What should you know about hydrogen hubs?

In October 2023, the Appalachian Regional Clean Hydrogen Hub (ARCH2) announced details of establishing a gigantic hub for methane-derived hydrogen production in Appalachia. (Funded with up to $925 million from the U.S. Department of Energy).

The map of the projects shows two dots in Pennsylvania. One, in Fayette County, is EQT’s planned natural gas-derived hydrogen facility. EQT’s facility would turn some hydrogen into aviation fuel and sell the rest to a French company for ground transportation fuel. The other is KeyState Zero’s project in Clinton County, a project that will drill gas onsite, produce hydrogen, ammonia and urea production, and sequester carbon.

West Virginia has several projects planned, ranging from ammonia production to carbon capture and storage.

Pipelines are not yet on the map, as the hub companies wanted to see where demand develops before building infrastructure. 

ARCH2 states that “The process of hydrogen capture, utilization, and storage will allow the Appalachian region to enhance our communities, create jobs, lower emissions, and fight climate change.”

But should we be more skeptical? What is hydrogen, anyway? And how can it be used in an economy transitioning toward clean energy?

Let’s wander into the morass together. 

What is hydrogen?

Hydrogen is an odorless, colorless gas that emits zero carbon when it’s used to create energy, either through combustion or in a fuel cell. Hydrogen is being marketed as a way to reduce fossil fuel use (the main cause of global warming) in heavy industry, building, and manufacturing. But creating pure hydrogen takes a lot of energy.

Read this chart below to learn about different types of hydrogen production.

“Grey hydrogen” is produced mainly from natural gas, using a process called steam reforming, which brings together natural gas and heated water in the form of steam. The output is hydrogen, but carbon dioxide is also produced as a by-product.

“Blue hydrogen” is also created using fracked natural gas and methane, but the carbon emitted is captured and buried deep underground.

“Green hydrogen” uses renewable energy from wind and solar to create hydrogen through electrolysis, a method by which electricity is used to extract hydrogen from water. No carbon is emitted in creating green hydrogen, but this method is too expensive for wide-scale use.

ARCH2 will primarily produce blue hydrogen.

Blue Hydrogen is not a sustainable solution

Since blue hydrogen is created using fracked natural gas, it will create more demand for fracking. We know this extraction technique involves significant environmental and public health risks. 

According to the Ohio River Valley Institute, the hydrogen hub would also do a poor job of capturing climate-warming carbon. Carbon capture, ORVI argues, does nothing to reduce the “upstream” emissions that are produced when natural gas is extracted and transported, and carbon capture technologies are only expected to capture a maximum of 90% of plant and factory emissions (pilot projects are known to capture even less than that).

Building hydrogen hubs is expensive

ARCH2 is funded with a huge chunk of money from the Department of Energy, but it won’t be enough to build these large-scale industrial facilities. The project is banking on clean hydrogen production tax credits (up to $3 per kilogram of hydrogen) and the carbon sequestration tax credits ($85 per ton of CO2 captured and stored).

But defining what “clean hydrogen” is has been controversial. In recent months, organizations like the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) and the ORVI have argued that ARCH2 isn’t “clean” enough. 

Environmental groups weigh in

In a report released last month titled “Blue hydrogen: not clean, not low carbon, not a climate solution,” IEEFA authors argued that the government has unrealistic expectations about the benefits of natural gas-derived hydrogen.

According to co-author and IEEFA analyst Anika Juhn, “there is significant risk that funding of blue hydrogen projects by the government and investors actually will make global warming worse by encouraging the building of projects that will emit large amounts of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere for decades.”

When federal funding was announced for ARCH2, the Ohio River Valley Institute wrote a pointed letter in response.

“As Appalachian natural gas production begins to plateau,” the letter states, “and the region’s largest gas-producing counties continue to lose jobs and residents, the prospect of generating economic prosperity through increased gas production and methane-based hydrogen development looks increasingly dim.”

As this situation develops, Mountain Watershed Association will keep our communities updated on the movement of ARCH2 in Pennsylvania. We will pay special attention to any updates regarding the proposed facility in Fayette County, as it would land in our backyard if built.