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Pennsylvania as a Hydrogen Hub

by John Ukenye, Policy Analyst

It was recently announced that fossil fuel industry leader Perry Babb will launch a $410 million project called KeyState to Zero in Clinton County, north-central Pennsylvania. This effort is part of a larger push by a mixture of government and private entities to pursue hydrogen as an alleged means to achieve net zero carbon emissions. Hydrogen, generally, is seen as an alternative to traditional fossil fuels for heavy industries that cannot be electrified as easily, such as marine transportation, cement and steel production, and long-haul freight. Hydrogen by itself has no carbon and thus emits none when burned or reacted in fuel cells. However, Babb and others fail to make the explicit distinction between the different types of hydrogen power that exist. Not all hydrogen is created equal, and Babb’s hydrogen plant merely keeps the fossil fuel industry alive while polluting just as much as, and in some cases more than, current dirty sources.

One form of hydrogen power which can be truly clean and net-zero is achieved through electrolysis. This form of hydrogen power, also known as “green” hydrogen, uses renewable energy to power the splitting of water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen.  However, PennFuture recognizes that even this form of hydrogen power is still inefficient and costly in most cases, and we must invest resources, time, and research in other forms of sustainable energy such as solar and wind.

One of the other forms of hydrogen power involves the capturing and sequestering of carbon dioxide (CO2), commonly known as “blue” hydrogen. Blue hydrogen proponents see potential in Pennsylvania becoming a “Blue Hydrogen Hub.” This is due to the vast amounts of natural gas located in the state, as methane (a large component of natural gas) releases massive amounts of CO2 which can be captured and stored into producing blue hydrogen. Proponents also believe that legacy fossil fuel pipelines can be retrofitted to transport blue hydrogen, which itself can also be blended with traditional fossil fuels and used as energy. This effectively allows the fossil fuel industry an extended lifeline—where it can continue to extract and pollute, while capturing some CO2 and producing hydrogen power. 

Babb called blue hydrogen a stepping stone to green hydrogen and net zero emissions, as it is too expensive to mass produce green hydrogen at this time. However, while hydrogen on its own produces no carbon emissions, the process required to create blue hydrogen itself is just as CO2-intensive as traditional methane-based natural gas production and even more potentially harmful to the environment. Hydrogen is a smaller molecule than natural gas and more easily leaks out of steel pipelines. It can also cause steel to become weak and brittle, and thus is easier to combust and can create a flame unseen by the human eye. And the truth remains that the more money and time spent on promoting blue hydrogen, the less focus there will be on developing cleaner, green hydrogen. Green hydrogen only comprises about .1 percent of all global hydrogen production. It is clear that the fracked gas industry is not looking for a stepping stone, but for an endpoint with blue hydrogen. 

On a nationwide lens, it was recently reported that President Biden’s current bipartisan infrastructure legislation would allocate $8 billion of the total $1 trillion to development and research on CO2 capture and storage-based energy, blue hydrogen. According to the Guardian, blue hydrogen creates 20 percent more greenhouse gases than coal during its production. According to the Energy Science & Engineering journal, blue hydrogen is 60 percent more polluting than burning diesel when being burned for heat.

There are green hydrogen projects underway that are at least worth examining further. One is by New York-based company Plug Power, who is partnering with Holtwood Dam operator Brookfield Renewable Partners to build Pennsylvania’s first green hydrogen plant in southern Lancaster County. The new plant will use power from the hydroelectric facility and water from the Susquehanna River to produce 15 metric tons of liquid hydrogen per day, which the company says is enough to power 1,500 heavy-duty trucks. The plant is expected to be online by the end of 2022 and create 25 permanent jobs. As stated earlier, however, state and federal funds allocated to hydrogen should be invested in researching and developing cheaper and sustainable methods to utilize green hydrogen in the future.

For those well aware of the need for our nation to get serious about mitigating climate change, Pennsylvania becoming a “Blue Hydrogen Hub” would simply be continuing us down the same ruinous path. It has long been the position of PennFuture that we, as both a Commonwealth and a nation, must work towards zero carbon emissions through economic, research, and development investments into alternative, green energy sources which would also produce good paying jobs for our citizens. 

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