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Reclaiming Hydrogen for a Renewable Future: Distinguishing Fossil Fuel Industry Spin from Zero-Emission Solutions

A new report from Earthjustice’s Right to Zero campaign scrutinizes claims about hydrogen and delves into how to deploy it as a meaningful climate solution.

What is “Green Hydrogen”? Made using 100% renewable electricity to split hydrogen from water molecules, “green hydrogen” is currently the only established way to produce hydrogen without emitting climate or air pollution.

Less than 1% of hydrogen today is produced using renewable energy.

Reclaiming Hydrogen for a Renewable Future responds to fossil fuel industry marketing efforts pushing the growing interest in hydrogen as a potential clean energy source, and aims to distinguish “green hydrogen” from hydrogen produced from polluting sources like fossil fuels or gas from factory farms.

Infographic explaining the differences between grey hydrogen, blue hydrogen, and green hydrogen. Grey hydrogen is hydrogen harvested from fossil gas through steam methane reformation. Blue hydrogen is grey hydrogen that has been paired with carbon capture to reduce CO2 emissions. Green hydrogen is hydrogen harvested from water through electrolysis powered by renewable electricity.
Tanja Geis for Earthjustice
Understanding the differences between grey hydrogen, blue hydrogen, and green hydrogen.

Green Hydrogen Shows Promise in Specific Sectors

Less than 1% of hydrogen today is produced using renewable energy. “Green hydrogen” is made using 100% renewable electricity to split hydrogen from water molecules. For now, this is the only established way to produce hydrogen without emitting climate or air pollution.

For hydrogen to have a role in our clean energy future, the first priority should be deploying green hydrogen to displace the millions of metric tons of dirty hydrogen that the United States already makes from fossil fuels each year. The limited supply of green hydrogen may also help transition to renewable energy in specific sectors like shipping, aviation, high-heat industrial processes, and long-distance trucking.

Infographic explaining green hydrogen production and use.
Tanja Geis for Earthjustice
Green hydrogen production and use.

Hydrogen Shouldn’t Be Used in Homes and Buildings to Replace “Natural” Gas

The report explores whether hydrogen can be used to replace fossil fuels for heating and cooking in homes and buildings, which is responsible for a tenth of the United States’ climate pollution and produces health-harming indoor air pollution to boot.

Hydrogen is a false solution for this sector because:

  • Electric appliances would be more energy efficient, improve air quality, and avoid the risks of leaking hydrogen, which is both the smallest molecule in the universe and a potent greenhouse gas.
  • Injecting hydrogen in appreciable volumes would create safety hazards in our pipelines and household appliances.
  • If a gas company used as much green hydrogen as optimistically possible, it would only reduce the climate impact of burning the company’s gas by about 7%.
Infographic explaining comparison of efficiencies for hydrogen and heat pumps in homes.
Tanja Geis for Earthjustice. Data source: Ed Reed, Cornwall Insight Ireland
Comparison of efficiencies for hydrogen and heat pumps in homes.

Similarly, because battery electric vehicles are significantly more energy efficient and cheaper than hydrogen vehicles, green hydrogen would be wasted in the vast majority of cars, buses, and trucks.

Infographic comparing the efficiency of renewable energy in battery and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.
Tanja Geis for Earthjustice. Data source: Volkswagen (2020)
Comparing the efficiency of renewable energy in battery and fuel cell vehicles.

Policymakers and legislators should be wary of hype around hydrogen. When deployed as a marketing tool by the fossil fuel industry, hydrogen can be used to hinder necessary climate action, like the transition to electric appliances in homes and buildings and the shift to battery electric vehicles. Electrifying our transportation systems and buildings and running them on a renewable energy grid is key to solving both our air quality and climate pollution problems.

Most Hydrogen Uses Today Are an Environmental Justice Problem

Climate CostsGlobally, hydrogen production is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire country of Germany.

The report illustrates how the latest wave of hype masks the fact that most hydrogen production today pollutes communities and drives climate breakdown. The fossil fuel industry is both the United States’ largest producer and consumer of hydrogen, with roughly 60% of the nation’s domestic supply deployed in crude oil refining with significant environmental justice impacts. Globally, hydrogen production is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire country of Germany.

Communities near oil refineries bear the brunt of this pollution because hydrogen production most often takes place at refineries. The report additionally finds that the fossil fuel industry is using vague and unproven promises about the potential to retrofit polluting gas power-plants — which are disproportionately located in communities of color — to justify the construction of new gas power plants and to keep existing plants open.

Infographic comparing the efficiency of renewable energy in battery and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.
Thomas Northcut / Getty Images
The bulk of hydrogen demand in the United States today is for use in crude oil refineries. The fossil fuel industry is the country’s primary producer and consumer of hydrogen.
Tweeting about this report? Join the conversation with #rethinkhydrogen

If gas-power plants were to be retrofitted to run on hydrogen, the air pollution impacts in frontline communities could be even more devastating. One group of researchers predicted that burning pure hydrogen would emit more than six times as much NOx as burning methane, the main component in fossil gas.

The Report

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Reclaiming Hydrogen for a Renewable Future: Distinguishing Fossil Fuel Industry Spin from Zero-Emission Solutions.

Executive Summary

Introduction

I. Today, hydrogen production relies on fossil fuels and threatens our climate and public health

II. The fossil fuel industry is campaigning to increase reliance on hydrogen from fossil fuels

III. Hydrogen can become a decarbonization tool in the future if policymakers separate the promising opportunities from fossil fuel industry hype

  1. For now, the only established way to make hydrogen without greenhouse gas emissions is by using renewable energy to fuel electrolysis.
  2. Limitatations of green hydrogen: Energy inefficiency; Costs; Pollution from combustion; Safe transport and storage; Water use; Time

IV. Identifying the promising applications for green hydrogen

  1. Least-regrets uses for green hydrogen: Displace fossil hydrogen in current uses as an industrial feedstock
  2. Sectors to explore with caution: Maritime shipping; Aviation; High-heat industrial processes; Long-haul trucks and trains; Long-term storage of renewable electricity paired; with fuel cells
  3. Sectors where hydrogen is not a solution: Combusting in fossil gas power plants; Gas-burning appliances in homes and commercial buildings; Cars, buses and regional trucks

Conclusion

Endnotes

Report Authors:

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Resources on the Electrification Movement and Climate Misinformation

Rhetoric vs. Reality: The Myth of “Renewable Natural Gas” for Building Decarbonization

Rhetoric vs. Reality: The Myth of “Renewable Natural Gas” for Building Decarbonization

Highlighting the gas industry’s deceptive efforts to keep our homes and buildings tethered to gas combustion. Buildings account for nearly 40% of climate pollution in the United States, with much of that driven by the burning of dirty fossil gas for heating and hot water.

Los Angeles Times “Is California’s ‘Hydrogen Highway’ a Road to Nowhere?”

“It is not renewable,” said Sasan Saadat, an analyst at Earthjustice. “What they are doing does not make sense.” There is so much natural gas involved in the fuel production process, he said, that calling it sustainable is indefensible. While hydrogen could ultimately prove the most effective method to cut emissions from trucks and planes, the Hydrogen Highway concept for cars just isn’t penciling out, Saadat said.

Shopping for home appliances.
iStockphoto

Californians Want to Stop Burning Gas in Their Homes

70% of Californians said they prefer efficient electric appliances powered by clean electricity instead of fossil gas.

Media Inquiries

Zoe Woodcraft Communications Strategist, Earthjustice
(818) 606-7509
Miranda Fox Communications Strategist, Earthjustice
Reclaiming Hydrogen