This article is part of a series on clean hydrogen. Read more.

Is there any place for fossil fuels in the clean hydrogen future?

Fossil fuel interests want to shape the emerging clean hydrogen economy to serve their business needs — a desire in conflict with climate goals.
By Jeff St. John

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In the foreground is a long white pipeline. In the background are compressor pumps and an industrial facility.
(Nick de la Torre/Houston Chronicle/Getty Images)

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Canary Media thanks Verdagy for its support of the Clean Hydrogen series.

Should our clean energy future rely more on electrons or on molecules? 

That’s the question at the core of the battle over clean hydrogen, a potential fossil-fuel substitute that burns without emitting carbon dioxide.

Right now, the vast majority of the world’s energy comes from molecules — dirty ones. They’re the product of billions upon billions of gallons of fossil fuels, pumped, refined and transported each year via the trillions of dollars of infrastructure that forms the circulation system for the modern industrial economy. Today, that system is owned and operated for the profit of private and government-owned fossil fuel companies.

But there’s an alternative circulation system — the electric grid — that is inherently more efficient at delivering energy. It’s also the carrier of the clean electrons, generated from sun, wind, water and the earth’s heat, that are the heart of the energy transition.

Much of the debate over clean hydrogen boils down to which of these two systems the world should prioritize in the fight to stop burning planet-warming fossil fuels.

On the one side are the climate advocates, researchers, clean-energy analysts and a subset of hydrogen industry players arguing that the only way for clean hydrogen to help with the energy transition is if it’s made from carbon-free electricity and used for the tasks that clean electrons can’t currently handle, like long-haul aviation and fertilizer production.

On the other are fossil fuel interests, as well as some energy experts skeptical of the potential for renewables to meet the world’s decarbonization needs. They argue that fossil gas is a perfectly fine feedstock for hydrogen, so long as carbon capture is involved. In their view, hydrogen molecules can and should compete with electrons in applications ranging from home heating to power generation, even when electrification is proven to be far more efficient.

From oil majors like Chevron to gas pipeline operators like TC Energy, fossil fuel companies play leading roles in the groups pushing governments to support a clean-hydrogen economy that prefers molecules over electrons, including for the clean hydrogen hubs seeking $7 billion in federal grants. So, too, do their cousins in a U.S. utility industry still highly reliant on gas, coal and oil.

Their vision includes repurposing and expanding existing fossil-fuel infrastructure to create and distribute clean hydrogen, adding carbon-capture equipment to dirty hydrogen production facilities to make blue hydrogen,” and building pipeline and distribution networks to deliver that hydrogen far and wide. It also includes making as much clean hydrogen as possible, and encouraging its use in as many industries as possible, to drive down its costs.

And they’re spending tens of millions of dollars in an escalating lobbying effort to try and make this reality come true — a reality in which combustion and fossil fuel extraction remain much more central to society than is compatible with the needs of our warming planet.

But critics say this group’s arguments ignore hydrogen’s only real merit for the energy transition: to decarbonize the industries that can’t practically and cost-effectively do so with clean electricity alone.

Hydrogen is only a tool for decarbonization if it’s displacing fossil fuels,” said Julie McNamara, deputy policy director with the Union of Concerned Scientists. For every unit of renewable electricity we have, we have to make that unit go as far as it can — and that’s almost always direct electrification.”

This core conflict — molecules versus electrons, combustion versus circuitry — underlies almost every conflict now playing out in the federal agencies responsible for shaping U.S. hydrogen policy. And right now, clean-hydrogen skeptics fear existing policies are not structured to avoid directing hundreds of billions of dollars into a hydrogen infrastructure that saddles the country with more climate debt.

The incentive to make hydrogen with molecules, not electrons 

There’s no doubt that fossil fuel companies want to retain the central role they hold in the U.S. energy economy today, said Pavel Molchanov, director and equity research analyst at Raymond James & Associates. The question is whether that desire can align with actually achieving the clean energy transition.

Oil and gas companies are obviously making lots of money from their traditional fossil-fuel operations, but they are not opposed to renewable energy substitutes in and of themselves,” he said. What oil and gas companies emphatically do not want is competition from energy sources, renewable or otherwise, that the companies are unable to manage themselves.”

Some oil companies and utilities want to build and own large-scale solar and wind farms, for example, but they fight against rooftop and community solar policies that allow independent developers and utility customers to compete with them. The same desire for control characterizes their approach to clean hydrogen.

Some analysts argue that fossil fuel companies’ interest in producing clean hydrogen isn’t a bad thing: These firms have access to trillions of dollars in capital, and the energy transition needs billion-dollar kinds of projects — which is exactly what the big oil companies are good at doing,” Molchanov said.

But it’s unclear if policies that support those investments will encourage these companies to shift away from today’s planet-warming business practices — or provide them with a greenwashed permission slip to continue extracting fossil fuels.

Oil majors need to transition as quickly as possible,” added Jaron Goddard, an attorney in the energy and climate solutions practice of law firm Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati. I ask myself what role hydrogen can play in reducing oil majors’ emissions, both practically and from a cultural-shift perspective.”

For the most part, oil and gas companies have focused their clean-hydrogen ambitions on blue hydrogen — an approach environmental activists and climate and energy analysts are highly skeptical of.

Today, five of the seven hydrogen hubs set to receive a total of $7 billion in federal grants from 2021’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law include some plans to make blue hydrogen and also burn hydrogen in power plants. Karen Harbert, CEO of the American Gas Association trade group, has claimed a central role for her industry in these projects, saying, No matter the source for the hydrogen, one thing is certain: Natural gas utilities will be critical players in driving this exciting opportunity for further decarbonization.”

There’s good reason for industries that exist to produce, transport and sell fossil gas to emphasize this potential, said Robin Gaster, president of data and analysis consultancy Incumetrics. These companies are interested in blue hydrogen as sort of an insurance policy,” he said. It would give them a business to slip into if people got serious about climate change and decided to regulate fossil fuels seriously.”

If that happened, blue hydrogen would be an alternative,” said Gaster, who, as a senior fellow at Washington, D.C. think tank Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, wrote a recent report critical of the current clean-hydrogen policy. And it helps them to develop new technologies that their existing assets can use.”

Right now, it appears that the Biden administration’s guidance on the Inflation Reduction Act’s 45V hydrogen production tax credit — the world’s most lucrative incentive for making clean hydrogen — will not be viable for blue-hydrogen producers. The emissions associated with the fossil gas delivery network, and the challenges of capturing enough carbon, will likely put the most valuable subsidies out of reach, experts say.

But another tax credit for carbon-capture projects, called 45Q, could offer significant federal support for blue-hydrogen facilities that, on net, put more planet-warming emissions into the atmosphere than they help offset, according to analysis from environmental watchdogs.

In a worst-case scenario, the 45Q credit could create a perverse incentive for companies to build new coal-based hydrogen production facilities that are dirtier than today’s gas-based methods in order to increase the amount of carbon they can earn tax credits for capturing, warned Anika Juhn, data visualization analyst with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.

These tax credits represent a huge reservoir of funding for blue hydrogen that will cost taxpayers tens of billions of dollars, while still contributing to global warming,” Juhn said.

Green hydrogen” made from carbon-free electricity, electrolyzers and water is the method that environmental groups, energy analysts and a significant number of companies planning to invest in the hydrogen economy consider the best, and perhaps the only reliable, way to make truly clean hydrogen today.

But, as it stands, that approach faces a very real threat: Incumbents with lots of capital [and] the ability to claim a tax credit under 45Q [could]…get into the market reasonably early and claim a decarbonized product,” said Patrick Molloy, a manager with the Climate-Aligned Industries Program at RMI. (Canary Media is an independent affiliate of RMI.)

Molecules versus electrons — and pipelines versus power lines 

Hydrogen might be crucial to removing fossil fuels from a number of essential processes. But the list is limited, and key activities performed by utilities today — heating and power generation — don’t make the cut.

You don’t really need hydrogen everywhere. It should be more like regional networks to deliver to those use cases where you can’t really do electrification,” said Cihang Yuan, a senior program officer at the environmental nonprofit World Wildlife Fund who works with industrial companies that want to decarbonize their operations.

That’s why Yuan doesn’t foresee clean hydrogen becoming something like natural gas, where we have pipelines everywhere. I have my reservations about that, and I think some in the industry would agree with this.”

Not everyone agrees with Yuan on this point, however. In fact, fossil fuel companies and gas utilities have a strong interest in making the hydrogen infrastructure of tomorrow look like the fossil gas infrastructure of today.

A growing number of U.S. utilities are experimenting with blending hydrogen into existing fossil-gas pipelines to lower emissions. But a significant body of evidence indicates that the carbon-cutting benefits of this approach are minimal compared to the costs required to make hydrogen and to retrofit pipelines and gas-burning infrastructure.

The first challenge is a difficult one to overcome: the laws of thermodynamics. The most efficient hydrogen electrolyzers today lose about 25 to 30 percent of the energy value of the electricity they use. Similar losses occur when converting fossil gas to hydrogen, and blue hydrogen facilities must also use energy to capture carbon emissions. Converting hydrogen back into useful energy by burning it for heat or power generation brings its own losses.

Hydrogen has about a third of the energy density of methane, the primary ingredient of fossil gas. A blend of 20 percent hydrogen and 80 percent methane yields only a 6 percent reduction in overall carbon dioxide emissions for end users of the blended gas. And 20 percent may be the upper limit of what existing gas networks can use without needing to replace pipes, compressor stations and other equipment at significant expense, according to research from DOE’s HyBlend initiative.

Creating dedicated hydrogen-only pipelines can overcome these problems — but at the price of embedding a costly new infrastructure that could sap the resources available to pursue electrification alternatives.

Still, fossil fuel interests continue to push this plan. And utilities in particular, especially those in the more than half of U.S. states with decarbonization mandates, often have no choice but to look at every conceivable model of decarbonization as quickly as possible,” Raymond James’ Molchanov said.

The risk of clean hydrogen in fossil-gas pipelines

That brings us to the key concern environmental groups have with hydrogen in gas pipelines: the risk that it could offer utilities and producers a reason to continue to expand and invest in the energy delivery network for molecules, which offers little to no long-term promise of being useful in a low-carbon future.

Hydrogen may not be competitive with renewable energy in environmental or economic terms. But it could be a lifeline for utilities facing a future in which the fossil fuels they have invested heavily in must dramatically decline in use over the next few decades.

Most regulated U.S. utilities earn a guaranteed rate of return on the capital investments they make in infrastructure such as pipelines, passing the cost on to customers in the form of increases on their utility bills. Many can also pass along the variable costs of the fuel they purchase. But most utilities can’t own and earn the same returns on clean energy projects, which discourages such investments.

That incentive system, along with a heavy dose of institutional inertia, goes a long way to explain the push to use hydrogen for suboptimal applications. Add subsidized clean hydrogen to the mix, and the appeal becomes even clearer.

A November report from the Electric Power Research Institute, a nonprofit organization largely funded by U.S. electric utilities, indicated that clean-hydrogen tax credits create a large enough incentive to compete with natural gas for power generation, despite roundtrip losses.”

It also found that 45V-induced hydrogen demand is largely for electric generation and blending into existing natural gas pipelines, which are flexible demands that can be reversed if incentives change after tax credits expire.”

In other words, gas utilities could take on excess cheap, clean hydrogen and pass it on to power plants and other customers without having to take on the same costly investment decisions that other industries must make to convert to clean hydrogen as a fuel or feedstock, and then revert to fossil gas if those hydrogen costs go up again.

That could be seen as something of a pressure-release valve for the clean hydrogen industry as it matures — a near-term way to find lower-value customers until the higher-value users of hydrogen can gain more confidence in its long-term economics to make the switch.

But it could also be seen as a warning, said Sara Gersen, a senior attorney in the Clean Energy Program at nonprofit group Earthjustice. Unless policymakers act to prevent it, misuse of clean hydrogen tax credits could allow fossil gas providers to subsidize new and existing pipeline costs for decades without laying a path for the users of that gas to switch to sustainable decarbonization options once that subsidization ends.

The sector where I think the biggest danger is is in the utilities sector,” Gersen said. Utilities may latch on to hydrogen as an excuse not just to maintain their existing pipeline systems that need to be retired from a cost perspective, but expand their pipelines…and produce more wealth for their shareholders.”

The risk of diverting clean electricity for green hydrogen

This threat is present even when the hydrogen utilities use is green, critics warn.

In fact, it’s potentially even more concerning because it could swallow more renewables to displace less fossil fuels, because the process of making green hydrogen is so energy-intensive,” Sasan Saadat, a senior research and policy analyst for Earthjustice, said during an August webinar hosted by The Climate Center, a California-based nonprofit. How much fossil fuel we displace with each given megawatt of renewable energy matters.”

The costs of that diversion also matter, said David Cebon, a professor of mechanical engineering at Cambridge University.

Choosing electricity instead of hydrogen for decarbonization will use way less energy and waste way less money in government subsidies,” he said during the August webinar. Conversely, anyone who thinks that they can power their economy with hydrogen and compete with any other economy that’s running on electricity…will drive their economy into the ground.”

It’s hard to compare the costs of decarbonizing an entire economy via alternative pathways. But the Electric Power Research Institute’s November report found very high fiscal outlays” per unit of emissions reduction driven by the 45V tax credits, even under a strict emissions-accounting regime like the one being proposed by the Biden administration. Those emissions-reduction costs are approximately an order of magnitude higher than the implied abatement costs” from other alternatives such as expanding carbon-free electricity generation and boosting low-emissions transportation.

To be clear, EPRI’s report did highlight that clean-hydrogen policy has goals beyond driving the cheapest possible short-term emissions reductions, such as encouraging technological change and providing operational experience for hydrogen production, transport, storage, and use,” which will be important for industries that need hydrogen to decarbonize in later decades.

But Cebon worries that the push for clean-hydrogen subsidies will drive investments far in excess of those needed to enable these longer-term decarbonization goals — an outcome he thinks would be disastrous on multiple levels.

Hydrogen must only be used when there are no alternatives, for fertilizer, for plastics, for glass, maybe for steel,” he said. But proposals from utilities and fossil fuel interests to push clean hydrogen as an alternative where direct electrification is preferable, he warned, is inefficient, will increase costs, will increase fuel poverty and will damage economies.” 

Verdagy manufactures an advanced AWE electrolyzer system that has superior performance to almost any system in the market — high current densities and the largest membranes leading to higher hydrogen production, high efficiencies leading to lower LCOH, and wide dynamic range and fast turndowns to seamlessly integrate with renewables. In addition to its Silicon Valley factory, Verdagy operates its R&D and highly automated commercial pilot plants in Moss Landing, California, where it continues to advance its cutting-edge technology.

Jeff St. John is director of news and special projects at Canary Media. He covers innovative grid technologies, rooftop solar and batteries, clean hydrogen, EV charging and more.