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Economy

Biden’s Big Hydrogen Experiment Is About to Begin

Here’s what you need to know.

President Biden.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

As soon as Friday, the Biden administration could announce who will advance to the next phase of its “clean hydrogen hubs” program, a $7 billion experiment to find out whether and to what extent hydrogen can become a competitive replacement for fossil fuels.

The eventual hubs could touch every corner of the country, but the Department of Energy, which is administering the program, and the applicants themselves, have kept the proposed plans mostly confidential. Each one could include a dozen or more individual projects, but little has been disclosed about what the proposed projects are, where they will be, or what the public process will look like around their development. The awards could help clarify the direction of a massive government program that, right now, contains more questions than answers.

Earlier this week, sources familiar with the Department of Energy’s plans told Bloomberg that Biden is expected to announce the initial winners on Friday when he visits Pennsylvania. On Thursday morning, Reuters reported on a tip that one of the grants would go to the Mid-Atlantic Clean Hydrogen Hub, a partnership between Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey, while another would go to the Appalachian Regional Clean Hydrogen Hub, led by West Virginia, but involving partners in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Kentucky as well.

Per the bipartisan infrastructure law, which created the program, the DOE must support the development of at least four hydrogen hubs. Collectively, they have to contain projects that test the use of hydrogen in transportation, power generation, residential and commercial heating, and industry. There also have to be projects that demonstrate different ways to make hydrogen, including using renewable electricity, nuclear energy, and natural gas with carbon capture.

Biden’s announcement will just be the start of a process that will play out over the next five to 10 years. The funding will be rolled out over the course of four phases, and the initial batch of winning proposals will not necessarily all continue to receive support beyond the first phase. Each hub will receive a relatively small grant to conduct planning and analysis over the course of the next 12 to 18 months to ensure their “concept is technologically and financially viable, with input from relevant local stakeholders.” (The DOE’s funding announcement estimated initial grants of $20 million, although Reuters reported the Pennsylvania hub will receive $750 million.) After that point, each will be subjected to a “go/no-go review” to determine whether it can advance to the next phase.

“I think it's important to emphasize that what DOE is announcing is an invitation to negotiate potential funding awards,” Jill Tauber, the vice president of climate and energy at Earthjustice, told me. “So this is not an announcement of final decisions and awards. There are still approvals to be secured.”

Hydrogen is incredibly divisive. Most experts who study decarbonization agree that it holds a lot of promise as a climate solution. It can be burned to provide heat or power to any number of processes, similar to natural gas, without releasing any carbon emissions. But it requires a lot of energy to make hydrogen in the first place, and no one knows yet exactly which applications will make sense.

Climate advocates are wary of two big risks. One is that the process of making hydrogen, whether from electricity or natural gas, could emit so much carbon that it ultimately will be worse for the climate. The other is that even if the production is clean, the hydrogen could be wasted on something like residential heating, which already has more efficient solutions available, rather than reserved for processes that are truly hard to decarbonize.

That’s why the biggest questions for the hydrogen hubs are not just where they will be, but which energy sources they will use and which end-uses they will focus on.

“Hydrogen certainly has the potential to be a clean energy solution that delivers benefits, including economic benefits,” said Tauber. “But it can also drag us deeper into the climate crisis and hurt communities. So both things are on the table right now.” These concerns have already made national news in relation to a high-stakes battle over the rules for the clean hydrogen tax credit, a subsidy that was created by the Inflation Reduction Act.

The term “hubs” might bring to mind a few city blocks of bustling activity, but the hydrogen hubs are shaping up to be far more expansive. Many of the applicants are unlikely alliances between multiple state governments, companies, and universities across wide swathes of the country. For example, a potential hub in the Northeast could involve more than a dozen projects stretched across seven states.

Nearly 80 such groups submitted initial concept papers for hubs to the Department of Energy when it first opened up the application process. Of those, the DOE encouraged 33 groups to file full applications, which were due in April, and the agency will be selecting six to 10 for the first phase of the awards.

Just one of the applicants, a partnership between Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming called the Western Interstate Hydrogen Hub, released its initial concept paper to the public, though with a number of redactions. While the hubs will all be different and designed to the specific circumstances of their region, the document is still helpful for demonstrating what kinds of projects are under consideration.

The document lists eight specific projects. Several are hydrogen production facilities — some would use electricity to make the fuel, others would use gas. A company called Libertad Power would buy hydrogen for a network of hydrogen fueling stations for long-haul trucks that it is planning to build between Texas and California. Xcel Energy, the dominant utility in Colorado, wants to blend hydrogen into the natural gas that it burns in its power plants and delivers to residential and commercial customers. There’s also a 275,000-acre farm on Navajo Nation that would run its tractors and other equipment on hydrogen fuel. Companies would construct pipelines and design trucking routes to transport hydrogen around the region.

In addition to getting more detailed information about the different components of the proposals, advocates like Tauber want DOE to more clearly spell out how it will engage with affected communities as the program progresses. “None of that is clear right now, and hopefully we'll see some of that clarity in the announcement,” she said.

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Emily Pontecorvo profile image

Emily Pontecorvo

Emily is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Previously she was a staff writer at the nonprofit climate journalism outlet Grist, where she covered all aspects of decarbonization, from clean energy to electrified buildings to carbon dioxide removal. Read More

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