As proponents tout the potential of so-called blue hydrogen to shepherd our region to a sustainable future, climate scientists and financial analysts question the viability — technologically, economically and ideologically — of developing a hydrogen hub reliant on natural gas and carbon capture in Western Pennsylvania.
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed last November contained $8 billion appropriated for four “clean hydrogen hubs” nationwide. In May, Gov. Tom Wolf announced that his administration would pursue the federal funds for Pennsylvania, and the state’s bipartisan congressional delegation threw its weight behind the effort in June.
Even before that, a group of local industrial titans including Shell, EQT and U.S. Steel issued a joint press release pledging support for the idea. Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald joined them in May alongside the Allegheny Conference on Community Development and prominent labor leaders.
With the process still firmly in the beginning stages, questions remain about how a hydrogen hub would be implemented, who gets a say in that process and whether it advances climate goals.
PublicSource spoke with climate scientists, financial analysts, critics and industry stakeholders in an effort to better understand the status and viability of the proposed hydrogen hub. Here are some of the questions and emerging answers.
What does hydrogen have to do with energy?
When hydrogen burns, it produces heat and the only byproduct is water.
The most abundant element in the universe, however, is itself not a source of energy.
“Hydrogen is another form of energy storage, like batteries,” said Neil Donahue, a climate scientist and professor of chemical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University [CMU]. “Batteries are not a form of energy, nor is hydrogen.”
In nature, hydrogen is tied up in other compounds, like water (H2O). For hydrogen to be used, it must first be isolated, which requires energy. Once pure, the hydrogen can then be stored, transported and ultimately combusted with zero carbon footprint.
The question, says Donahue: Where does the energy needed to produce hydrogen come from?
Renewables, fossil fuels and nuclear power are all potential energy sources for hydrogen production. Each occupies a corresponding space on a figurative color wheel often used in discussions of hydrogen power.
- Green hydrogen is made using renewables like solar and wind energy through electrolysis to isolate the element.
- Blue hydrogen is produced using natural gas, and the carbon emissions are captured and stored underground using carbon capture, utilization and sequestration technology.
- When hydrogen is produced using fossil fuels but the carbon is released into the atmosphere, it’s known as gray hydrogen.
- Nuclear power can also be used to create hydrogen in a process known as pink hydrogen.
Regardless of the energy input, the hydrogen produced is identical.
Experts say that hydrogen, when produced cleanly, has significant potential to reduce global carbon emissions, particularly among heavy industries like steel and concrete manufacturing, in large-scale transportation like trucking and aviation, and as a vehicle for energy storage in fuel cells. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s [IPCC] climate mitigation report released earlier this year listed hydrogen as a viable pathway to net-zero carbon emissions.
What is a hydrogen hub?
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law describes a regional clean hydrogen hub as “a network of clean hydrogen producers, potential clean hydrogen consumers and connective infrastructure located in close proximity.” The bill dictates that two of the four envisioned hubs are destined for areas “with the greatest natural gas resources,” a provision that likely got the bill past U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia.
Because of abundant natural gas resources and infrastructure in Western Pennsylvania, southeastern Ohio and West Virginia, a hydrogen hub in this region would in all likelihood be blue — that is, it would source the energy needed to produce hydrogen from natural gas, at least to start.
A blue hydrogen hub would use energy from burning natural gas to create hydrogen, capture the resulting carbon emissions that would otherwise enter the atmosphere and inject them deep underground.
There’s no singular vision for the hub, though, and several regional organizations have stepped forward with early-stage proposals.
“The hydrogen hub concept means many different things to different people,” said Valerie Karplus, a professor of engineering and public policy at CMU who leads the university’s Laboratory for Energy and Organizations.
Last year, Karplus and collaborators at Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Boise State University released a case study that laid out a vision for what a carbon capture and hydrogen hub could look like. They pointed to Southwestern Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio and West Virginia as “perfectly suited for region-wide, industrial development of hydrogen.”
Along with facilities that would actually produce the hydrogen, the study envisioned a carbon capture network of pipeline and storage facilities running east-to-west, “connecting power plants in Indiana and Armstrong counties in Pennsylvania to Coshocton Ohio, and north-south, connecting Beaver County to Greene County and extending into West Virginia.”
Other organizations like the Labor Energy Partnership between the AFL-CIO and the Energy Futures Initiative have sketched their own ideas of what would likely be a network of pipelines for hydrogen and carbon, and storage facilities connected to manufacturing facilities and power plants spread out across the tri-state region.
If any plan were to be realized, it would almost certainly require a significant and costly investment in pipelines and storage sites dedicated for both carbon dioxide and hydrogen, production facilities and related infrastructure. That does not currently exist on a large scale. Construction of that infrastructure, essentially from scratch, would surely foster short-term job growth, though some critics argue the money would be better spent elsewhere.
What are the arguments for a hydrogen and carbon capture hub?
The push to develop hydrogen begins in Washington. According to the U.S. Department of Energy [DOE], investments in hydrogen technology are “a major component” of the White House’s plan to decarbonize, particularly in the industrial sector that accounts for a third of domestic carbon emissions. The technology is also a “crucial” component to DOE’s strategy for achieving Biden’s climate goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and a clean electrical grid by 2035.
Those advocating to develop a regional hub in Western Pennsylvania point to the potential of hydrogen and carbon capture to reduce the carbon footprint of industries that cannot be easily electrified or have few other avenues to mitigate their emissions (like steelmaking, cement manufacturing and large-scale transportation).
“These are industries that are otherwise very difficult, if not impossible to abate. So these industries are going to disappear if we do not have this pathway available,” said Andrew Place, state energy and climate policy director at the Clean Air Task Force and a former commissioner of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission.
Carbon capture infrastructure, with or without a hydrogen component, he said, would also provide a way to reduce emissions and improve air quality from industrial sources in the region. He pointed to U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works as a facility ripe for carbon capture retrofitting, along with other pollution sources that are “chronic problems for communities.”
Blue hydrogen and carbon capture could also be useful in dampening the economic strains of an inevitable energy transition, said Karplus.
The technologies, she said, present “the possibility that the region’s workforce could find a lot of opportunity, not just in the cities, but also in the rural areas if these technologies and climate solutions can be developed, demonstrated, scaled up and truly low carbon.”
What role could hydrogen play in the climate toolbox?
In April, the Allegheny Conference on Community Development’s Energy Task Force — including representatives from heavy industry, natural gas and academia — published a report outlining a vision for the region’s energy transition. Among other provisions, it called for carbon capture and hydrogen hubs as a cornerstone of our regional effort to decarbonize.
“We should not be choosing winners and losers,” said Vera Krekanova, chief strategy and research officer for the Allegheny Conference.
“One strategy will not be enough,” she said. “We need a multitude of strategies. We need a portfolio, a holistic approach.”
According to Krekanova, renewables like solar and wind power have a “much higher value proposition for residents and communities and some sectors within the economy, but might not have the same value proposition for heavy industry manufacturing.” She warned against “gambling our future on one technology.”
The Allegheny Conference’s vision is that the region could eventually move on to hydrogen powered by renewable energy or nuclear power.
“What keeps me up at night is that we as a society will be unable to build sufficient renewables for all [of our] needs,” said Place, who expressed skepticism that renewables alone will have the capacity to power all of our energy needs.
Place referred to blue hydrogen and carbon capture as a “risk mitigation” strategy and pointed to the uncertainty inherent to new technologies.
A lot is still up in the air.
“In many ways this is an early test case or pilot of an industry,” Fitzgerald told PublicSource. “A lot of this discussion of where this will ultimately go are still to be had.” He concluded that it “remains to be seen how we’re able to realistically put this into place.”
Krekanova pointed out that many of the “core questions” surrounding a hydrogen hub are still unanswered.
“How beneficial is this really for our region?” she said. “How, specifically, are we going to determine that the good [returns on investment] outweigh all the costs and risks?… How do we negotiate this with the broader community?”
How ‘clean’ is blue hydrogen?
Blue hydrogen relies on fossil fuel. And although carbon capture promises to mitigate the carbon emitted during the process of making hydrogen, critics say the technology does little to address the methane emissions that occur during the extraction and transportation of the natural gas in the first place.
Methane, the primary compound found in natural gas, is a greenhouse gas 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in the near term.
“Depending on which estimate you go with, 40% to 50% of warming to date is attributed to methane,” said Justin Mikulka, a research fellow focused on energy transitions at the progressive think tank New Consensus. “So the idea that you’d be basing your economy or economic growth right now on an industry that is contributing greatly to increased atmospheric methane is risky.”
Last August, a study published in Energy Science and Engineering found that the emissions footprint of blue hydrogen was “20% greater than burning natural gas.” The authors cited methane emissions as a significant contributing factor and concluded that blue hydrogen “appears difficult to justify on climate grounds.”
To be considered clean, 90% of carbon emitted would need to be captured and stored, according to the DOE. The DOE asserts that’s a plausible goal to meet.
“We have the tools and technology to make this work,” said Grigorios Panagakos, an assistant research professor at CMU who leads carbon capture and utilization projects with the DOE’s National Energy Technology Laboratory.
To go from concept to commercial, though, Panagakos said we need to do a “massive scale-up” of the technology. And we need to do it “imminently”.
Carbon capture and projects like a blue hydrogen hub, he said, is “the only viable way through which we will be able to decarbonize without endangering our access to high quality energy, electricity, services and products.”
The issue, he said, is that achieving a 90% carbon capture rate is extremely energy intensive and quite costly to scale.
Is carbon capture and blue hydrogen economically viable?
“The key question is: Why would anyone capture and sequester the carbon dioxide when it adds to the cost of hydrogen production?” wrote Edward Rubin, a coordinating lead author for the IPCC and a recently retired professor of environmental engineering at CMU, in an email to PublicSource.
Like other environmental control measures, he continued, it only makes sense if and when there are “appropriate carrots” like incentives, subsidies and public relations value, or sticks like regulations limiting emissions.
The case study Karplus co-authored placed the estimated cost at $81 per ton of captured carbon from a natural gas power plant. “It’s expensive to capture and sequester carbon,” she said, noting that the costs are uncertain.
“If you are talking about moving the needle on carbon capture and storage,” said Karplus, “you do need some form of state support or targeted subsidies in order to give companies the confidence to start proving this out.”
Some critics, though, say the economics should point us in another direction.
Sean O’Leary, a senior researcher for energy and petrochemicals at the Ohio River Valley Institute, called the economics of blue hydrogen and carbon capture “a financial absurdity.”
He said ratepayers and taxpayers are the most likely to bear the cost of a hydrogen transition.
O’Leary posited that the total cost would be at minimum $1,000 each year per household in the Pittsburgh region. That figure is based on the Allegheny Conference’s estimate for the amount of carbon captured, the low-end price estimate of $81 per ton for carbon captured from industrial sources, and an estimate of $24 per ton for carbon captured from blue hydrogen production. That’s the low end, he said, and it could climb higher.
It’s more efficient, he said, to “just burn the methane directly rather than convert the methane into hydrogen and then convert it back [into energy].”
Fitzgerald said “it’s too early to say” if local tax dollars would be spent to develop a hub, noting that the decision would ultimately weigh an individual project’s overall benefit to the community.
What else could we be spending money on?
“My greatest concern is not that a hydrogen hub will be built, but it’s that these will distract from alternate industries,” like clean and less expensive renewables, said O’Leary.
“There are alternatives that are both significantly less expensive and also significantly more effective if the end goal is trying to prevent or drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
Other critics concur that funding and resources could be more effectively used elsewhere while bypassing investment in technologies that rely on fossil fuels.
New companies like Boston Metal are using green hydrogen powered by renewables to decarbonize the steelmaking process. “Economically, as a long-term investment, you want to be in green hydrogen,” said Mikulka of New Consensus. “And so I think that there’s a lot of risk in pursuing these blue hydrogen projects.”
The way you can tell, he said, is that “no one is going after them unless the federal government gives them a couple billion dollars to build out a hub.”
Donahue, the CMU climate scientist, said he believes we should be funneling resources to renewable energy. “There’s a great deal of installed capacity — the windmills along with the Laurel Highlands and all the ridges. Even solar energy is not stupid in cloudy old Western Pennsylvania, and there’s a decent amount of that actually installed and getting more efficient and cheaper. There is none for carbon capture. …
“So if you’re going to do the hydrogen, do it green.”
Quinn Glabicki is the environment and climate reporter at PublicSource and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter and Instagram @quinnglabicki.
Terryaun Bell fact-checked this story.
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Readers tell us they can't find the information they get from our reporting anywhere else, and we're glad to provide this important service for our community. We work hard to produce accurate, timely, impactful journalism without paywalls that keeps our region informed and moving forward.
However, only about .1% of the people who read our stories contribute to our work financially. Our newsroom depends on the generosity of readers like yourself to make our high-quality local journalism possible, and the costs of the resources it takes to produce it have been rising, so each member means a lot to us.
Your donation to our nonprofit newsroom helps ensure everyone in Allegheny County can stay up-to-date about decisions and events that affect them. Please make your gift of support now.