Since Congress passed the bipartisan infrastructure law last year, areas around the country have started strategizing how to become one of the four or more regional hubs that can get part of the Department of Energy’s promised $8 billion for developing clean hydrogen. New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Jersey want to form a ginormous, sprawling northeast hub.
“We’re proud to share a commitment to climate leadership, fuel cell innovation and clean energy jobs with our neighboring states, which will position us competitively to bring federal investment in clean hydrogen to our region,” said Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont in a March press release announcing the four states’ bid for a northeast energy hub.
However, nobody knows yet what a hydrogen hub will look like, or even what exactly hydrogen will be used for. And some people aren’t sure the hub sounds like a safe addition to their neighborhood.
Hydrogen has many possibilities as a clean fuel, since it produces only water after being consumed in a fuel cell. But first, it has to be manufactured. Various resources produce hydrogen, including nuclear power, natural gas, solar, wind and biomass.
Unfortunately, it’s usually produced by coal or natural gas, resulting in greenhouse gas emissions. A better way to produce hydrogen is through electrolysis, which splits water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen via electricity. Obviously this electricity needs to come from solar, wind or another green energy source to make this plan viable. And right now, it’s more expensive to produce clean hydrogen than to use fossil fuels.
A recent article in Grist by Emily Pontecorvo explores what a northeast energy hub might be like, and discusses some of the likelier uses for hydrogen. For example, places where hydrogen could outcompete batteries include fueling big things like 18-wheelers and ships. It seems unlikely that a battery efficient enough to power a trans-Atlantic ship is going to be developed in my lifetime. Or a train.
As Pontecorvo points out, people who live in neighboring communities could have big health wins if they no longer have to breathe the emissions that come from machinery used for loading and unloading cargo ships. If successful, hydrogen could strike a blow against environmental racism. Then again, people could worry about a hydrogen pipeline. Would it really be safe?
It’s early days for hydrogen, and nobody has yet gotten a piece of the $8 billion DOE pie.
“It does remain really abstract, at this point,” said Rachel Fakhry of the Natural Resources Defense Council, as quoted in Grist. “We are seeing some hubs and clusters pop up globally, but it’s still really a nebulous concept.”