Hydrogen Hub or Hydrogen Hype? You Decide

I have frequently critiqued Sierra Club and other grasstops enviros for uncritically jumping on MLG’s climate bandwagon (e.g. ETA, Net Zero). While being uncritical in supporting whatever the Governor proposes is not what we expect from environmental leadership, we also shouldn’t expect knee-jerk opposition from groups like Retake.

We recently published a post clearly documenting all that is wrong with Net Zero and we did our due diligence, conducting deep research into the topic. We cited numerous experts who laid out well-documented reasons for being skeptical of the policy. We also stepped up in opposition to MLG’s other 2022 climate initiative, the Hydrogen Hub, trusting activist Greg Mello for his analysis of its failings, but without doing much research beyond that. I’ve now done a good deal more reading and it validates Greg’s analysis.

Becauase the Governor is going to make the Hydrogen Hub the centerpiece of her legislative agenda in 2022, that required a deeper dive. First, I sought articles that objectively laid out what hydrogen energy was. I came across “Why We Need Green Hydrogen” a report from, the Carbon Management Research Initiative at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, whose website states its purpose as being to examine green hydrogen production and applications to understand the core challenges to its expansion at scale and the near-term opportunity to enable deployment. Here I found some discussion that seemed reasonably objective, although I was wary given the article title:

Green hydrogen has been in the news often lately. President-elect Biden has promised to use renewable energy to produce green hydrogen that costs less than natural gas. The Department of Energy is putting up to $100 million into the research and development of hydrogen and fuel cells. The European Union will invest $430 billion in green hydrogen by 2030 to help achieve the goals of its Green Deal. And Chile, Japan, Germany, Saudi Arabia, and Australia are all making major investments into green hydrogen.

So, what is green hydrogen? Simply put, it is hydrogen fuel that is created using renewable energy instead of fossil fuels. It has the potential to provide clean power for manufacturing, transportation, and more — and its only byproduct is water.”

Columbia Center on Global Energy Policy: “Why We Need Green Hydrogen”

For those who want to take deeper dive, Columbia Center published a more extensive and technical report that outlines the significant hurdles to developing hydrogen. Click here to access

Note that Columbia is advocating for investment in R&D. This may be the root of its enthusiasm — the promise of large grants to do that research. any case, Columbia offered the graphic below. It depicts the green or blue hydrogen process. The difference between green and blue being the source of wholesale electricity (red arrow). Green hydrogen would use solar energy to create that electricity, and blue would use fracked “natural” gas. The graphic makes clear that this is a water-intensive process leading one commenter on the article to state: “Cracking water to manufacture hydrogen is environmental vandalism.” This is my favorite comment made, as NM doesn’t exactly have an unlimited supply of water. Commenters on the Columbia article also pointed out that Columbia had under estimated the amount of electricity needed to produce hydrogen, with increases in energy costs increasing the total cost for producing hydrogen to the point that currently, it is no longer affordable.

The Columbia report, ends with a litany of comments critical of the entire piece, with many of those commenting clearly having far greater grasp of the science and technology involved. For those who want a deeper dive, check out “Why We Need Green Hydrogen” and scroll to the end for comments.

Another View on Hydrogen

To offer a more critical view on hydrogen, we offer a letter sent to Speaker Pelosi and Sen. Schumer on green hydrogen (broken up into digestible chunks).The 9/7/21 letter, “Hydrogen: Don’t believe the hype,” was prepared by Food & Water Watch with signatories from a coalition of highly credible climate advocacy and research organizations. Signatory orgs are listed after the last citation. Together the citations point to a myriad of concerns about investing resources into hydrogen research and development. Recall our recent post, “Solnit Dares to Hope, while NM Guv & Sierra Club Offer a Dangerous Fantasy: The Truth About Net Zero,” which warned of the danger of pursuing faux technological promises rather than doing the hard work of making sacrifices and keeping it in the ground. Hydrogen may become the poster child for fantasy-driven solutions to real world challenges.

All bold is my emphasis, and I interject commentary and reference to other articles periodically. From Food & Water Watch:

“Dear Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Schumer:

The urgency of the climate crisis means we must rapidly and dramatically reorient our energy and electricity systems to eliminate the production and use of fossil fuels. However, addressing the climate emergency must not include funding a hydrogen economy because the vast majority of hydrogen is created directly from natural gas and coal. Leading national and international scientists are clearly calling for the rapid phase out of fossil fuels and this should include phasing out fossil hydrogen before it is expanded. Industry proponents too often shift attention from green hydrogen to “clean hydrogen” that is in reality produced from fossil fuels, nuclear energy and other polluting sources. None of these varying technologies has been thoroughly evaluated, and there is strong reason to believe a massive hydrogen buildout will worsen the climate crisis and cause harm to Black, brown and Indigenous communities.

The fossil fuel industry is using hydrogen to greenwash fossil fuels and support shortsighted industry scams like carbon capture, which will lock us into decades of more fossil fuel dependency. For these reasons, we must exhibit caution when hydrogen is being proposed as a panacea to climate woes and fossil fuel reliance, and urge more evaluation and study of hydrogen before we support a largescale build out.

Food & Water Watch: “Hydrogen: Don’t believe the hype,” letter from enviro orgs to Sen Schumer and Speaker Pelosi

For those who recall the Governor’s infamous “I work for you” comment, issued when speaking to a meeting of the NM Oil & Gas Association, you will find this last comment to be a clue as to MLG’s enthusiasm for hydrogen.

The organizations below who signed on to Food & Water Watch’s letter are calling for more study before considering any largescale build-out. We heard the same from several legislators when the Governor announced the Hydrogen Hub initiative. Yet, the Governor recently stated she wanted to begin developing hydrogen “yesterday.” In fact, this week as reported in the Associated Press, the Governor spoke at a conference of gas and oil execs, reportedly:

thanking oil and gas producers for their contributions to the economy and tax revenues that form the backbone of state education funding. She pledged to kick-start the hydrogen fuel industry in New Mexico with legislation in February…“We continue to have conversations with the Biden administration to make sure that they understand the critical importance of this industry in our state,” the governor said.

AP: New Mexico governor thanks oil and gas, cheers hydrogen plan”

This does not sound like a “go cautious” approach, but rather more lik, she has figured this out and now needs to sell it and wouldn’t object to some G&O campaign donations, as well. More from the Food & Water Watch:

New research from scientists at Cornell and Stanford outlines how fossil fuel based hydrogen, coupled with carbon capture and storage has larger greenhouse gas emissions than coal. This hydrogen is generally referred to as blue hydrogen, and sometimes referred to as low-carbon or decarbonized hydrogen. Despite the huge emissions of blue hydrogen, the fossil fuel industry is pitching blue hydrogen as a way to make sustainable hydrogen from fossil fuels. By ignoring the impacts to climate change, public health and the environment, proponents of blue hydrogen are essentially pushing for more fossil fuel development, including fracking, pipelines and harms to Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, often hurt first and worst because of the systemic patterns of industrial development built alongside marginalized communities. Factory farms are also looking to cash in on the hydrogen greenwash, proposing to use methane from factory farming to create hydrogen, using the same process to create hydrogen from methane as the fossil fuel industry. The only difference is that factory farm gas to hydrogen is used to prop-up an agriculture model that poisons the air and water of nearby communities.”

Food & Water Watch:” “Hydrogen: Don’t believe the hype” letter from enviro orgs to Sen Schumer and Speaker Pelosi

Note how the letter describes ‘blue” hydrogen as supporting the industrial food production industry, another unsustainable practice that is poisoning our land, water and communities. And importantly, the letter also asserts that blue hydrogen generates more greenhouse gas (GHG) than burning coal. Undeterred, note the following from the AP article cited above:

“New Mexico’s first large-scale hydrogen project describes itself as “blue” — the result of a process that applies heat and steam to methane in natural gas to create hydrogen . A recent study by Cornell and Stanford universities found the process generates 20% more carbon emissions than burning natural gas or coal for heat.”

AP: New Mexico governor thanks oil and gas, cheers hydrogen plan”

The AP article sites Cornell and Stanford studies finding that blue hydrogen generates 20% more GHG than coal or natural gas. Perhaps the Governor should review that research before consulting with her gas and oil pals. More from the From Food & Water Watch letter to Pelosi and Schumer:

“To make matters worse, the fossil fuel industry is proposing a new carbon economy that will use carbon captured from hydrogen production, and other sources, to create new fuels that will emit more carbon, as well as a chemical feedstock for plastic production. This will further exacerbate the climate crisis, frontline community health, as well as the plastic crisis, which is polluting our oceans, food and even the air we breathe with microplastics.”

Food & Water Watch:” “Hydrogen: Don’t believe the hype” letter from enviro orgs to Sen Schumer and Speaker Pelosi

So, our Governor is advocating for precisely the version that is worse for the environment, including propping up the plastics industry. If you are counting, Hydrogen seems to be good for:

  • the gas and oil industry;
  • the industrial farming and pesticide industries; and
  • the plastics industries.

Together these three hydrogen beneficiaries represent the three biggest offenders in relation to climate change, biodiversity and sustainability. Not listed among the beneficiaries are you, me, or the planet. More from Food & Water Watch:

“Hydrogen extracted from water, using solar and wind energy, is referred to as “green” hydrogen. New infrastructure for hydrogen utilization can easily be built under the guise of green hydrogen and then use fossil-based hydrogen after the infrastructure is in place. We must ensure that “green” hydrogen is not used to prop up fossil fuel use.

Food & Water Watch:” “Hydrogen: Don’t believe the hype” letter from enviro orgs to Sen Schumer and Speaker Pelosi

We must be vigilant in assessing MLG’s plan and insist that she offer a detailed plan that can be cross-checked with research. We must also be wary of her other goal, implicitly stated at her talk to G&O execs — that she will prop up her gas and oil donor execs while greenwashing it off as a key piece of her Net Zero strategy and path to reducing Green House Gas emissions by 45% by 2030. Lofty goals used to justify perniciously “propping up” the gas and oil industry. More from the Food & Water Watch letter:

For many of hydrogen’s currently proposed applications, direct electrification (e.g., to grid or batteries) is the most efficient use of renewable electricity and can achieve greater GHG reductions sooner than green hydrogen. Building out hydrogen infrastructure for non-essential sectors would be a grave mistake. Hydrogen combustion is wasteful and produces harmful air pollutants, whereas hydrogen fuel cells only emit water and heat. Therefore, green hydrogen should only be used in fuel cells and reserved for energy applications where no electrification alternative is available. And regardless of its source, the distribution and use of hydrogen (including as ammonia) poses significant hazards that warrant serious evaluation, and which may place significant limits on where and how hydrogen can be safely utilized.

Today, only a small portion of hydrogen is produced for energy purposes; the majority goes into petrochemical and chemical feedstock, oil refining and metal processing. The fossil fuel industry aims to change this by trying to sell the public and Congress on the idea of a hydrogen energy economy, where hydrogen is the new fuel of choice for all our energy needs. This should come as no surprise when we consider that natural gas, almost exclusively derived from fracking, is responsible for over 95 percent of U.S. hydrogen production.

“While Congress is poised to make substantial infrastructure investments in clean energy that can help us to transition off fossil fuels, in doing so, we must avoid making investments in hydrogen infrastructure that will continue the legacy of fossil fuels and factory farming. It is for this reason we urge congress to reject any subsidies for hydrogen development in the infrastructure package and instead request that the National Academy of Sciences conduct extensive research into hydrogen production from solar and wind energy and the most effective and efficient uses of that hydrogen in fuel cells.”

Food & Water Watch:” “Hydrogen: Don’t believe the hype” letter from enviro orgs to Sen Schumer and Speaker Pelosi


Original Signatories:

  • Center for Biological Diversity
  • Center for International Environmental Law
  • Food & Water Watch
  • Friends of the Earth U.S.
  • Indigenous Environmental Network
  • Institute for Policy Studies Climate Policy Program
  • New York Lawyers for the Public Interest
  • Oil Change International
  • Zero Hour

Here too, Food & Water Watch urges study, caution, and deliberation and opposes rolling out incentives to the G&O industry until those studies are complete. Here in NM, we must follow Sen. Liz Stefanics’ lead in insisting that the Governor convene a Task Force to study this deeply before committing to any actions or use of resources.

And then it is up to us to insist that the Task Force and the “experts” with whom it consults are not an array of gas and oil lobbyists and faux researchers doing the industry’s dirty work.

We must also ask how we will use this hydrogen we produce. To sustain the destructive, pesticide-embedded industrial farming industry and the plastics industry? Or for critical industries that can’t utilize wind or solar, e.g., commercial and passenger air transport.

Much to do, and on topics like these my M.A. in literature isn’t much help. Is there anyone out there with serious energy and technology chops who wants to help review the forthcoming bills from the Guv and help hone our messaging on Net Zero and Hydrogen? Please email us at retakeresponse@gmail.com.

In solidarity and hope,

Paul & Roxanne



Categories: Climate Justice

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4 replies

  1. Well done, Paul & Roxanne, as usual. A recent presentation by Tom Solomon to NM Solar Energy Association on the “colors” of hydrogen was spot-on, and here’s a link (courtesy Mr. Solomon):

    https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1KHzrHfRqEV2jVrVTAIhxywkv-G7HyQws/edit?usp=sharing&ouid=118007829293720988305&rtpof=true&sd=true

    Blue hydrogen is absolutely a fossil fuel program. And “green” H2 is a misnomer. The Governor seems to think/hopes that this is hardwired to happen. I’ve heard that Heinrich is in on it, too. Well, $2B for the state gets a lot of attention, no? That would be 25% of $8B for four hydrogen hubs in the Infrastructure Plan…).

    Best,
    Dan

  2. Very interesting article. Despite my technical background, I can’t claim to be an expert on the technical aspects of hydrogen use. However, here are some thoughts.
    1. As pointed out, “blue hydrogen” should be a complete non-starter. We need to get away from fossil fuels (keep it in the ground), not find new ways to use them to destroy the planet.
    2. There might be an argument for use of “green hydrogen” with fuel cells for transportation. The water use angle is definitely a concern, though.
    3. Fuel cell technology has been under development for a long time, and my general impression is that they’re still not very practical. For one thing, they tend to use exotic and expensive materials (like platinum).
    4. I think the best argument against extensive investment in, and deployment of, hydrogen as a fuel is that the rapid progress in renewable energy technologies (solar and wind), combined with similar rapid progress in battery and other storage technology means that we’re likely to make far more progress, and sooner, investing in those directions than in throwing money at technologies that are really just a Hail Mary from the fossil fuel industry.

  3. Paul, enjoyed your blue hydrogen article. Tom Solomon gave a good lecture/ overview on Tuesday and I guess it can be viewed at: https://YouTube.be/l10tedf/ok. I’m not a tech guy so there might be something wrong the way I wrote it down and transcribed it. It’s probably on the 350nm web sight, not sure. Ward

  4. Paul,
    Well done. I’m glad to see that the stroke does not appear to have set you back at all.
    Devin

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