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    Green is good and brown is bad in the quest to harness hydrogen in climate fight

    January 23, 2023 - Larry Rulison, Times Union, Albany, N.Y.


      Jan. 22—ALBANY — Hydrogen is all the rage these days in the climate change fight.

      Unlike natural gas, oil or coal, when hydrogen is used to create power or electricity, there are no greenhouse gas emissions — just water vapor and warm air.

      The hydrogen industry is complex. Hydrogen has been in use for decades in industrial America. But its use as a power source is still emerging. These two divergent uses have made hydrogen a hot topic — and at times a controversial one.

      That's why you will see hydrogen described in different ways depending on how it was made.

      More Information

      A color spectrum of hydrogen

      White: Naturally occurring hydrogen

      Green: Hydrogen made from water using electrolysis powered by renewable energy

      Gray: Made from natural gas using a high-temperature steam reformation process that produces hydrogen but also emits carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas

      Blue: Same method as gray, but in order to be called blue hydrogen, the carbon dioxide must be captured and stored, keeping the greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere

      Black and brown: Hydrogen made using coal instead of natural gas — considered the 'dirtiest' form of hydrogen due to carbon emissions

      Pink: Made from water using electrolysis but using electricity from nuclear power — variations are called purple and red

      See MoreCollapse

      There is green hydrogen and black and gray hydrogen and even pink hydrogen.

      These labels, while perhaps confusing at first, have also become tools in the political battles over climate change and national energy policy, so it is important to know what they mean to become part of the climate change solution.

      New York state has one of the toughest climate change mitigation laws in the U.S., known as the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, requiring the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 85 percent by 2050. Much of that will be achieved through building renewable energy sources like wind and solar farms and forcing gas-powered vehicles off the road. Fossil fuel-burning power plants will have to be retired, and consumers will be forced to buy electric cars — or those powered by non-emitting sources like hydrogen.

      Here are some of the basics.

      Hydrogen is used to create power and electricity through a chemical reaction, not combustion, making it an ideal alternative to fossil fuels like oil and natural gas that release carbon into the atmosphere when they are burned.

      While the U.S. produces 10 million metric tons of hydrogen per year, most of that is not used as a fuel but for industrial processes such as making ammonia or oil refining, themselves dirty industries, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

      But hydrogen is viewed also as an ideal energy source. Hydrogen can be used just like fossil fuels to power things both at home and in the workplace.

      When used in fuel cells, hydrogen can power a variety of vehicles and industries, from forklift trucks to cars and maybe even airplanes someday. It can also be used for backup power and to provide electricity to data centers and commercial buildings.

      But while all hydrogen molecules are the same in terms of chemistry, they are not all equal in terms of how they are made. While some methods are climate-friendly, others are unacceptable to environmentalists because they generate greenhouse gases.

      An example of the latter is called gasification, in which natural gas, or even coal, is mixed with high-temperature steam to produce hydrogen. But gasification also produces carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that we need to produce less of in order to fight climate change.

      Most of this type of hydrogen is called "gray" hydrogen, usually produced from natural gas. If the carbon dioxide created in the process is captured and stored (usually underground) so it doesn't enter the atmosphere, it is called "blue" hydrogen.

      And there are also new methods of making hydrogen that don't create greenhouse gas emissions, such as a process called electrolysis in which water passes through an electrolyzer machine and separates into oxygen and hydrogen.

      When the electrolyzers are powered with renewable energy, this form of hydrogen production is considered the best for the environment because no carbon is released into the atmosphere. That's why it is called "green" hydrogen.

      Latham-based Plug Power, which makes hydrogen fuel cells, is investing heavily in green hydrogen. The company, which has nearly 1,500 employees in New York state, is the largest buyer of liquid hydrogen on the planet and also has become the world's largest electrolyzer manufacturer. The company is also building green hydrogen plants all across the U.S. and abroad, and aims to be the largest hydrogen producer in the world by the end of 2023.

      Plug's green hydrogen "factories" will produce 500 tons daily by 2025, which could replace 4.3 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions. The average car in the U.S. produces 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide a year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

      Plug Power CEO Andy Marsh says green hydrogen is the "gold standard" for using hydrogen to battle climate change

      "Plug believes that only green hydrogen — in which renewable energy generates hydrogen from water and emits harmless oxygen — will allow businesses to fully decarbonize energy, transportation, and industrial applications," Marsh said.

      Hydrogen made from coal is called "brown" or "black" hydrogen, depending on the type of coal. (As you can see, these color labels are based on a spectrum designed to convey their climate benefits)

      There is also "pink" hydrogen that is made using nuclear energy. And when it is found in nature, it's called "white" hydrogen.

      All these color labels and production methods are important to know as the United States figures out how it will achieve its climate goals through a mix of fuels, new technologies, and infrastructure and energy policy.

      Frank Wolak, CEO of the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association, says "the future is clean hydrogen," which means more than just green hydrogen will be used as the market matures. But he said that as domestic production of electrolyzers increases and renewable energy sources are added to the power grid, the cost of green energy will fall.

      "While there will remain a variety of clean hydrogen production pathways, these factors will drive greater adoption in green hydrogen over time," Wolak said.

      While hydrogen is just one piece of the puzzle along with other fuels and renewable energy sources, the color scheme helps the public, industry and lawmakers debate which type of hydrogen should be used.

      Of course, hydrogen isn't the only energy source that New York will use to comply with its climate law, which will essentially require all electrical power plants in the state to stop burning fossil fuels. Power plants account for about 25 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, while transportation accounts for 27 percent.

      Most of the results will be achieved by "electrifying" the economy — meaning solar, wind, hydro and nuclear will be used to generate power. Homes and businesses will also be forced to eventually abandon using natural gas for heating, relying instead on electric technology or geothermal systems.

      Most environmental groups oppose the use of hydrogen as a fuel in power plants, although companies like General Electric have started using the fuel in the plants it makes. They are also opposed to the use of hydrogen by gas utilities for home and commercial heating.

      "Hydrogen is going to be a part of the mix, although in a limited way," says Conor Bambrick, policy director for Environmental Advocates NY in Albany. "The production of hydrogen is very energy intensive. But there are applications (like in transportation) where hydrogen can play a big role."

      Although National Grid has proposed adding green hydrogen to its natural gas system, which serves much of the Capital Region, environmental groups opposed that idea.

      "The system is just not equipped for hydrogen," Bambrick added.

      "We have a team at National Grid looking at partnerships and potential hydrogen hub sites where we will be testing hydrogen energy and hydrogen blending for future use within our existing pipe network," National Grid spokesman Patrick Stella said.

      For now, when it comes to picking a type of hydrogen for use in transportation and small-scale power generation, green hydrogen seems to be the chosen solution due to its lack of greenhouse emissions and relatively safe and easy manufacturing method.

      The problem is cost. Green hydrogen is much more expensive than gray hydrogen to produce. Although the weather, geopolitics and economics can cause price swings and variations, prices of green hydrogen can be as much as five times that of gray hydrogen, which costs between $1 and $2 per kilogram, according to various government data sources.

      Green hydrogen costs around $5 per kilogram in the U.S., according to an analysis by S&P Global, although there have been spikes that have brought it up to $15 per kilogram in California.

      However, there is a new federal tax credit available to green hydrogen producers that provides a $3 per kilogram subsidy that will drive those prices down. The federal government wants green hydrogen to get down to $1 per kilogram within a decade.

      In 2021, Toyota announced that its hydrogen fuel cell car called the Mirai averaged about 100 miles per kilogram of hydrogen in a test drive around France using green hydrogen. That could almost get you to Lake George and back from Albany. The Mirai can go 400 miles before being refilled, a process that Toyota points out takes only five minutes, compared to 40 minutes for the fastest-charging electric vehicles. The Mirai costs about $50,000, although Toyota pays for $15,000 in hydrogen fuel as part of the package.

      However, don't go out and buy a hydrogen car just yet. There are no retail hydrogen fueling stations open to the public in the Capital Region although there is at least one under development.

      But the federal government as well as New York state, in particular, are creating tax and energy policies that are designed to drive the price of green hydrogen down and develop a network of hydrogen filling stations the public can rely on.

      The Biden administration has been a big supporter of green hydrogen, setting billions of dollars aside in the infrastructure and inflation bills, including $7 billion to create regional hydrogen hubs that support hydrogen infrastructure, including filling stations.

      Gov. Kathy Hochul announced last summer that New York was joining with several other neighboring states to compete for some of those billions. NYSERDA, the state's renewable energy agency, is also partnering with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory on a study that will look at how New York can use hydrogen to decarbonize the economy.


      (c)2023 the Times Union (Albany, N.Y.)

      Visit the Times Union (Albany, N.Y.) at

      Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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