Wind and solar power, plus storage batteries, are rapidly pushing aside coal, natural gas and nuclear reactors as smart and affordable energy sources. Now hydrogen is emerging as the next disruptive force that will further drive dirty and unsafe technologies from the U.S. energy economy.
Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, but it is locked up in water, gas or other substances. But once freed from those chemical compounds, hydrogen is a clean-burning gas that emits no air pollution to threaten public health or worsen the climate crisis. A new report from the Hydrogen Council touts how it can be used in heavy industry for raw manufacturing material, in transportation to power vehicles, and for producing electricity to power and heat homes and other buildings.
“Green hydrogen, produced with renewable electricity, is projected to grow rapidly in the coming years,” says a report published last year from the International Renewable Energy Agency. “Hydrogen from renewables is technically viable today and is quickly approaching economic competitiveness.”
The Department of Energy says that almost all hydrogen in the U.S. is produced by heating natural gas with steam. But this process emits about 100 million tons of carbon pollution per year, based on EWG’s calculations from a 2010 report by the engineering firm Foster Wheeler. Green hydrogen, on the other hand, is produced in electrolyzers that, using the electric current from wind turbines or solar panels, split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen.
Offshore wind is an especially promising source power for producing hydrogen. “In large offshore windfarms in the North Sea and elsewhere there is enormous potential for production of green hydrogen,” Klaas Oltman of Germany-based Tractebel Overdick, told the industry news site Riviera last year.
One of those “elsewheres” is the U.S. East Coast. In reviewing National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates and data from the Energy Information Administration, or EIA, EWG found that the technical potential for offshore wind is more than four times greater than the combined electric sales of coastal states from Virginia to Maine. Technical potential is not economic potential, but even a modest buildout of offshore wind could become the mainstay of green hydrogen production.
Offshore wind-to-hydrogen technology could be a game changer within a decade. Offshore wind developers are readying bids on wind-to-hydrogen projects in Europe and could begin construction by the middle of this decade. Both the Hydrogen Council and Bloomberg New Energy Finance estimate that renewable hydrogen costs could drop two-thirds or more within the decade – far below EIA’s estimated cost of gasoline.
Green hydrogen will be an important addition to the electric power sector in achieving 100 percent renewables. According to an analysis by the University of California, Irvine, the California Institute of Technology and the Carnegie Institution for Science, hydrogen can close the gap in energy storage capacity needed to achieve 100 percent renewable energy in the U.S. This is because power plants fueled by hydrogen can be turned on and off when needed to help compensate for the variability of wind and solar power or extended lulls in renewable power generation.
But these results can only be realized with unswerving government support. A positive sign is that the Department of Energy recently announced more than $60 million in funding for hydrogen production and infrastructure. The potential of clean, safe, renewable energy is another reason that state and federal attempts to prop up the obsolescent coal and nuclear industries, and utilities’ plans to build scores of new natural gas plants, are a waste of time and money.