The Biden administration on Monday announced a goal to produce 50 million metric tons of clean hydrogen fuel by 2050 – a roadmap that, if successful, would cut around 10% of the country’s planet-warming pollution by the same date.
For the US to transition to clean energy, it will take technologies beyond wind and solar to fuel airplanes, generate electricity and power industry. And the Biden administration is increasingly looking towards hydrogen to meet the demand – a source of energy that burns without pollution and that can be derived from water. But it also could be generated by the fossil fuels it seeks to replace.
Clean hydrogen is the “Swiss army knife of zero-carbon technologies,” US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm told reporters Monday. “If we get it right, it can do just about everything.”
Granholm and President Joe Biden’s top climate adviser, Ali Zaidi, said they would reveal in September the locations of several new “hydrogen hubs” around the country. The hubs would serve as pilot projects for a reimagined, hydrogen-fueled economy that Zaidi said would “fundamentally change the way we build things in America.”
“We believe it could decarbonize some of our hardest to abate sectors, like heavy industry and transportation,” Granholm said. “It could also generate clean, dispatchable electricity and provide options for long-duration energy storage.”
But hydrogen has its critics – namely, those who are concerned about a potential over-reliance on hydrogen that is derived from fossil fuels like methane gas, versus hydrogen that can be created from water.
If hydrogen is made from fossil fuels, “all it does is keep the fossil fuel industry in business, it does not help with climate,” said Mark Jacobson, director of Stanford University’s atmosphere and energy program, and a hydrogen expert.
A forthcoming academic study for which Jacobson is the lead author finds the US would need about 14 million metric tons of hydrogen per year by 2050 to achieve its decarbonization goals for steel, agriculture and heavy-duty transportation industries – whereas the administration’s figure would result in about 2 million metric tons per year.
“I think that’s woefully inadequate for what we need,” Jacobson said.
And while there’s intense work happening on the technology, it is still years from being fully commercially viable.
“When you’re creating an entirely new sector, which is really what this hydrogen clean economy will be, you have to do everything everywhere all at once,” Granholm said.
The electricity sector is already seeing a shift to renewable energy like solar and wind, which are steadily replacing fossil fuels like coal and natural gas. But solar and wind energy aren’t going to be helpful for the largest, most polluting vehicles and industries where batteries are not an option.
This is where hydrogen has the most potential.