Just a few days ago, President Biden issued an executive order invoking the Defense Manufacturing Act to give a big boost to clean energy and reducing carbon emissions in America. This order gives priority to solar energy, heat pump production, building insulation, power grid components and hydrogen production. Here is the part of the order that focuses on hydrogen:
“Platinum Group (PGM) electrolyzers, fuel cells and catalysts are vital to increase domestic production and the use of pure hydrogen, a versatile energy carrier. It is predicted that pure hydrogen produced by electrolysis will significantly contribute to the achievement of American decarbonization goals. President Biden’s actions in support of domestic supply chains for electrolyzers, fuel cells and PGM catalysts will improve national and energy security by reducing US reliance on imported fossil fuels, especially Russia (the world’s second-largest producer of PGM) and China. Consumers will benefit from the stability of pure hydrogen prices relative to fossil fuels, reduced costs as the hydrogen economy increases and resilient domestic supply chains. ”
Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks issued the statement after an executive order was issued stating, “Reducing U.S. dependence on gas and oil is critical to U.S. national security. In the conflict, fossil fuel supply lines are particularly vulnerable. The actions announced by President Biden today will help strengthen our supply chains and ensure that the United States is a leader in producing energy technologies that are critical to our future success. They will also help accelerate the Department of Defense’s transition to clean energy technologies that can help strengthen military capabilities while creating good jobs for American workers. “
Support for Biden’s latest executive order has been universally positive among the people CleanTechnica community. It achieves many of the goals of the Build Back Better administrative legislative package that torpedoed Despicable Joe Manchin in the Senate. But now it seems that what the Biden administration gives with one hand takes away with the other.
Pure hydrogen, dirty hydrogen
The attractiveness of hydrogen is understandable. When oil, coal or natural gas are burned to create energy, they produce a series of nasty emissions – carbon dioxide, fine particles and oxides of nitrogen and sulfur – that poison people and contribute to global warming. When hydrogen is used as a fuel, its waste products are heat and water. No wonder people think of hydrogen as a clean fuel.
But the dirty little secret of hydrogen is that it does not exist in nature. It is enclosed in compounds such as water and dizzying series of hydrocarbons. Although it is possible to separate water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen by passing a strong electric current through them in a device known as an electrolyzer, this process takes a lot electricity and costs more than natural gas production at the moment. Part of this week’s executive order aims to make the production of pure hydrogen more affordable.
Proponents of hydrogen claim that we can simply take advantage of the surplus electricity that comes from solar power plants in the grid in the middle of the day and they are right. Much of it is spent or “reduced” as the industry likes to say. But in order to maintain a clean hydrogen industry, huge new amounts of solar energy would be needed. Today, there is not enough solar energy to meet all our needs, so we have to choose between powering the power grid or powering the cell. We can’t do both, at least not yet.
In some countries that have an abundance of hydroelectric energy, electrolyzers are used to produce hydrogen that is truly “green”. But in the United States, the vast majority has been made by reforming so-called natural gas, which is not really that natural. It no longer makes sense to say “natural gas” than to say “natural coal” or “natural oil”. It is mostly methane and much of that methane escapes into the atmosphere at well springs or in pipelines and compressor stations as it reaches customers. Even when it comes to a hydrogen production plant, it must be divided into components by high-temperature steam under pressure. One of the by-products of that process? Carbon dioxide, and this does not take into account the energy required to generate this vapor under pressure at high temperatures.
And so environmentalists are both happy and outraged to learn that the Department of Energy intends to make $ 8 billion available to create numerous hydrogen hubs across the country to produce the hydrogen needed to reduce emissions in such critical industries as steel and cement. . The Verge reports that a Notice of Intent issued this week by the U.S. Department of Energy will initially provide funding for between 6 and 10 hubs. Of these, one should produce hydrogen using renewable energy. The second should start the production of hydrogen by nuclear energy. The third is expected to show that it is possible to make pure hydrogen from fossil fuels using technologies that capture and sequester carbon dioxide emissions.
Here, now the blow. DOE says it will locate at least two additional H2Hubs in regions with “abundant natural gas resources”, which could lead to more of them running on fossil fuels than on renewable energy. In other words, the administration could potentially give a big, wet, sloppy $ 8 billion taxpayer-funded kiss to the “natural gas” industry at a time when almost everyone who is not a fossil fuel lobbyist or Republican senator knows it’s imperative to stop using fossil fuels altogether.
Hydrogen production that combines natural gas with carbon capture does not create truly clean fuel and may even lead to higher greenhouse gas emissions in certain scenarios. To date, carbon capture schemes are not working or are far more expensive than anticipated. The Union of Concerned Scientists and RMI point out that $ 8 billion in funding for clean hydrogen comes from a two-party infrastructure law passed last year. The language in that law only considers the impact of CO2 emissions on the climate at the place of hydrogen production, but does not take into account emissions that occur as methane leaks on the way to the production site.
They say a safer approach would be to examine all greenhouse gas emissions coming from the entire supply chain and hydrogen production process. In a sign that DOE could keep this in mind as it evaluates funding applications, the NOI, which issued this week, says the department “also intends to estimate full life cycle emissions for each application and will prioritize applications that reduce greenhouse gas emissions across full life. project cycle. ” If that’s really true, none natural gas reform hubs will pass the exam.
Methane is killing us
Somehow, methane doesn’t attract as much attention as carbon dioxide. It doesn’t stay in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide, but it’s far more powerful than greenhouse gas while it’s there, and the world throws billions of cubic feet into the air every year. If you want a clearer understanding of how much fossil industry the US government has by balls, you just need to recognize how even the most aggressive climate initiatives end up interspersed with fossil fuels in some way.
Maybe the answer is to shrug and say, “It’s politics. You have to give a little to get a little. ” That might be fine in general, but at a time of a global emergency of 5 alarms (much of the United States will experience dangerously high temperatures this weekend, and the entire Southwest is facing critical water shortages that have no end in sight), is there an excuse to to spend taxpayer dollars to reward those who got us into this mess? Something to think about the next time you enter the voting booth.
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