It seems like only yesterday that a mysterious new program called Energy Earthshots was in the works for the US Department of Energy, and everybody was wondering what that could possibly be. The curtain has now lifted and the answer is clean hydrogen. If you’re thinking why clean hydrogen and not green hydrogen, that’s a good question. The answer could make fossil energy stakeholders very happy or very, very sad.
Green Hydrogen Vs. Clean Hydrogen
For those of you new to the topic, hydrogen is the cornerstone of the modern industrial economy. The booming market for hydrogen fuel cells is just one slice of a huge chemical pie that includes agriculture, food processing, and refining, among other areas.
The problem is that almost the entire global supply of hydrogen comes from natural gas and coal.
However, not for long. Low-cost renewable energy has fostered a rosier economic outlook for new and more sustainable hydrogen sources, aka green hydrogen. Most of the activity is concentrated in the field of electrolysis, which refers to systems that deploy electricity to tease bubbles of hydrogen gas out of water.
This is what is known as green hydrogen. Other renewable hydrogen sources include biomass, biogas, municipal wastewater, and municipal solid waste.
The idea of producing hydrogen from reclaimed industrial gasses and plastic waste is also catching on. That’s more sustainable than using virgin natural gas or coal to produce hydrogen, though much of the foundational feedstock is still fossil-based and not renewable.
Then there’s a public relations gimmick cooked up by fossil energy stakeholders, in which you still produce hydrogen from natural gas or coal, but you hook it up to a carbon capture system and call it “blue” hydrogen, which supposedly translates into “clean” hydrogen.
I know, right? We think so, too.
So What Is It, Green Hydrogen Or Clean Hydrogen?
All else being equal, the “clean hydrogen” referred to in the new Energy Earthshots initiative could include support for fossil-sourced hydrogen with carbon capture, as well as reclaimed hydrogen from wastes.
However, last week CleanTechnica eyeballed the Biden administration’s FY 2022 budget proposal, and we took a quick look back the Energy Department’s green hydrogen initiatives during the administration of former President and accused insurrectionist Donald Trump, and then we connected the dots to current Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm’s pronouncements about renewable hydrogen earlier this year, and our conclusion is that when Energy Earthshots says clean hydrogen, they may be leaving a bit of wiggle room for fossil sources, but probably not all that much.
Get Ready For The Hydrogen Shot
The name “Earthshots Initiative” is a play on the successful 20th century Moonshot venture that shot US astronauts into space before anybody else got there, and the Energy Department’s early 21st century Sunshot Initiative, which launched during the Obama administration with the goal of bringing down the cost of solar power.
Energy Earthshots aims to replicate that all-hands-on-deck frenzy of collaborative innovation to tackle the energy challenges of the early mid-century period, which will make or break the ability of humankind to save itself from catastrophic climate change.
The Energy Earthshots Initiative aims to “accelerate breakthroughs of more abundant, affordable, and reliable clean energy solutions within the decade,” the Energy Department explained in a press release on Monday.
Skeptics were and still are laughing off the idea of the hydrogen economy of the future, but the Energy Department is a big fan and they just clapped back bigly when they picked hydrogen as the very first focus of the new Energy Earthshots initiative.
“The first Energy Earthshot — Hydrogen Shot — seeks to reduce the cost of clean hydrogen by 80% to $1 per kilogram in one decade,” the Energy Department said. “Achieving these targets will help America tackle the climate crisis, and more quickly reach the Biden-Harris Administration’s goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 while creating good-paying, union jobs and growing the economy.”
“Clean hydrogen is a game changer. It will help decarbonize high-polluting heavy-duty and industrial sectors, while delivering good-paying clean energy jobs and realizing a net-zero economy by 2050,” Secretary Granholm added.
Here’s the money quote from the press release:
“By achieving Hydrogen Shot’s 80% cost reduction goal, we can unlock a five-fold increase in demand by increasing clean hydrogen production from pathways such as renewables, nuclear, and thermal conversion. This would create more clean energy jobs, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and position America to compete in the clean energy market on a global scale.”
Fossil-Sourced Hydrogen With Carbon Capture, Or Maybe Not
If you caught that thing about renewables and nuclear, that’s a reference to electrolysis, meaning green hydrogen. There is also something called thermochemical conversion, which deploys high heat from nuclear or concentrating solar plants to split hydrogen from water, but that seems a bit too early-stagey to fit into the Hydrogen Shot timeline. The other option is thermal conversion, which generally refers to steam reformation and other processes that apply to natural gas and coal, meaning not green hydrogen.
The Hydrogen Shot Request for Information emphasizes diverse energy sources in the US, and it specifically mentions fossil energy plus carbon capture for ramping up hydrogen production, so it looks like fossil energy stakeholders have something to cheer about after all.
Or, maybe not. Climate action has become a mainstream business model. It’s a good bet that the market for fossil-sourced hydrogen will shrink as the supply of sustainable hydrogen grows, carbon capture or not.
The Energy Department’s RFI appears to recognize that the private sector is already leaning towards green hydrogen. Despite the nod to fossil-sourced hydrogen, the agency highlights green hydrogen in a shortlist of major projects currently under way:
“… hydrogen production, storage, and end use in turbines through the $1 billion Advanced Clean Energy Storage project in Utah; a 5 MW electrolyzer project planned in Washington State; first-of-a -kind nuclear-to-hydrogen projects in multiple states; a 20 MW electrolyzer plant to produce hydrogen from solar power in Florida; and the first GW-scale factory for electrolyzers announced in New York, with a 120 MW electrolyzer soon to be installed.”
If you can spot the thermal conversion project in that list, drop us a note in the comment thread (hint: there is none).
But What About Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles?
Yes, what about them? Hydrogen Shot is not taking aim at the hydrogen fuel cell passenger car and SUV markets, though Toyota and a small but growing list of automakers have been pitching the idea (for the record, the growing list includes Hyundai, Jaguar Land Rover, and most recently, BMW).
Instead, Hydrogen Shot is focusing on long haul trucks and other heavy applications. That could include locomotives as well as hydrogen aircraft and hydrogen watercraft.
Green hydrogen has already been incorporated into much of the planning for transportation applications, so it’s no surprise that green hydrogen producers are already jockeying to compete for business.
In the latest development on that score, the firm SGH2 Energy is pitching a “greener than green” hydrogen product that draws from biomass and other bio-based waste. The company claims that its green H2 displaces more carbon than both electrolysis-based process as well as thermal conversion, so hold on to your hats.
Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.
Image: Hydrogen production from various sources courtesy of US Department of Energy.