Reid Frazier/The Allegheny Front
HANNIBAL, Ohio — At an industrial site on the banks of the Ohio River, a tall blue building with pipes running in and out could be part of the country’s transition to cleaner energy. Or so its owners hope.
Inside is a gas-fired power plant that could produce enough electricity for nearly 400,000 homes. Lately, however, the company that operates the plant, Long Ridge Energy, has started blending a small amount of hydrogen – no more than 5% – with natural gas.
“The market has really changed over the past two years,” says CEO Bo Wholey. “We are really responding to what the market wants.”
What the market wants is energy that does not create carbon pollution. Wholey thinks hydrogen, the most common element in the universe, could be the answer.
When used to power a car or power plant, hydrogen’s primary byproduct is water, not the climate-warming carbon dioxide. But finding a clean, cheap source to make hydrogen has eluded scientists and policymakers for decades.
One day, Wholey hopes the plant will run entirely on hydrogen. That goal may be more achievable after Congress passed and President Biden signed a major infrastructure bill last year. It includes $8 billion for at least four hydrogen hubs to produce, store and use this combustible gas. Groups across the country are hoping to land hubs, including one in this part of the Ohio River Valley.
“It’s definitely something we’re going to be evaluating, just as we’re thinking about how to make running on hydrogen more economical,” Wholey says.
In a zero-carbon world, hydrogen is “crucial”
Mention hydrogen, and some remember the Hindenburg disaster in 1937, where a hydrogen-filled airship exploded (although there are questions as to whether flammable gas was the cause). But today, climatologists see hydrogen as a potentially clean substitute for fossil fuels in heavy industry.
“I think hydrogen is crucial,” says Paulina Jaramillo, professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University and co-author of a recent UN report on climate change. She says hydrogen can be a clean alternative for industries such as steel mills, fertilizer plants or shipping.
The infrastructure bill is the most significant in a long line of attempts to boost hydrogen technology in the United States, which the federal government has tried to support since the George W. Bush administration.
The big problem is getting hydrogen. It can be made in several ways, each with its own color code designation. There is gray hydrogen, which is how most hydrogen is made today, by heating natural gas. This creates a lot of carbon dioxide, the driving force of climate change, which the United Nations has called “a threat to human well-being and (the) health of the planet”. Blue hydrogen, where this CO2 is captured and stored underground, is being pushed by big oil and gas companies as a low-carbon energy source.
Meredith Miotke for NPR
The infrastructure bill provides for four hubs for “clean” hydrogen, including at least one for blue hydrogen and another for green hydrogen. It is the process in which renewable energy is used to extract hydrogen from water by electrolysis, so that it does not release carbon dioxide. Another hub will produce pink hydrogen, which uses nuclear-powered electrolysis.
Jaramillo says green hydrogen is “ideal,” but blue hydrogen could still help the world meet its climate goals, provided it uses carbon capture and sequestration (CCS).
“If we want to produce hydrogen with natural gas, there has to be CCS,” says Jaramillo.
Blue hydrogen captures up to 90% of its CO2 and is dependent on the natural gas system, but it lets out methane, a very potent greenhouse gas. This has some scientists wondering how beneficial it will be for the climate.
Julie McNamara, deputy policy director for climate and energy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, wants better methane safeguards on any federal funding for blue hydrogen.
“It’s one of the most important things to do right, because the government is now investing $8 billion to catalyze an industry that may not be clean at all if it doesn’t get it right,” McNamara said. .
In the Blue Hydrogen vs. Green Hydrogen Debate, Fossil Fuels Take the Lead
Even with questions about blue hydrogen, some scientists think it’s still worth investigating.
“In the immediate term – the next 10 or 20 years – making hydrogen efficiently from fossil resources could still be the (fastest) way to reduce our carbon footprint,” says Goetz Veser, professor of engineering. chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh. Veser studies the production and use of hydrogen, including ways to capture carbon dioxide during its production.
Reid Frazier/The Allegheny Front
Veser says one of the benefits of blue hydrogen is that it relies on decades-old technology.
Another advantage, according to Bridget van Dorsten, an analyst at energy research consultancy Wood Mackenzie, is the political power of the fossil fuel industry in the United States. She says that makes blue hydrogen more likely than a full surge for green hydrogen.
“Do you think a natural gas industry would be more willing to [a plan of] “Hey, we’re totally going to get rid of all your infrastructure”?” asks van Dorsten.
“Or do you think they would rather, ‘Hey, you know what, this investment you’ve made in all this infrastructure, you can keep it. You just have to pay more to add carbon capture to it. ‘ Because I think they would be interested in the latter,” she says.
One of the main proponents of blue hydrogen is Senator Joe Manchin, DW. Go. Manchin blocked Biden’s climate agenda last year but said he could accept a lower bill with clean energy tax credits, including one for hydrogen. Manchin has also made it clear that he wants one of the hydrogen centers to be built in his home state of West Virginia.