Prove your humanity

President Biden’s announcement last Thursday that Pennsylvania would get parts of two federally-funded hydrogen hubs struck Rich Negrin as a stroke of good luck.

“I’m not kidding,” Negrin said, “I don’t want to put too fine a point on it. I think it’s the dawn of a clean energy economy that we’ve been talking about for years.”

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Negrin is the secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the former city manager of Philadelphia. He was part of the team that presented a proposal for one of the winning bids, the Mid-Atlantic Clean Hydrogen Hub (MACH2), at the White House in July. MACH2 is based out of Philadelphia, Southern New Jersey, and Delaware.

It is one of seven hubs across the nation that will be funded with $7 billion from Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law of 2021. If built, MACH2 would provide 20,000 construction jobs.

“It looks like great new skills, jobs. It looks like manufacturing, delivering, utilizing hydrogen in a meaningful way for the first time ever. And it’s going to happen right here, first in Pennsylvania,” Negrin said.

Negrin was speaking at a conference on the future of the hydrogen economy at Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, Pa. last week, a few days after President Biden announced the hubs at a ceremony in Philadelphia.

Around the country, politicians in regions that had landed hydrogen hubs were lauding the decision.

Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia released a video framing the Appalachian Regional Clean Hydrogen Hub (ARCH2) as a new kind of industrial revolution for his state.

“America is finally recognizing West Virginia’s strength as America’s energy powerhouse,” Manchin said. “Now, as our nation strives for energy security. West Virginia will once again answer the call.”

The hubs are part of Biden’s push to get the US economy to be carbon neutral by 2050, a necessity, scientists say, to stave off cataclysmic climate change.

Why hydrogen? 

The odorless, colorless gas emits zero carbon when it’s used to create energy, either through combustion or in a fuel cell. That’s why it is considered a potential alternative to fossil fuels – the main cause of global warming – in a zero-carbon economy. But isolating it takes a lot of energy.

Right now, hydrogen that’s used in oil refining and fertilizers is extracted from natural gas at high temperatures. But that process is a big climate polluter.

Adam Walters of Pennsylvania’s Department of Community and Economic Development said hydrogen can clean up industries that are among the dirtiest.

“You can use it to decarbonize a whole range of potential industries, particularly ones that are difficult to decarbonize otherwise, like cement and steel and plastics manufacturing,” said Walters. “Think the building sector, think power generation, think transportation, and think manufacturing and heavy industry.”

What’s a hub?

But right now, almost none of these industries use hydrogen. That’s where the concept of the hydrogen hub comes in. Each of the hubs would produce “clean” hydrogen using a variety of methods. They would also build facilities that can store, distribute and use hydrogen.

The MACH2 hub, based in Philadelphia, would use nuclear, solar and offshore wind energy to create hydrogen through electrolysis, a method by which electricity is used to extract hydrogen from water.

To the west, the West Virginia-based ARCH2 will make hydrogen out of natural gas, and bury the resulting carbon dioxide emissions underground. This method is called blue hydrogen.

ARCH2 would include projects in Western Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky, according to the Department of Energy. The consortium is led by the state of West Virginia and Pittsburgh-based gas driller EQT.

Hubs were also awarded for the West Coast, the Gulf Coast, and the Midwest.

Critics of blue hydrogen

Environmental groups say blue hydrogen will create more demand for fracking, which carries its own environmental and public health risks. They’re also skeptical about how climate-friendly it will be if greenhouse gases from fracking and hydrogen processes leak out during production.

“It would perpetuate the fossil fuel industry rather than help us wean (ourselves) from fossil fuels,” said Jim Kotcon, chair of the West Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club.

Each hub will have to produce a community benefits agreement, but Kotcon said there’s been little information shared with the public about what these projects would entail.

“We really do think that in order to avoid some of the environmental justice concerns, ARCH2 really needs to get our community benefits plan out into the open and tell us what’s going on.”

How long will it take, and how tax breaks fit in

Bridget van Dorsten, an analyst at the consulting firm Wood Mackenzie, said the hubs would take over a decade to develop.

“At the earliest, I think we’re looking at 2030 as these hubs being operational. And at the latest, we’re looking mid-2030s,” Van Dorsten said.

The hub funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will be paired with an estimated $100 billion in clean hydrogen tax credits from President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act.

“It wouldn’t really be possible to have any of this hydrogen infrastructure be built out on the time scale that we need without these kind of incentives,” van Dorsten said.

The Department of Treasury is currently writing rules over just how clean these projects need to be to qualify for the tax credits. If they’re not strict enough, many worry all this money will go to projects that don’t lower our greenhouse gas footprint. Others, like Manchin and Sen. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania, want the rules to be looser, to encourage more private investment into the hubs.

Groups say ‘clean’ hydrogen projects lack transparency and fear climate, safety impacts