The European Union is prioritizing green hydrogen in its net-zero push. The UK government unveiled a strategy last month to produce 5 gigawatts of low carbon hydrogen by 2030, capitalizing on its rapidly expanding offshore wind power industry. The government expects its offshore wind generating capacity to quadruple to 40 GW by 2030.
It would be a mistake, however, for the U.S. to follow a similar path, according to a new report by the Clean Energy States Alliance. While the group encourages continued investment in green hydrogen technologies, the vast majority of electricity generated by the U.S.’s far-younger offshore wind energy will be needed to transition the grid away from fossil fuels.
Additionally, offshore wind farms planned in the U.S. are sited near densely-populated areas, making the case for transmission infrastructure investments over hydrogen production, storage, and transportation. European offshore wind farms, however, are sited in more rural areas.
“Until there has been significant offshore wind development in the US, it will not make sense to divert output to hydrogen production,” the report’s authors wrote. “Europe is, in part, focusing on offshore wind to hydrogen because offshore wind farms are being planned for locations far from major load centers and where there will be difficulty integrating some of the output into the electric grid. Green hydrogen is also a key component of Europe’s deep decarbonization strategy for sectors where electrification is technologically unfeasible.”
In the U.S., 95% of hydrogen is produced using natural gas, according to the Dept. of Energy. So-called “blue hydrogen” incorporates carbon capture and storage, though recent studies suggest the practice could produce even more carbon emissions in heat generation than using natural gas alone.
Long term, hydrogen produced using clean-powered electrolyzers can serve as a backbone fuel for grid stability, but the volume of green hydrogen produced worldwide is still very small due to a lack of infrastructure and clean power needed for production.
One day, advocates of green hydrogen say it can replace natural gas and oil as the backbone of the world’s energy system. The Biden administration, to its part, is prioritizing research of carbon capture and green hydrogen production to fuel industrial facilities, heavy-duty trucks, and cargo ships — areas recognized as difficult to decarbonize.
A study by the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University advocated for investments in the U.S. natural gas pipeline system to support the eventual shift from natural gas to cleaner, low-to-no carbon fuels. Not for several more decades will zero-carbon fuels be ready to replace natural gas as the backbone of the energy mix, the authors wrote, and pipeline upgrades can support the transportation of hydrogen and biogas.
While some renewable energy and environmental advocates fear investments in fossil fuel infrastructure will delay the clean energy transition, and enable some of the world’s largest polluters, pipeline upgrades could provide the best chance of swapping out natural gas as the backbone of the energy system.