Hydrogen fuel is definitely having a moment in the discussion around how we source our energy in the future. It’s not all talk – major investments into hydrogen research, development, and real-world applications are being made almost every day, including here in Michigan.
The State of Michigan recently announced several hydrogen-related projects and efforts, including a $400 million “gigafactory” (with an estimated 500 new jobs) by Norwegian-based Nel Hydrogen that will reportedly manufacture equipment to produce hydrogen fuel (a location for the site has been announced yet).
Michigan is also pushing hard in support of two other project proposals competing for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Hydrogen Hubs program (established by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act), which could land hundreds of millions (and maybe into the billions) of dollars to establish one or two hubs (of approximately 6-10 nationwide) to produce hydrogen and connect hydrogen networks in the region.
The Nel Hydrogen factory would be the first in the United States to manufacture electrolyzers, the units that use electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen in a process called electrolysis. If renewable electricity is used in electrolysis to make so-called “green hydrogen,” there is the potential for significant carbon emissions benefits as compared to petroleum-based fuels, especially if that green hydrogen can fuel hard-to-decarbonize industries, like long-distance heavy trucking, aviation, or facilities that use high heat (like steel plants). However, that’s a huge “if” – renewables only power about 20% of all U.S. electricity, so it may prove tough to produce green hydrogen on a large scale in the short term.
There are many other drawbacks to hydrogen until we can consider it a real, proven solution to climate change and pollution. A glaring problem is that hydrogen is contributing to real pollution and environmental injustices right now – the fossil fuel industry is both the largest producer and consumer of hydrogen at the moment. The buildout of an extensive hydrogen fuel infrastructure network, with new hydrogen pipelines and distribution facilities, present a safety risk due to its highly explosive nature. And while the combustion of hydrogen is cleaner than fossil fuels, it still does produce nitrogen oxides, which are greenhouse gasses.
In addition, the fossil fuel industry sees hydrogen as a potential lifeline, from using methane gas to produce hydrogen now or as a future solution to dangle in front of policymakers to keep their existing fossil fuel products around longer in a decarbonizing world. For the health of people living near heavy industry and for the entire planet, we must not fall into this trap. As frontline communities and environmental justice organizations are saying loudly and clearly, running headlong into hydrogen while ignoring the warning signs is exactly how we make the mistakes of the past all over again.
From all the state and federal investments in hydrogen (from the Infrastructure Law to the Inflation Reduction Act and state economic incentives), it’s clear that policymakers are jumping in feet first toward hydrogen production. Our leaders must establish clear safeguards (see this excellent Earthjustice report for recommendations) to prevent hydrogen from becoming just another way the fossil fuel industry green washes their pollution and poisons communities as they pursue their never-ending quest for profits.