Some worry about doing ‘too much’ to make hydrogen hubs work



(The Center Square) — Getting away from fossil fuels due to concerns about climate change has been a rallying cry for creating hydrogen hubs in Pennsylvania.

But how to do it — and whether it’s possible — are open questions.

“The concern with hydrogen production is it can be done the wrong way, which could serve to perpetuate fossil fuel use,” said Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Havertown, during a House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee hearing on Monday. “Or, happily, it could be done the right way, which will make it a legitimate tool to attack climate change.”

The appeal of Pennsylvania’s two hydrogen hubs (the MACH2 in the east and the ARCH2 in the west), as Vitali saw it, would be to position the commonwealth to benefit from a move away from natural gas and non-renewables.

“Let’s not forget the whole point of hydrogen hubs is to address climate change,” he said. “Increasing employment could be a happy benefit … there are political pressures involved, but it’s important for elected officials to resist those political pressures, keep our eye on the ball because climate change is an enormous, enormous problem.”

Enthusiasm for the hubs have been mixed; some Democrats and Republicans support building a hydrogen-based industrial sector, while others oppose them. Environmentalists have warned that the hubs won’t reduce emissions and conservatives have warned that the hubs are another form of corporate welfare.

Rep. Martin Causer, R-Bradford, was optimistic — if the hubs aren’t so restricted that they exclude natural gas use.

“Hydrogen is quite an opportunity for us and the state as long as it’s done appropriately,” he said. “One of the big concerns I have is that folks want to limit it significantly … my concern is that some folks want to limit it to the point where it might not be that effective.”

To make it effective, getting permitting and streamlining right could be crucial, which creates a bipartisan opportunity for reform in the Department of Environmental Protection, a major Republican priority.

“The barriers are not primarily accounting issues … but traditional physical bottlenecks to clean energy development in the real world,” said Nathan Iyer, senior associate at the Rocky Mountain Institute.

Siting and permitting, interconnection and transmission problems, and large project management, he said, drive up electricity costs and make projects less viable. PJM, the regional transmission organization in which Pennsylvania sits, has growing reliability concerns and has the worst power project backlogs in the country.

“Larger industrial clusters that truly need clean hydrogen require major upfront investments — big bets,” Iyer said, which will need more state support. “Without open access connecting infrastructure, a hub is not a hub. It’s just a random bundle of projects.”

Those projects — which will receive some of the largest federal subsidies for energy projects in history — worry environmentalists.

“Hydrogen hubs can either help decarbonize our economy as intended or they can exacerbate our climate crisis,” Lauren Piette, senior associate attorney with Earthjustice, said. “It depends in large part on how the hubs produce hydrogen and whether that process is clean.”

She called loopholes for the use of non-renewable energy potentially “devastating for the climate.”

“If power-hungry electrolyzers eat up our existing supply of zero-carbon power, then they’re gonna create a massive gap on our grid, which is very likely to be backfilled by fossil-fuel power plants,” Piette said.

Critics of the hubs have also questioned their promised economic benefits and the lack of transparency in the 10-year process of getting the hubs up and running.

In industries like steel and cement, the Ohio River Valley Institute’s Sean O’Leary argued, hydrogen could be viable, but in areas like power generation and domestic heating, shoehorning in hydrogen “will drive up prices, taxes, and utility bills.”

He noted that the vast majority of the promised hydrogen hubs will be temporary construction jobs.

“These aren’t the results for which you should squander taxpayer dollars,” O’Leary said. “The greatest risk policy makers face isn’t that you’ll do too little to support hydrogen, but that you’ll do too much.”

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