security challenges, and they are real in Europe, versatility is a very powerful attribute.”

DOE Secretary Jennifer Granholm said on Thursday that the clean hydrogen market could rise to 10 million tons by the end of the decade and double that in another 10 years.

The current global market for hydrogen is 91 million tons, according to the International Energy Agency, but is expected to grow exponentially in the coming years and decades.

While most of the talk at the global energy conference was about hydrogen made through electrolysis, powered either by renewables or nuclear power, it is blue hydrogen, that has dominated discussions in Pennsylvania for several years. Blue hydrogen is made using natural gas, with the resulting CO2 emissions captured and pumped into geologic storage underground.

The Team PA report, prepared by the Minneapolis-based Great Plains Institute, notes that of the 279 facilities required to report their emissions to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the state’s 48 natural gas power plants account for nearly half of the CO2 emissions in Pennsylvania. That’s twice as much as coal power plants and eight times more than steel plants.

This is one reason they’re viewed as prime targets for decarbonization. Another is that it’s not too difficult to catch CO2 out of the flue stream of a gas plant, and the stream of CO2 is relatively pure.

With new incentives embedded in the Inflation Reduction Act, Team PA’s road map found  “near-term” opportunities to decarbonize 22 facilities “linked by 933 miles of new infrastructure and (that) would transport 34.7 million metric tons of CO2 per year to storage hubs.”

But it also said the state is not considered “in the game” in terms of carbon management and needs to reach out to industry and immediately set up a regulatory structure to attract investment. It also will need to ink key partnerships, possibly with neighboring states, to qualify for the DOE money that was announced on Thursday, the report said.

The primary issues that need to be settled, according to Team PA, are who owns the pores in the rock layers thousands of feet under ground, who will be liable for making sure the CO2 injection there stays put, and who should be responsible for permitting such injection wells (the federal government, as it now stands, or the state).

Ramez Ziadeh, the secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, told the state Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee earlier this week that his department is looking for ways to streamline the permitting process for injection wells and has begun discussions with federal regulators about the potential of taking that on. But, he warned, the DEP will need additional money and staff to do so.

The idea of using natural gas as the main source of hydrogen production in has been challenged by various groups who are worried that it’s another way to keep the oil and gas industry relevant and profitable at the expense of cleaner energy sources.

The Ohio River Valley Institute, a progressive think tank, has cautioned that the pursuit of a blue hydrogen hub may leave taxpayers and utility rate payers on the hook for subsidies to fossil fuel companies. Its researchers also worried that it might distract resources and attention from other energy and economic development strategies.

In a different hearing on hydrogen hubs last month organized by the Pennsylvania Democratic House Policy Committee, Rob Altenburg, director of the PennFuture Energy Center, warned that, “At the beginning of the fracking boom, we were told methane gas could be a ‘bridge fuel’ to aid in the transition to the clean renewable energy we knew we would need. But that is not what happened.

“In the years since, Pennsylvania failed to prioritize the policies and investments needed to make that transition to clean energy a reality and instead put all its eggs in the fracking basket.”

Scaling up hydrogen -— however its made -— will also be a technical challenge. There are questions whether current infrastructure can be repurposed to carry hydrogen.

To that end, on Wednesday, North Shore utility Peoples Natural Gas and the University of Pittsburgh announced a partnership that will first study how hydrogen can be incorporated into Peoples’ gas distribution pipelines and then pilot its use there.

Other utilities, such as National Grid in New York that is part of a hydrogen hub coalition that will also be pursing the DOE funding, are staking their net zero goals on replacing natural gas with hydrogen.

“By 2050, the goal is no fossil fuel in heating,” Judith Judson, head of US Strategy at National Grid, said during a panel discussion. But she said it’s possible to start blending as much as 20% of hydrogen into the gas stream today.

U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry called hydrogen the “Swiss Army knife of energy” on Thursday, saying that all roads to a zero emission economy include hydrogen in the mix.

“And someone’s going to make a lot of money” off that transition, he said. “A lot of money.”

Anya Litvak: alitvak@post-gazette.com 

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