The hydrogen hype bubble may have finally popped
By Abbe Ramanan, Clean Energy Group
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) punched a hole in the fossil fuel industry’s hydrogen hype bubble when they denied a Title V Air Permit to NRG Energy’s Astoria Gas Turbine Power Plant last Wednesday. Citing the project’s non-compliance with New York’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA), DEC referred to the project’s own admission in its Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement that its plan to eventually convert the plant to run on “emissions-free” hydrogen fuel “is not currently technically feasible given that there are no commercially available sources of [the] fuel.”
DEC’s decision comes on the heels of several blows to hydrogen’s hype. Lawmakers, academics, and even the CEO of Siemens Energy have identified major issues with hydrogen. All of these stories echo what environmental justice advocates (and CEG) have been shouting for months: hydrogen is not a viable fuel for power generation, and it certainly shouldn’t be used as a reason to extend the life of polluting power plants.
Of course, green hydrogen’s current lack of availability isn’t the only reason it’s not the wonder-fuel the fossil fuel industry has been making it out to be, considering the following:
The only “clean,” carbon-free hydrogen is green hydrogen, and there’s not enough to go around
95% of global hydrogen is grey hydrogen. Most of that is produced via steam methane reformation (SMR) of natural gas, a carbon intensive process (source).
Green hydrogen, produced via electrolyzers powered by renewable energy, is carbon-free. However, current global installed electrolyzer capacity is at 200 MW (source).
While capacity is expected to increase, it will be at least a decade before there is enough green hydrogen commercially available to power large-scale commercial projects.
Blue hydrogen, which is often promoted as another “clean” alternative to grey hydrogen, is produced via SMR of natural gas paired with carbon capture and storage (CCS) to capture emissions. Blue hydrogen is not clean — A recent lifecycle analysis of blue hydrogen found that generating blue hydrogen would result in more greenhouse gas emissions than directly burning gas for heat (source).
Green hydrogen is energy- and water-intensive to produce
With current electrolyzers, green hydrogen’s efficiency, from production back to energy through combustion, is around 30%, which means 70% of the renewable energy put into producing green hydrogen is lost across the full cycle of production and use (source).
To put that in context, to replace all current industrial consumption of grey hydrogen with green hydrogen would require 3,500 terra-watt hours (TWh) of renewable energy, the amount of renewable energy currently produced by the entire European Union (source).
Electrolysis is also a water-intensive process. Every kilogram of green hydrogen produced requires between 9 and 11 liters of water (source).
Because electrolysis breaks down water into constituent elements, this water needs to be purified. Most industrial water purification processes require, at minimum, a ratio of 2:1 wastewater to pure water, effectively doubling the amount of water required. This means each ton of green hydrogen could require up to 18 tons of water total, and not all of that water can be recycled (source).
Combusting green hydrogen in power plants jeopardizes public health and delays climate action
While producing green hydrogen can be a carbon-free process, if that gas is burned, it is not emissions-free.
Burning hydrogen can lead to nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions up to six times that of methane (source 1, source 2).
NOx does significant damage to the respiratory system over time. In areas affected by smog, symptoms including coughing, increased rates of asthma, and comorbidities with other respiratory illness develop. (source).
To comply with Clean Air Act regulations, most power plants limit their NOx emissions either through a catalytic reaction, dilution of the fuel mix with water or steam, or using newer low-NOx technology such as a dry low NOx (DLN) combustion system. None of these systems have been proven to work with a significant hydrogen blend or 100% hydrogen fuel.
Blending hydrogen at the low levels required to limit NOx does not lead to a significant decrease in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Because of the lower energy density of hydrogen, a blend of 30% hydrogen and 70% natural gas by volume would result in merely a 13% decrease in CO2 (source).
Because of the significant upgrades to emissions control technologies required for most existing gas plants to handle a larger hydrogen blend, there is no glide path of blending that will eventually get a power plant up to 100% hydrogen. Allowing plants to repower based on the promise that they will eventually get to 100% hydrogen will only extend the suffering of frontline communities and increase the lifetime of polluting fossil fuels.
Building out hydrogen infrastructure – or upgrading existing infrastructure – is expensive
If steel is exposed to hydrogen at high temperatures, hydrogen will diffuse into the alloy and combine with carbon to form tiny pockets of methane. This methane does not diffuse out of the metal and cracks the steel. This process, called “hydrogen embrittlement,” means that hydrogen cannot simply be stored and transported with existing infrastructure (source).
Steel makes up more than a quarter-million miles natural gas transmission systems in the U.S. Because of the embrittlement issue, any plans to use existing natural gas assets with hydrogen would require replacement of these pipelines.
Regular pipeline replacement is not cheap. Plans currently underway in Chicago to replace all its natural gas pipes will cost each utility customer $750 per year by 2040 (source). Because of its different storage requirements, a hydrogen pipeline is 68% more expensive to build than that (source).
The bottom line is more regulatory agencies need to follow DEC’s lead – don’t approve permits for hydrogen blending until its environmental, economic, and public health impacts can be independently evaluated. Several environmental justice organizations, including Earthjustice and a consortium and advocates in New Mexico, have come out with principles of use which should be considered when vetting any hydrogen project, particularly given the lack of formal regulatory guidance. The environmental justice community has spoken – hydrogen’s use should not be directed by fossil fuel industry players who stand to benefit from extending the life of assets that have already done significant harm to low-income and Black and Brown communities.