In fact, it’s hard to read an energy article without encountering the new hydrogen hype. But these reports get a critical scientific detail wrong.
Hydrogen does produce little more than water when used in fuel cells to make electricity. Fuel cell technology has great promise for use in vehicles and various industrial applications.
But that’s not what the gas and utility industries have in mind. Instead, they intend to blend hydrogen with natural gas and burn it in power plants, just as they have burned oil, coal or gas for decades.
When hydrogen is burned it emits little or no carbon dioxide — that’s the good news. The bad news is that hydrogen combustion produces dangerously high levels of nitrogen oxides – scientific studies indicate that burning hydrogen could produce NOx levels six times higher than burning methane.
Long-term exposure to NOx increases the risk of respiratory conditions and heightens sensitivity to allergens. NOx is also a precursor to particulate pollution and ground-level ozone, which are both associated with severe adverse health effects – including higher death rates from COVID-19. Urban communities of color are already heavily burdened by these pollutants.
The fossil fuel and utility industries certainly are aware of the non-CO2 emissions produced by burning hydrogen. A report issued by Mitsubishi, which is developing a hydrogen- and gas-burning plant in Utah — applauded as the future of the hydrogen economy — notes that the new plant still “will produce NOx and CO2 emissions equivalent to those from modern natural gas plants.”
Even the Trump administration’s Department of Energy identifies hydrogen combustion as a problem. A recent DOE report found that “additional R&D is needed” to control NOx emissions from blended hydrogen and natural gas combustion.
Yet despite these emissions problems, plans are moving ahead to blend and burn hydrogen with natural gas in new or reconfigured power plants across the country. Such efforts are under way throughout the American West, and two global finance giants recently proposed a new hydrogen-and-gas plant in Ohio. Gas-fired power plants in Florida, Virginia and California will add hydrogen to the fuel mix starting next year.
In New York, there are plans to burn a hydrogen-natural gas blend in urban “peaker” plants. These plants, which fire up to meet times of high energy demand, are among the most egregious polluters. They are typically located in low-income areas and communities of color, often in areas with high levels of NOx pollution. Utilities are under pressure to close these noxious plants and replace them with clean, renewable energy sources.
However, by adding “clean” hydrogen to the fuel mix, these outdated plants will get a new lease on life. Hydrogen combustion will justify continued operation of natural gas plants and gas infrastructure. After all, a natural gas plant that burns 20 percent hydrogen will still need 80 percent fossil gas. And once established, hydrogen demonstration projects are likely to expand and become the new “industry standard.” This could well lock in gas plant usage for the next few decades, despite the coming competition from renewables and battery storage and other cleaner sources. It’s a masterful and audacious survival plan.
But it has not gone without protest. Environmental justice advocates have already raised objections to a blending project in Los Angeles. In the east, a coalition of environmental organizations have called on New York state officials to evaluate the environmental, climate, and public health impacts of burning hydrogen in New York City neighborhoods.
These groups have the right idea. We should not impose experimental NOx-producing power plants on communities without independent public health investigations before any permitting proceeds. This is especially important in low-income communities of color, which will bear the brunt of these schemes. We need to call a pause on hydrogen combustion until the NOx problem is fully understood and addressed by objective experts.
We already know what could happen if we don’t. A few decades ago, to stave off climate change, European governments pushed for diesel engines in cars. Diesel engines don’t produce CO2 emissions, but they do produce copious levels of NOx. Unfortunately, NOx was not factored into the E.U. climate policy trade-off.
In the last few years, European and U.S. government agencies discovered that European car manufacturers secretly manipulated emissions data to disguise the levels of NOx produced by their diesel vehicles. The “Diesel-gate” scandal was the unfortunate but predicable result of ignoring NOx emissions at the outset of a climate fight. Sadly, so were thousands of premature deaths each year from increased air pollution.
Let’s not rerun that failed experiment in the U.S. power sector.
This country’s history of energy production is littered with hyperbolic marketing claims about revolutionary, free or harmless ways to generate power. While various productive uses of hydrogen may someday be the real climate deal, the “clean” hydrogen combustion schemes breathlessly promoted in the press today are little more than dangerous hype.
Eddie Bautista is executive director of New York City Environmental Justice Alliance. Lewis Milford is president and founder of Clean Energy Group.
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