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Joe Biden announces "clean" hydrogen hubs, but just how clean will they be?

President Joe Biden announced Friday $7 billion in federal funding for seven “clean hydrogen hubs” around the country, a highly anticipated part of the administration’s plan to grow jobs while cutting climate-damaging pollution.

The president said the hydrogen hubs will launch a hydrogen energy economy in the U.S. and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from highly polluting sectors such as transportation and heavy industry.

“We’re investing in the energy of the future, so the future is made in America,” Biden said at an event Friday in Philadelphia. Pennsylvania, a major energy producer and home to heavy industries such as steelmaking, is a partner in two of the Hydrogen Hubs in the Mid-Atlantic and Appalachian regions. Other hubs are in the Midwest, Gulf States, Upper Plains States, California and the Pacific Northwest, and all involve multiple state and private sector partners.

Biden drew parallels to previous large-scale infrastructure investments like President Franklin Roosevelt’s rural electrification project and President Dwight Eisenhower’s launch of the interstate highway system.

“The investment we’re making today will be for our kids and grandkids what those historic projects were in previous generations, only bigger,” Biden said. “Today’s announcement is transformational.”

In a press release, the U.S. Department of Energy said the federal funding is expected to be matched by nearly $50 billion from the hydrogen hub local partners, generating tens of thousands of jobs and jump-starting the development of a broader connective infrastructure for the storage and delivery of clean hydrogen.

The U.S. Hydrogen Alliance, an industry trade group, called it a significant day for the history of the hydrogen economy.

“We look at these seven locations across the country as essentially early settlements for hydrogen pioneers,” Alliance Executive Director Roxana Bekemohammadi told Newsweek via email.

The DOE projects the hubs to produce about 3 million metric tons of clean hydrogen annually. Current U.S. hydrogen production is roughly 10 million metric tons and very little of that qualifies as clean, according to the DOE. Today’s hydrogen is mostly produced from natural gas in a process that results in significant greenhouse gas emissions.

Cleaner production of hydrogen will require large-scale investments, and “the hubs represent an important step in that process,” according to Ben King, an assistant director at Rhodium Group, an independent research group with a major focus on energy and climate.

“Some sort of government support is needed to bridge that gap to bring those technologies to a commercial market,” King told Newsweek, adding that the hubs embrace a wide range of production techniques and end uses for hydrogen.

Clean hydrogen has a wide range of potential applications in transportation and energy-intensive industries where it is especially hard to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Hydrogen can be used to make lower-carbon steel, chemicals and cement, in fuel cells for trucks and cars, and as fuel for cargo ships and aircraft, among other uses. Microsoft founder Bill Gates, whose Breakthrough Energy Ventures has invested in a hydrogen production company, calls clean hydrogen the “Swiss Army Knife of decarbonization.”

However, the extent to which hydrogen can be a climate solution will largely depend on how the hydrogen is produced.

‘Blue’ Hydrogen Blues

Hydrogen engineers and analysts use a color scheme to categorize the different production methods: “Green” hydrogen is produced using renewable energy to split hydrogen atoms from water molecules, and “gray” hydrogen is the dominant and dirty production method now and relies on natural gas as both a feedstock and fuel.

Between the “green” and “gray” is something called “blue” hydrogen, which also uses natural gas but applies carbon capture and storage technology to reduce CO2 emissions from the process.

Biden’s hydrogen hubs announced Friday include multiple methods of hydrogen production, including considerable use of the “blue” method using natural gas and carbon capture technology. That has raised concerns among some scientists who question just how clean hydrogen will really be if its production continues to rely on natural gas.

“It is extremely disappointing to see the Biden administration provide funds for hydrogen hubs which will be based on fossil fuels,” Cornell University ecology professor Robert Howarth told Newsweek.

In a 2021 peer-reviewed study, Howarth and colleague Mark Jacobson at Stanford analyzed the lifecycle emissions from “blue” hydrogen. They found that the high volume of natural gas required and the high likelihood of gas leaks in the process meant that hydrogen produced this way would have only marginal emissions reductions compared to the highly polluting process already used.

“The greenhouse gas footprint of ‘blue’ hydrogen is huge,” Howarth said. “As for the future of hydrogen in a decarbonized energy future, there is a role, but only for ‘green’ hydrogen.”

The Clean Air Task Force, an independent nonprofit working on climate solutions, said in a statement that the hydrogen hubs can position the U.S. as a leader in the clean hydrogen economy but added a caveat: The hubs should be developed with local input and support.

“It is critical we get this program right,” Climate and Clean Energy Implementation Director Holly Reuter said. “That means taking the time to engage with communities, experts, and other stakeholders to maximize the climate, economic, and public health benefits the hubs can provide.”

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