Energy & Environment
Hydrogen: Climate change friend or foe?
New York is looking into how it can harness the energy of the most plentiful element in the universe while sticking to its climate goals.
New York needs all sorts of renewable energy projects to meet its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 85% (compared to 1990 levels) before 2050. Offshore wind, solar and hydroelectric power will be important to replacing fossil fuels, but they each have their own limits. Wind patterns do not always line up with consumer demand. Clouds sometimes block the sun. Many rivers have already been dammed. Some engines just need more oomph than electricity can provide.
Hydrogen is getting more attention from policymakers at all levels of government as a future fuel source. It is much lighter than gasoline and has the torque to keep long-haul trucking and commercial flights going in a carbon-free future. Heavy industry could use it to smelt steel and produce cement, and hydrogen can be stored without needing batteries. Such advantages help explain why the federal government is now offering billions of dollars in funding for states with ideas for harnessing the most plentiful element in the universe as a reliable source of energy. Gov. Kathy Hochul announced steps in her State of the State to transform the Empire State into a “green hydrogen hub” over the next few years.
New York is increasingly leaning on hydrogen power as an option to help the state meet the environmental goals established in the 2019 Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. Hydrogen has advantages over other renewable energy sources, but it also has its drawbacks. New funding aims to encourage the technological advances necessary to overcome many of the negatives while making hydrogen power economically viable, but its production could lead to increased greenhouse gas emissions in some situations. That is why environmentalists warned that fossil fuel companies were promoting it to help their own bottom line more than efforts to confront climate change.
Nomenclature and a little science are important to understanding hydrogen as a fuel. So-called blue hydrogen is made from natural gas in a process that research shows can pollute as much as coal. Green hydrogen is made from water through an energy intensive process called electrolysis, which can be carbon neutral if renewable sources were used to create the electricity needed to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. Once hydrogen gas gets made through either method, it can be burned to power an engine. Or, it can go into a device called a fuel cell to generate electricity without making any greenhouse gases. The bottom line is there are two important types of hydrogen – and two ways to use them.
Hochul appears to be keeping an open mind when it comes to new fuel sources, though she emphasized green hydrogen in her State of the State policy book. “Green hydrogen is a cutting-edge climate technology with the potential to accelerate New York’s transition into a net-zero economy and create good-paying jobs across the state,” reads the book outlining her 2022 agenda. “Made from renewable energy right here in New York, green hydrogen releases zero greenhouse gas emissions when used in a fuel cell, yet it is strong enough to power a forklift, long-distance semi-truck, or even entire neighborhoods via a microgrid.” To do this, she proposed competing for billions in funding for hydrogen development included in a recent federal infrastructure bill, catalyzing new state-funded research and continuing work New York has already done in recent years.
The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, which leads many of New York’s climate initiatives, has spent millions of dollars on research into hydrogen as well as internal combustion engines that could be fueled by any of the color-coded types of hydrogen. Then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo in his final weeks in office promoted hydrogen as a potential fuel for power plants, which would require additional advances in carbon capture technology to stop greenhouse gases from entering the air. But draft plans recently released by the state Climate Action Council – tasked by law with developing plans for the state to reach its climate goals – recommended limiting “the use of hydrogen, nuclear, and biofuels” because of their potential ill effects on the environment. Making hydrogen from natural gas can result in leaking methane, which is a much more harmful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, which is also created in the process. “We are seeking to understand and explore all resources that may be available as part of the State’s comprehensive decarbonization strategy, including assessing the role of green hydrogen,” reads the NYSERDA website that mentions green hydrogen.
Energy companies like National Grid have nonetheless promoted hydrogen as a way to continue using current infrastructure like pipelines even though that could mean creating more greenhouse gases through combustion that could not necessarily be captured and stored. “The Trojan horse argument is real,” Alex Beauchamp, Northeast region director of Food & Water Watch said in an interview. “There’s a reason that (fossil fuel companies) are hyping up hydrogen that just magically can exist in the exact same infrastructure that the gas they currently burn is in.” Environmentalists succeeded in getting the City Council to include a ban on hydrogen gas (fuel cells are permitted) in a landmark law requiring all new buildings to be fully electric after 2027. They are hoping that the state will adopt a similar approach to reducing pollution from commercial and residential buildings, which accounted for 32% of greenhouse gas emissions in New York in 2019.
A lot about the state’s climate strategy will be determined soon. The state budget is due April 1. A final plan for state climate efforts is scheduled to be released by the Climate Action Council around the end of the year. Federal applications for hydrogen funding are expected to open up sometime around the latter half of 2022, according to NYSERDA. If all goes well with New York’s application, Hochul might be able to make good on creating a national hydrogen hub after all. Such efforts will not come to fruition in time for the June Democratic gubernatorial primary or even the general election, but the governor is making a lot of political hay in the meantime about how she is confronting the global threat of climate change here at home. The budget she is scheduled to release next week will likely offer more details on her hydrogen proposals. More than a few environmentalists are hoping that she leans into the forms of green hydrogen that will reduce, rather than add, to New York’s carbon footprint. “There’s going to be a role for green hydrogen; we’re going to need to look into this,” Liz Moran, New York policy advocate at Earthjustice, said in an interview. “But it needs to be done very carefully.”
NEXT STORY: How New York could cover its 1 million uninsured residents