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Hydrogen Is Still a Heavy Lift for Clean Transportation

A new report by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation found that the economies of producing green hydrogen at scale will be difficult to overcome as the government and the private sector search for non-fossil fuel energy sources.

A hydrogen pipeline in an industrial area.
Hydrogen fuel may not be the clean energy panacea that many watching the transportation space once believed. This is due largely to its often fossil fuel-heavy production methods and complicated storage and distribution network, according to the findings of a recent Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) report.

In recent years hydrogen has been explored and advocated in much the same fashion as battery-electric technology for cars, trucks and a host of other vehicles. When used, hydrogen power produces no harmful greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions or pollution. And due to its ability to be energy-dense, hydrogen is typically viewed as a more workable solution for heavy-duty zero-emission vehicles like buses, big rigs, air planes and watercraft.

However, 98 percent of hydrogen produced today is known as “gray hydrogen,” which means it uses natural gas or gasified coal as feedstock in its production, cutting into its carbon neutral aims, according to the ITIF report A Realist Approach to Hydrogen.

Clean hydrogen, produced by electrolysis — which applies electricity to water to separate the hydrogen from oxygen — makes up less than 1 percent of hydrogen produced today. The hydrogen is considered “green” only when renewable energy is used to generate the electricity. The economies of scaling this type of hydrogen production are currently not feasible, the report concluded. However, there are periods when renewable energy is in surplus and could be used for hydrogen production; and with the expansion of wind and solar power generation these opportunities could increase, say researchers and industry leaders.

“The cheaper we can develop renewable projects, the cheaper we can make electrolytic hydrogen. It’s all related,” said Melanie Davidson, hydrogen development manager at San Diego Gas and Electric, speaking at the California Hydrogen Leadership Summit in June 2023.

Powering heavy-duty vehicles with green hydrogen is not yet price competitive with other energy sources, said Robin Gaster, author of the ITIF report.

“Looked at closely, most of these use cases don't make much economic sense,” said Gaster, pointing to green hydrogen’s cost of $36 per kilo in California. Blue hydrogen, produced by the same fossil fuel technology as gray hydrogen, but takes additional steps to capture and store the CO2, is not quite as expensive as green hydrogen, but still “problematic from a GHG perspective,” said Gaster.

The findings by the ITIF should not be taken as a swipe against green energy, green transportation or the looming human-caused climate crisis, say the report’s authors.

“We are not climate deniers. We believe fossil fuels are transforming the climate globally, and that we need a pathway through the green transition,” they write.

More research and exploration into the uses and production of hydrogen are moving forward in projects like the Alliance for Renewable Clean Hydrogen Energy Systems (ARCHES) — a public-private partnership made of energy companies like Chevron, ports and other partners in California. ARCHES is taking the lead on applying for grant funding from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to help develop a “hydrogen energy hub” in the state. The DOE has some $8 billion for the program, which will help to fund the development of up to 10 regional hydrogen energy hub projects across the country. The project is seen as essential to help build out the technology and infrastructure to advance hydrogen fuel transportation as a viable green transportation option.

Other pilot projects in California are in the works to possibly transition diesel locomotives to green hydrogen. Local transit provider Sacramento Regional Transit is also considering hydrogen fuel cell technology for its bus fleet.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.