For Many, Hydrogen Is the Fuel of the Future. New Research Raises Doubts.

In Washington, the latest bipartisan infrastructure package devotes $8 billion to creating regional hydrogen hubs, a provision originally introduced as part of a separate bill by Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, a major natural gas producing region. Among companies that lobbied for investment in hydrogen were NextEra Energy, which has proposed a solar-powered hydrogen pilot plant in Florida.

Some other Democrats, like Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland, have pushed back against the idea, calling it an “empty promise.” Environmental groups have also criticized the spending. “It’s not a climate action,” said Jim Walsh, a senior energy policy analyst at Food & Water Watch, a Washington-based nonprofit group. “It’s this is a fossil fuel subsidy with Congress acting like they’re doing something on climate, while propping up the next chapter of the fossil fuel industry.”

Jack Brouwer, director of the National Fuel Cell Research Center at the University of California, Irvine, said that hydrogen would ultimately need to be made using renewable energy to produce what the industry calls green hydrogen, which uses renewable energy to split water into its constituent parts, hydrogen and oxygen. That, he said, would eliminate the fossil and the methane leaks.

Hydrogen made from fossil fuels could still act as a transition fuel but would ultimately be “a small contributor to the overall sustainable hydrogen economy,” he said. “First we use blue, then we make it all green,” he said.

Today, very little hydrogen is green, because the process involved — electrolyzing water to separate hydrogen atoms from oxygen — is hugely energy intensive. In most places, there simply isn’t enough renewable energy to produce vast amounts of green hydrogen. (Although if the world does start to produce excess renewable energy, converting it to hydrogen would be one way to store it.)

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