What Is The Promise of Green Hydrogen? | New Hampshire Public Radio

What Is The Promise of Green Hydrogen?

Aug 26, 2020

Is there a way to combat climate change and keep that furnace in your basement? We learn about green hydrogen and examine if we can use it to take advantage of existing natural gas infrastructure as we wean ourselves off fossil fuels. We discuss the promise and pitfalls of green hydrogen and where these fit in the energy future of N.H. and the country. This program is part of NHPR’s By Degrees climate reporting initiative.
 

Airdate: Wednesday, August 26, 2020

GUESTS:

According to James Temple in the MIT Technology Review, green hydrogen increasingly appears essential as nations work to meet their climate goals,

Click here for NHPR's past coverage of a proposed hydrogen energy plant in Groveton.

Transcript

This transcript was machine generated and contains errors.

Laura Knoy:
From New Hampshire Public Radio, I'm Laura Knoy and this is The Exchange.

Laura Knoy:
In the field of alternative energy, there's a lot of excitement now about so-called green hydrogen, proponents say it could heat our homes, fuel our cars, charge our laptops and help reduce carbon at the same time. Today, The Exchange as part of NHPR's By Degrees Climate Reporting Project, we ask, can hydrogen be part of a new energy future? Our guests are Sam Evans Brown, host of NHPR's Outside/in, also James Temple, senior editor for energy at MIT Technology Review. A big welcome to both of you gentlemen. And Sam, let's start with you getting very basic here. What is hydrogen?

Sam Evans-Brown:
Well, hydrogen is the first element. It's number one on the periodic table. It's the smallest, lightest element in the universe. And it's and it's also an element that's incredibly useful. So I think the application that most people are familiar with, because it's the last time that hydrogen sort of surged up in the hype cycle, was talking about the hydrogen car. Right. So it can be used in a fuel cell to generate electricity, which can be useful for moving vehicles or all sorts of other things as well. But but beyond that, there are many different ways that hydrogen can be used in terms of generating carbon free electricity so it can be combusted traditionally at a power plant.

Sam Evans-Brown:
If the power plant is designed with hydrogen in mind, it can be used in steel making, which is one of these sort of difficult to decarbonize sectors that people worry about. It can be combined with nitrogen from the atmosphere, which is actually how most of the hydrogen that's used in the world today is used as combined with nitrogen to make ammonia, which most of it's used for fertilizer. But but ammonia can also be a fuel as well. And of course, it can also be combined with carbon dioxide if we start to capture or actually pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. You can combine that with hydrogen to create synthetic fuels like synthetic natural gas. So it's just an incredibly useful element that can be used in a lot of ways. And it has a lot of people sort of dreaming about its place in a decarbonised world.

Laura Knoy:
Wow. So powering our cars, Sam. Electricity, including four sectors that are incredibly intensive in terms of electric use, like steelmaking, as you said. But give me a little bit more, Sam, on that last bit you mentioned about actually using hydrogen to yank carbon out of the air. I mean, that's kind of the dream, isn't it?

Sam Evans-Brown:
Yeah, well, so so it's actually it would be two separate processes. One is, is the process of actually capturing the carbon. And that can happen either at a at a point or so on the smokestack of a power plant, for instance, or you can do it directly out of the air, just sort of pulling the carbon that's ambient and diffuse in the atmosphere and putting it in one place. And then you you combine that with another process of creating hydrogen, either through electrolysis or which is the sort of electric you split water electrolysis of the process of splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen. And that's done with electricity. And so if you combine those two processes, so hydrogen is the H. Right. And and natural gas is methane, which is which is C H four. So you need some carbon and you need a bunch of hydrogens and you can make natural gas.

Laura Knoy:
Wow. Well, and in a few moments we'll talk about with all this possibility why we're not doing this right now. But for the moment, James, we can stay in sort of gee whiz mode. I mean, hydrogen isn't new. So why is there so much excitement about this right now?

James Temple:
Yeah, I mean, I think a big reason, a couple reasons we're starting to hear about it a lot more now, and I've been at Tech Review covering climate solutions for the last four years. And every year it seems like I just hear more and more about hydrogen. But part of what's happening right now is that we have a lot of nations and regions that are starting to go through and do the hard work of figuring out how are they actually going to achieve these really ambitious climate plans that they're they're making. So how are they going to become essentially carbon neutral by mid century, which is something that ideally all nations are going to have to do if we if we want to avoid some of the really dangerous levels of warming in store. So you have regions like the European Union, which is devising its plan to become carbon neutral by 2050. They've published this hydrogen roadmap, and so has Japan and New Zealand and Australia and a handful of specific European nations, because as they start looking at the various components of all the things you need to solve at every point throughout your your economy, hydrogen at damage and fits into a lot of these really difficult to fill holes in in the climate puzzle. So that's one thing. One thing is that it looks like we may need it or or at least it's going to be it could be a crucial tool for solving some of the hard challenges. And I think the other thing driving the conversation is that while we're seeing a lot more projects actually being built or or proposed at this point, and both the technology itself and the economics are projected to improve a lot, specifically in terms of producing a green, clean form of hydrogen, particularly as these things scale up and as the cost of renewables continue to decline. It's looking this is looking more and more viable.

Laura Knoy:
I see. It's like a virtuous cycle, right? Yeah. So how much, James, is this all about the electrify everything movement? Just because we can create electricity cleanly, let's just electrify everything. Hydrogen: is that a big part of that.

James Temple:
Yeah. I mean, certainly part of it is just the fact that we are we're increasingly increasingly switching to clean energy sources, renewables. And so there are points when we we're generating more than we need or more than the grid can accommodate. And so there's there are opportunities here to tap into the excess solar or wind or hydro that's being generated at any point to produce green hydrogen really, really cheaply. Electricity itself represents the biggest component of the costs of this process. So as as that gets cheaper, that's another thing that's sort of driving along the conversation in some ways.

James Temple:
I mean, the electrify everything thing points to different solutions for for heating homes, things like heat pumps and induction stoves rather than hydrogen into the homes. So. So to some degree, it's supporting the electrification of everything. And to some degree, it could be it could offer an alternative way of doing some some parts of this electrification thing or decarbonisation.

Laura Knoy:
Sam. Love your thoughts, too, on the why. Now, again, hydrogen is nothing new.

Sam Evans-Brown:
Yeah, so so I'd say that from my perspective, just looking at the evolution of the discourse on everything, I think part of this is a response to the the increasing currency that the electrify everything idea has with the environmental movement. And I think that the natural gas industry in particular is starting to feel somewhat threatened by the the that that that thread amongst the environmental movement. And they're starting to see sort of an erosion of their social their social licence to operate. Right. So so we just in New Hampshire, in my relatively short tenure here, have seen the rise and fall of two pipeline projects that were both targeted by by climate activists. And so I think the natural gas industry is starting to it's starting to try to imagine what what role it can play in a decarbonised world. And and, you know, synthetic fuels is a space that feels familiar to them and one one that they feel like they have the the expertise to operate in. And so they're starting to I hydrogen as a possible solution, as one of the ways that they can continue to to, you know, to be seen as part of the climate solution. Because, I mean, think back. I mean, natural gas was was talked about not too long ago as the bridge fuel and and that slogan has has sort of become an object of derision by the environmental movement of late.

Sam Evans-Brown:
And so I think they're they're looking to what's next. OK, so you no longer see us as the bridge fuel. What what how can we be part of the climate solution? And just to sort of put a point on this, there's this thing called the hype cycle that a lot of folks will we'll talk about where you would sort of a rise and fall, where you have a you know, you start to talk about a new technology and you reach the peak of hype that they call the peak of inflated expectation. And then and then after sort of the reality sets in and you start to see some of the challenges of bringing new technology onto market, you dip into the trough of disillusionment before slowly some of them emerge on the other side. And there was a there was a climate thinker recently Shayle Kahn, who made a graph of climate technology and put put green hydrogen as something that's reaching the peak of inflated expectations. So I think just we're very early in the hydrogen hype cycle. And I think there's a lot there's a lot of sort of details to be ironed out before this becomes real.

Laura Knoy:
Well, I'm glad you mentioned utilities, because it's the perfect chance for me to remind listeners that we will be talking a little bit later in the show with the head of Liberty Utilities here in New Hampshire. And we'll ask her how her company views hydrogen. It's also a great chance for me to remind listeners that we would love your questions about some of this hype that Sam talks about, your comments, your observations, and just your basic questions about what this interest in hydrogen is all about. We heard from Dan in Bristol who says, starting in 1999, I have worked in the fossil fuel transportation business, first as a tractor trailer driver for Dead River Company, moving gasoline and oil throughout Maine and New Hampshire. Then as a tugboat worker, where we often move barges holding over five million gallons of gasoline and now moving liquefied natural gas tractor trailers. Wow, Dan, that is a career definitely in this industry. All of those jobs, Dan says, have paid above average blue collar wages. And the union jobs come with excellent benefits, including time and a half pay after eight hours of work. But he says the effects of global warming are a real disaster. And if we don't act now, we will leave future generations with a poisoned, unlivable planet. He says it is time to electrify everything, and those of us currently employed by Big Oil will be well positioned to move hydrogen trucks and barges or work constructing or maintaining the huge infrastructure that will be necessary for us to harness the power of wind, sun and tides. And Dan, it's really great to hear from you given your experience. I do wonder, James, you know, if we are really talking about this green hydrogen, how do you transport it? Would people like Dan be carting it around in trucks or would it be going through pipelines as as Sam alluded to or what, James?

James Temple:
Yeah, I mean, I think it would ultimately well, we would have to build an infrastructure essentially to to support that. You would need a network of pipelines You. You would need trucks and all the other ways that we sort of generally ship around fuels around the the nation. Some of that are exist because, of course, there's an existing hydrogen industry. What although currently most of it's produced in a in a process that produces a lot of greenhouse gases. And obviously, if we're going to depend on this more and more, you'd have to build up a much bigger network there. There he is speaking to Sam's point about this industry wanting to transition and embrace hydrogen to some degree. You know, there is a sense that the existing network can work for blends where you get like five to 15 percent of hydrogen mixed in with natural gas. For the most part, it's a case by case basis. You have to look at it closely. But for the most part, existing systems can still hold up. But then you do beyond that, you do have to start looking at different pipeline materials, different sorts of turbines, different sorts of household products. And but but there's also the sense that you could kind of future proof the natural gas networks by beginning to move over to materials that would work with both.

James Temple:
And so when you are when when natural gas companies, for instance, do have to go in and dig up the ground to do the periodic upgrades or or checking on on pipeline safety, et cetera. Those could be opportunities to start making that that transition, and so I think there's a hope that you don't get stuck with the stranded assets, these millions or billions of dollars worth of pipelines and networks that just suddenly have no value if we at some point switch over to a purely hydrogen based world versus versus natural gas.

Laura Knoy:
That's interesting. Future proof the natural gas industry. Go ahead, Sam.

Sam Evans-Brown:
I was going to say one of the interesting things that I learned while researching for the show is that to a certain extent, James alluded to this a bit, that you can already transport hydrogen in the infrastructure that we have.

Sam Evans-Brown:
I'm going to allude to two ways. One is that so the NREL National Renewable Energy Laboratory has released a study back in 2013 that talked about blending hydrogen in with natural gas in the existing natural gas pipelines, which to a certain extent, we're talking about actually just blending hydrogen to make the natural gas mix less carbon intensive itself. But also you can refine the hydrogen back out of the natural gas as a way of transporting it. So that so some estimates are that the existing network of pipelines can already handle sort of like a 15 percent hydrogen blend without without any changes and without much risk. Beyond that, there is this sort of property of hydrogen that it can make metals brittle. And so beyond that, 15 to maybe 20 percent at the high end, there is some safety concern. But but that's the existing pipelines. But then the other thing I'd say that that's kind of an interesting thing to think about is that if we think about hydrogen as something that you make from electricity, so using electrolysis to to make hydrogen at a certain point source, for instance, you can think about the electricity transmission network as a way to transmit hydrogen as well. Right. Because if you have ... so there's a there's a company in Maine. Maine is a place that has transmission congestion. There aren't enough power lines to get all the power out of Maine that exists there. And especially with all the wind farms that are up there. There's a company that's talked about building a hydrogen plant to take electricity off the power lines at these times where it's a very windy turn it into hydrogen and store it on site and then later release it in dribs and drabs as the demand is needed. So to a certain extent, I mean, you would eventually need more infrastructure if we were to go to the sort of deeply decarbonize hydrogen economy. But to a certain extent, we can sort of start today with the infrastructure we've got.

Laura Knoy:
Well, and say, Sam, you mentioned the sort of hype around different alternative energies. And then as people look at it more closely, you get into this trough of despair. I'm not quite sure if you said, but the trough of disillusionment, disillusionment by the slope of enlightenment. So, James, I think you were starting to go there a moment ago where you said the process of creating electricity from hydrogen requires electricity. So, you know, how is that even helpful if we have to use electricity to create electricity?

James Temple:
Well, yeah, I mean, you're getting into one of the central challenges of switching over more and more of our electricity grid to renewables, which is that we can't always count on them being there. You have the sun doesn't always shine, the wind isn't always blowing. And so effectively, what producing a form of hydrogen from from solar and wind, when you have these periods of excess generation, is that You? It acts as a form of energy storage and potentially a relatively cheap one, cheaper than than lithium ion batteries. If you want to if we want to do this on a on a really, really long term and really, really big scale. And sothat's that's the main way that it helps in terms of providing providing electricity, then then you can feed it back into the electricity grid or use it for all these other purposes we're talking about. But you don't have to do at the moment that the sun is shining and the wind is blowing. You can do it. You can take solar from the summer and essentially use that energy in winter when you have these deep troughs of solar or wind power.

Laura Knoy:
Oh, I see. So this resolves some of the intermittent problems that we often hear about solar and wind, James, where when you've got excess, you can use this to create something that is more easily storable. Gentlemen, let's go to our listeners and calling in from Conway is Mark. Hi, Mark. You're on the air. Welcome.

Caller:
All right, I'm keen on the hydrogen question, I remember going to the BMW Museum in Munich, Germany, and seeing that beautiful car that they had running on hydrogen, I guess one of the problems is hydrogen has to be cooled and they have to have essentially a like a refrigerator around the fuel in order for it to be delivered to the motor or has that been outdated now. You don't have to worry about that. Have they found a way around that?

Laura Knoy:
Yeah. Mark, thank you, James, do you know?

James Temple:
I'm afraid I'm a little stumped by that. That's that's not something I've specifically heard of, but Sam?

Sam Evans-Brown:
Yeah, I, I think the caller is referring to. So there does exist a hydrogen internal combustion engine where you have essentially a traditional engine, but it just burns, you know, combusts hydrogen instead of fuel. And I think that's what the listener is referring to. That is, I think considered sort of not the cutting edge because of hydrogen wants to be a gas. I think for it to be a liquid, it has to be at something like negative two hundred degrees Celsius. Right, that's difficult. And so roughly like most of the applications today, talk about using hydrogen in its gaseous form.

Laura Knoy:
So how safe, Sam, is hydrogen? I mean, many listeners may be thinking, isn't hydrogen highly flammable? I mean, there's the Hindenburg hydrogen-fueled airship famously blew up, you know, over the East Coast in the 1930s. And that doesn't sound too good.

Sam Evans-Brown:
And also and more to the point, hydrogen is the smallest element. So it's number one on the periodic table, as it said at the start, which means that it's very sneaky. It can sort of it requires a real good containment system in order to avoid leakage. And there have been a couple of studies that have shown that hydrogen sort of leaks at higher rates just sort of permeating out through the materials that it's stored in because it's so small. So so, yeah, it's tricky to store. But but I think I think the thing to remember, it is more volatile. It is like more it is more easily explosive. But I think the thing to remember is that we all every day get in a vehicle that has, you know, 12 or 15 or 20 gallon tank of explosive material in it. So, like, these are not insurmountable challenges.

James Temple:
I was just going to add and that is, by the way, why when you know, if we are talking about using hydrogen to heat homes or even to run stoves or whatever in the household, it does involve switching to different sorts of appliances that are specifically built for it because it does burn differently. And you would obviously be safety issues with just using hydrogen to run your standard boilers and furnaces. And so forth.

Laura Knoy:
Right. You wouldn't want your boiler to blow up. That would be a disaster. And let's take another call. This is Pentti in Pembroke High Pente. Thanks for calling in. Good morning.

Caller:
Well, good morning to you, it occurs to me that there's a lot of work going on currently on going one step past the hydrogen and then use it to react with nitrogen in the air and make ammonia that can be used as a fuel or to make synthetic natural gas or diesel fuel directly. And all of that can be handled with the current stuff. Obviously, there's been some efficiency loss in going that extra step. But there's an Audi plant that has a that reacts biogas, which is half carbon dioxide, with hydrogen to make it essentially 100 percent methane. And that goes directly into the gas pipes and has been for many years in Europe.

Laura Knoy:
Oh, wow. Pentti, thank you for calling in. And Sam, you mentioned some of those applications of hydrogen earlier, ammonia, for example. But go ahead.

Sam Evans-Brown:
Yeah. So so ammonia is actually we had a call or an email the beginning talking about tugboats. So ammonia is something that's been tried as a fuel for shipping, in particular because an engine that burns ammonia is you know, it's just like an easier thing to imagine for a very large vessel versus powering, say, a car.

Sam Evans-Brown:
So ammonia has been actively thought about as a fuel for shipping. And as as Pentti observed, this is a pretty mature industry because we already have that is the number one use of hydrogen today, is for making ammonia for fertilizer. So the technology there is fairly well understood and just needs to be sort of scaled up. If hydrogen demand we're going to increase. Synthetic natural gas is like a little, we know how to do it, but making it cost effective is a little farther out, I'd say.

Laura Knoy:
Well, and yeah, go ahead, James.

James Temple:
And there are tradeoffs, of course, is you know, once we're taking off, we're going to go through the hard work and expensive effort of producing a green form of hydrogen as opposed to the usual natural gas, the usual version derived from natural gas.

James Temple:
It's at that point a clean fuel. Once we start combining it with carbon dioxide again, it does then emit CO2. So you're back to it being essentially a fuel that's producing greenhouse gases. Ideally, in that scenario, what you want is to at least be using captured carbon dioxide as the source for that. And therefore, and in which case it's at least a carbon neutral fuel. So we're not making climate change any any. We're not solving it. We're not addressing it, but we're not making it worse, at least at that point.

Laura Knoy:
Well, I'm glad you mentioned that James and Pentti also mentioned methane. Sue in Durham wrote in asking, Natural gas is a source of methane, which is a very potent greenhouse gas. Why would we want to make or use natural gas? So I think you were starting to go there anyway, James, but could you address Sue's concern? Why are we even thinking about investing in something that produces synthetic natural gas or methane?

James Temple:
Right. So, I mean, the the advantage of doing it is that it's essentially it's a drop in fuel. It's something that can work within our existing infrastructure. So you don't have to build new types of turbines. I'm I'm more I'm more sympathetic to the idea that we would use it to create something like a synthetic jet fuel only because we don't have any other options really technologically for for powering our planes into the green. We still want to power planes. Let's at least do it with a carbon neutral fuel if possible. But when it comes to I don't know, to me it seems like a little little bit heartbreaking, the idea that we're going to go through the hard work of producing a green fuel and then just turn it back into natural gas, because we do because there are opportunities, there are technological options for using that fuel to to generate electricity directly without emitting additional carbon dioxide. So if we are if we can avoid that, then it gets us further along where where we need to be in terms of making progress on climate change.

Laura Knoy:
All right. Well, coming up, a utility executive talks about hydrogen and her company's hopes for this.

Laura Knoy:
This is The Exchange I'm Laura Knoy as part of NHPR's climate reporting project By Degrees, we're asking today on The Exchange what role hydrogen might play in a clean energy future. With us now is Susan Fleck. She's president of Liberty Utilities. And Susan, welcome to The Exchange. Thanks for being with us. So how interested is Liberty Utilities in hydrogen?

Susan Fleck:
Very much so. Let me make a few comments. First of all, climate change is real. It's caused by greenhouse gas emissions from human activities. And we know that burning fossil fuels for electricity, heat and transportation, the biggest competitors. So we know we have to decarbonize our economy as fast as deeply as possible. So we want to avoid these climate change effects. So at Liberty, we are guided by our sustainability policy, which aligns directly with the UN sustainable development goals around emissions and climate action. And we're driven by our purpose, which is sustaining energy and water for life. And we work towards that every day and every community we serve and we can prove it. We've been named the 10th most sustainable company in the world and the number one most sustainable utility by corporate knights who run the globe one hundred sustainability index. So as Sam and James alluded to previously, we are reimagining our role and we are very interested in different renewable sources of energy, hydrogen and how they might fit in with the utility company like ourselves.

Laura Knoy:
And RNG is renewable natural gas. Is that is that right, Susan?

Susan Fleck:
That's correct, renewable natural gas from any source, wood pulp, landfills, water treatment, all kinds of things.

Laura Knoy:
Well, I definitely want to ask you about that in a moment, but describe the role, Sue, that you see possibly hydrogen playing here in the Granite State. Our other guests described, you know, lots of potential, but, you know, not a whole lot going on large scale at this point.

Susan Fleck:
Yeah, and I think hydrogen is is even though it has been around and has been around for a while. I think we haven't figured out exactly how to integrate it into our existing energy delivery systems. We see hydrogen as a real game game changer for decarbonization and we are installing a lot of wind and solar power across our enterprise. And we see with the right policies in place that hydrogen can be a zero emission replacement for natural gas down the road. So we see the potential of hydrogen across all of our modalities. We think we can create it from our wind and solar generating facilities and we can integrate it into our natural gas, electric utility distribution businesses. We're actually currently in development of a potential hydrogen injection project and one of our utilities and our expectations are to file for that with the regulators in the next year. It's a very flexible fuel. We see it as a way to store renewable power. I think James and Sam did talk about that in the existing, you know, underground natural gas system.

Susan Fleck:
We can use excess wind and solar that's produced during times when you don't need it and get that injected into our network. And we can turn our power underground system into essentially a large battery for clean power right here in New Hampshire. It's an exciting opportunity.

Laura Knoy:
So getting to that existing infrastructure, Liberty decided recently not to build the controversial pipeline. That'll I'm sure a lot of people have heard about Granite Bridge hoping instead to bring fracked natural gas over an existing pipeline in the southern tier. So sounds like you're kind of going there anyway, Sue. But my question, given the environmental concerns over fracked natural gas, given what you said, that we do have to decarbonize our economy, using your words there, how useful is that infrastructure going to be for some kind of exit strategy from natural gas for other fuels like hydrogen?

Susan Fleck:
Well, the pipeline system will be in place and then we can use it to bring in the renewable sources. So we have existing pipelines in New Hampshire serving our customers currently, but we have a lot of a lot of potential customers who add on every year. We add about a thousand, roughly a thousand new natural gas customers per year in New Hampshire. And we need to be able to provide them with the energy sources that they desire. So for now, that involves bringing some pipeline, some additional pipeline gas into our system. But over time, those pipelines that we built can be converted over or just used for the RNG and the hydrogen of the future. So we're not intending to put anything in the ground now that's going to become a stranded asset in the very near future. We're working to build a system that that fits with our our mix of fuels that we plan on using down the road. (inaudible)

Laura Knoy:
A stranded asset basically means so, you know, the pipeline is there. And if people aren't using natural gas anymore, you're kind of stuck with this thing that you spent a lot of money to build. So the interest in hydrogen is to see if you can continue to use that asset, is that right?

Susan Fleck:
Exactly, our customers have paid for that, for that system and and continue to pay for it through their rates. So we want to make sure that they're getting the best value for their dollar, for their energy dollar, and that most of our system has been rebuilt over the years, is going to be capable of handling some amount of hydrogen and certainly as much RNG as we can pump into it. One of the interesting things about RNG that maybe a lot of people don't know is estimates currently shown from some studies that are out there is that New Hampshire is capable of meeting nearly one hundred percent or actually one hundred percent of our natural gas needs with RNG produced within the state. So RNG can be a big piece of the solution in the future.

Laura Knoy:
Well, let's talk about RNG a little bit. Again, renewable natural gas. So just for listeners who aren't quite sure what that is, what is that, Susan?

Susan Fleck:
Well, that renewable natural gas is natural gas that's just occurring already in our system. So, for example, the one project that we are working on in New Hampshire is a Bethlehem landfill. So we have a landfill out there that the anaerobic digestion that happens in the landfill over time creates methane as a byproduct and that methane just releases into the atmosphere. So you have currently a source of methane that is either flared off some landfills, burn it, some landfills, or just it just seems out of the ground, into the air. So it's not captured. It's not used for energy or heat or anything like that. It's just wasted. If we can tap that facility. And that's what we're planning on doing with the Bethlehem facility, extract that methane, clean it up through a filtering system to pipeline quality and inject it into our into our existing pipeline network. We can we can actually, if you think about it, it's better than carbon neutral because it's actually carbon negative. It's taking it's taking carbon that's going into the atmosphere and putting it into a pipe and putting it to use. So it's better than some of the carbon neutral solutions. So our Bethlehem project is moving forward and we're pretty excited about it.

Laura Knoy:
What's the status of that project now? Because this project has gone back and forth. There was some controversy over it. The Exchange didn't event in the north country in that area last year. And we heard from a lot of people who were upset about about this. So what's the status of that now, given the public pushback, Susan?

Susan Fleck:
Sure, I think what happened with that particular project and we filed, I think it was 2017 or 2018, it was a brand new idea. So we filed with with our utility commissions and we got a lot of interest from the public and different public interest groups. And it was it was a new idea. So it took time, the kind of work through the kinks, understand the technology, understand everything that was going on. And what we've done is we've put together a new filing. We're going to refile it with with all the knowledge and experience we've gotten from everybody we've talked to. We're going to do that in the next, within the next couple of weeks. We're working with a partner who's going to build the actual filtration system. They are hoping to potentially get started, if we get our approvals through it, through the regulators, in the next couple of months. We're hoping to get shovels in the ground before the end of the year and potentially have some gas flowing by the fourth quarter of 2021. So, again, it's new technology, it's appropriate for a very rigorous approval process to make sure that we're not introducing something that's going to potentially be a financial or other problem for our consumers. So I'm glad the process was careful and methodical,

Laura Knoy:
Given the focus that you mentioned about decarbonization and that our other guests, James and Sam, mentioned about the push to electrify everything, why should we even bother with renewable natural gas? Why not just shift to the future, say goodbye to gas and hello to electricity?

Susan Fleck:
Yeah, and we hear that a lot, and that's worth consideration, but one of the things that we're considering is no single technology is going to decarbonize our economy fast enough to avoid the worst effects of climate change. We need a kind of all of the above approach to get it done. And especially in a cold climate like New Hampshire, where we consume so much energy just to stay warm. Electrification with air source heat pumps. You know, it's a great solution but experts believe it's not enough to meet our needs. And we're going to need to have some other kind of fuel for the periods of time where it's terribly cold and those heat pumps are not 100 percent helpful. So we see that there is a blend and RNG plays a big role in it because it's, you know, it's wasting methane into the atmosphere and creating problems and hydrogen down this, down the road. So we're looking at kind of combining several of these different approaches, using our existing system and trying to make it work for New Hampshire consumers and keep the cost down and the reliability up.

Laura Knoy:
Well, thank you very much for being with us, Susan. We really appreciate it. Lots to talk about. That's Susan Fleck, president of Liberty Utilities here in New Hampshire. And James and Sam, let's go right back to our listeners. Lots of people want to jump into our conversation. Scott is calling in from Nashua. Go ahead, Scott. You're on the air. Welcome.

Caller:
Yes, hi, thanks for taking my call and thanks for hosting this great show. My main question is, how does hydrogen fit into, say, a model where our electricity generation is less centralized right now? We have very expensive centralized power plants with, you know, hundreds of miles of transmission lost over, you know, the power lines versus what's hoped for in a renewable scenario of more dynamic, smaller power generation nodes, as it were, that could be smarter and more flexible.

Laura Knoy:
Oh, Scott, I'm so glad you called, because this is something I'm very interested in. And James, what about that? Right now we have sort of these big, you know, facilities that transmit power. What about smaller facilities and how does hydrogen fit into that?

James Temple:
Right, well, there are there are some kind of important trade offs there, actually, in terms of just the pure economics, having these large centralized power generating generation facilities ends up being cheaper than running a lot of little micro grids across everycommunity.

James Temple:
So that's the downside. You. But you, for instance, where I'm based out in California, you're hearing more and more conversations around that, in part because there is a resiliency to having micro grids generate some some amount of the electricity in a state, for instance, where you are otherwise having rolling blackouts or where the wind is creating fire dangers for the the broader electricity system.

James Temple:
I don't you know, I can't think specifically of of how hydrogen affects that that equation one way or another. But Sam may have some thoughts on that. Yeah, go ahead, Sam. Yeah.

Sam Evans-Brown:
So so I would say two things. One is that they're actually so there's a guy, Joe Nocera, who I can't remember if he's at MIT or Harvard, but he had this idea of sort of like a personalized home hydrogen system where you have an electrolyzer in your basements and sort of your own little hydrogen storage tank and you have a fuel cell vehicle and your own little fuel cell, the power. So, like the idea of like a an off grid hydrogen home, I think that largely, though, that is has been shown to be right now prohibitively expensive with the technologies we have. But really a lot of the buzz around hydrogen and these other synthetic fuels has been about preserving those big centralized power plants as opposed to doing away with them. And really, it's about using these fuels as a kind of long term storage that would aid in a deeply decarbonized world. But that long term storage would would be the sort of firm backup in the periods of low variable renewable output like the winter, as we alluded to earlier.

Laura Knoy:
All right. Well, we're going to take a very quick break. And when we come back, we will talk to a scientist and writer who isn't sure if hydrogen can live up to the hype. We'll talk about that.

Laura Knoy:
This is The Exchange I'm Laura Knoy. As part of NHPR's By Degrees climate reporting project, we're asking this hour why hydrogen is getting so much attention from clean energy groups and whether it lives up to the hype that's surrounding it right now. With us now is Zeke Hausfather. He's director of climate and energy at the Breakthrough Institute in Oakland. Zeke, a big welcome. Thank you for being with us. So we've been hearing about all the excitement around hydrogen, your turn, Zeke, what are the downsides of this?

Zeke Hausfather:
So for many years, there's a lot of hype about the hydrogen economy as a central part of our future decarbonization. And while hydrogen does have a role to play, its role has in the past been pretty widely overstated. There was a big focus for a long time on fuel cell vehicles and hydrogen for light vehicle transportation in particular. And there it seems like electric vehicles are really going to be the future. The costs have fallen much faster than we expected for batteries. EVs are being mass produced and a lot of automakers are starting to abandon plans for vehicles simply because it's more costly and in many ways less efficient than just using electricity for your vehicles. There are some sectors of the economy where hydrogen does make a lot of sense and we should have a big focus, particularly areas where you're directly burning natural gas or coal today to produce heat. So as an example, if you are producing steel or if you're doing other sort of industrial processes that require large amounts of heat, those are not very effective to decarbonize with electricity simply because it's extremely expensive to make something a thousand degrees Fahrenheit using electricity. And so for sectors like that, it makes a lot of sense to do hydrogen.

Zeke Hausfather:
There's also sort of an outstanding question about the role of hydrogen for long term storage for the electricity grid and if that will make sense or not. And it really depends on what some of the alternatives that we develop are and what the cost of those in battery prices have fallen quite a bit and they're much more competitive for shorter term sort of day scale grid storage. But when you start talking about storing extra solar in the summer to use in the winter there, hydrogen could have some advantages. That said, hydrogen is not a perfect solution for many reasons. For one, it's quite leaky and tough to effectively transport. While you can blend some hydrogen into our natural gas and existing pipelines, you really need dedicated new pipelines in most cases for large scale hydrogen transportation. And hydrogen itself, oddly enough, does have a modest climate impact. So when hydrogen leaks out, it combines with. Oxygen and in the atmosphere and into producing water vapor and some of that water vapor ends up in the stratosphere, the very high levels of the atmosphere and water vapor in the stratosphere, unlike in the lower part of the atmosphere, sticks around for a long time and then serving as a reasonably powerful greenhouse gas.

Laura Knoy:
That's not what we want.

Zeke Hausfather:
Well, it's much better than natural gas, but our most recent estimates is that it's about six times worse per volume than carbon dioxide. If a set amount of hydrogen leaks, if you burn hydrogen, of course, it just produces water, it's completely fine. The bigger issue is the leakage side of things.

Laura Knoy:
So given some of these concerns that you raise, what's the what might be the Achilles heel, so to speak, of hydrogen? Is it the transmission? Is it the storage or is it that it's in some instances not that much better than, you know, fossil fuels? What's going to bring this thing down or be the Achilles heel?

Zeke Hausfather:
It's better than fossil fuels if you're producing it with renewables, even even with the potential downsides of leakage. To be honest, the Achilles heel today is really the cost of that. Hydrogen production is not that cheap. And particularly if we're talking about green hydrogen, which is hydrogen produced from renewable energy, which is the only really low carbon form of hydrogen there. You run into a lot of cost challenges. And one of the big ones is the machines that produce hydrogen through electrolysis are fairly expensive to build. And so if you're using extra wind or extra solar on the grid when it's available to run them, but you're not running them at other times because you don't want to produce hydrogen from natural gas, for example, you might only be running these big machines 30, 40, 50 percent of the time, which means your hydrogen is almost twice as expensive as if you're running these big machines 100 percent of the time. Because since you spent so much money up front, it makes a lot more sense to have a high utilization rate. And so in the future, if we have large scale offshore wind, if we have lots of nuclear reactors, we have other sources of energy that can run closer to one hundred percent of the time. It makes the economics of green hydrogen much better. But today, at least, it's more challenging. There are some potential options to produce hydrogen safe from natural gas in ways that remove the carbon either through carbon capture and storage or through pyrolysis, which is a process that produces solid carbon as a byproduct. It's unclear how cost-effective those will be. And obviously, if you're using natural gas as your feedstock for hydrogen production, you still have all the problems with natural gas leakage that are a big issue in the system today.

Laura Knoy:
Well, Zeke, hold on a moment. So I want to bring our other guests in. Sam Evans Brown from NHPR's Outside/in and James Temple from MIT Technology Review. And James, so here we are. We started off with the hype and now we're moving into what Sam called the trough of disillusionment. What do you think some of the things that we're hearing from Zeke here?

James Temple:
It's all it's all correct. I mean, it's I know I wouldn't want to underplay the challenges by any means of shifting over to a high percentage of green hydrogen use. There are these high cost issues are very real. I almost think perhaps the bigger challenge is the heavy friction of sunk investments into existing infrastructure. I like to use this on a large scale. We'd have to rebuild big parts of our pipelines and turbines and household products, etc. So so I do I do think there are really big challenges here. And and I think in a world without climate change or a world where fossil fuels will last forever, it maybe doesn't make sense to shift over to clean forms of hydrogen. But but that is the world we're living in. And and so one way or another, we do need to find ways to to address these major challenges and to particularly address some of these hard to solve sectors. And so I think that that increasingly you are going to see companies and governments looking at these looking at green hydrogen as solutions to not all of the problems, but but some of the some of the problems and and so so so yeah. So there it definitely has weaknesses. But I think I think the key is you're going to because we need it for climate change, what it means is we're going to need to see some aggressive public policies that that help it along, some push and pull policies that get it into the marketplace.

Laura Knoy:
So, James, just to make sure I got you right, because hydrogen is such a different type of energy, it's not a you know, to flip a switch. It's we need different pipelines, different stoves, different water heaters. I mean, the whole sort of infrastructure that would use this and transport it, it has to be completely different. We can't use I have to throw out my stove basically, is what you're telling me.

James Temple:
Well, I mean, we're going to have to throw out our stoves one way or another, either if you want a hydrogen-fueled stove, that's one thing or one that can be driven by by electricity. One way or another,we are going to have to make massive changes to to our infrastructure to reduce the emissions from our buildings. So the question is just ultimately going to be which sets of technological solutions end up being cheapest and making the most sense here?

Laura Knoy:
And James, we heard earlier from Liberty Utilities saying they hope to use existing pipeline infrastructure, which, you know, as Susan pointed out, customers have already paid for. It's already in the ground. It's already there, hoping to use that for some type of hydrogen. You and seem to be saying, James, maybe not.

James Temple:
Well, I mean, to some degree, it works as a blend up. As Sam pointed out, there's this NReL study up to around 15 percent-ish. You want to look on a case by case basis, but existing infrastructure may work on that. Beyond that, you're going to have to take a really, really hard look and potentially have to upgrade big parts of it. You know, I would just I note on the point that she was making about renewable natural gas is that it's not always carbon neutral. And the problem with it in particular is that both from where you're producing it and then the pipelines, you're using it and they can be quite leaky. And when methane leaks out, it's far worse than carbon dioxide because it's a much more potent greenhouse gas. And so the math on this stuff is always really tricky and you always want to be really careful. And it really just comes down to the realities on the ground and not just what the models say, but about how these things are being used in the real world, how leaky the existing infrastructure actually is.

Laura Knoy:
Wow. Sam, let's get you in too on some of the points that Zeke raises.

Sam Evans-Brown:
Yeah, so so I'd say two real quick things, one, I'm really glad that James pointed out, Sue actually said that renewable natural gas is carbon negative, which is which is not a true claim. For a fuel to be carbon negative, it has to involve actually sort of pulling carbon dioxide or another greenhouse gas out of the atmosphere and permanently sequestering it somewhere which is not what renewable natural gas does. So but that's that's just one quick point.

Sam Evans-Brown:
I think that what I'd say is that if we look at the there's something called round trip efficiency. So if you take electricity, turn it into hydrogen and then turn that hydrogen back into electricity. So if you're using it as a sort of seasonal storage, as we've alluded to, hydrogen is not super efficient. The studies I've seen have put it somewhere in the neighborhood of like under 50 percent. Best case scenario, maybe around 60 percent if you're applying best practices. And if you compare that to other ways of using electricity, there's just this high likelihood that hydrogen is not going to be cost effective in a ton of use cases. It might be good for long term storage, as we have alluded to. It might be good for a fuel for some of these hard to decarbonize sectors. But I think, as I said at the beginning, the natural gas industry is looking to hydrogen and synthetic fuels as a way to maintain their social licence to operate since they've been targeted by the climate movement. And, but they are going to be competing in this marketplace of ideas for how to decarbonize the economy. And I think a lot of the sectors that they're eyeing will be difficult for them to to hold on to because it might be cheaper to electrify. And so we may see that the natural gas industry manages to pivot to hydrogen and other synthetic fuels made from hydrogen, but they may have to sort of shrink in order to survive.

Laura Knoy:
You know, Zeke, I want to read an email that we just got from Robert who says The Liberty Utilities representative said, we need an all of the above strategy. Robert says, I agree. We do. Or rather, he says we did if we had started in 1980. But Robert says, in 2020 it is way too late. All caps. We need to be mostly off fossil fuels in 10 years. We have the technology, Robert says, to build renewables and we need to do it now. What about that point, Zeke? And I guess I would add to Robert's question, is hydrogen even renewable? Can we consider it that?

Zeke Hausfather:
So for electricity generation, we have a lot of the technologies we need today to get fully off fossil fuels in 10 years, it would still be a huge lift. We need a lot of political will behind it, but it's certainly a doable thing. And there's similar targets to that. And some of the Biden climate plan, for example, I think it's 2035 to be 100 percent low carbon in the power sector, zero carbon in the power sector. That said, electricity generation is only about a third of all of our emissions in the country. And once you get out of electricity generation, it becomes a lot harder to decarbonize. And there we need a much broader set of solutions. And some of those solutions are not really mature or cost effective today. We have electric vehicles that are increasingly emerging as an alternative to internal combustion vehicles for light transport. They have a lot more challenges if you talk about heavy freight. Marine shipping is still a big challenge. And obviously electric airplanes are still very nascent. We don't have good solutions for aviation yet. Agriculture has its own large sources of emissions that are very difficult to deal with the current technologies and certainly without large behavior changes like eating a lot less beef, for example, or alternatives to beef, and then the industry sectors responsible for a sizable portion of our emissions as well. And there as I mentioned earlier, a lot of the processes involve very high temperatures and those high temperature processes are very difficult to produce using electricity alone. And so while I'm, you know, bullish on electrifying a lot of the economy and solving a lot of climate change through electrification, I don't think we can electrify everything. And I think there is a role for solutions like hydrogen and renewable natural gas and those hard to electrify sectors.

Laura Knoy:
Wow. Really interesting. And Zek, thank you very much for your time. We really appreciate it. He is the director of Climate and Energy at the Breakthrough Institute in Oakland, California. That Zeke Housefather. James, really good to have you, too. Thanks for your time. That's James Temple, senior editor for energy at MIT Technology Review. And Sam Evans-Brown, you're always helping us out. We appreciate being with us today. Thank you. That's Sam Evans Brown, host of NPR's Outside/In our show about the natural world and how we use it. The Exchange is a production of New Hampshire Public Radio, and today's show was part of our By Degrees climate reporting project. Thanks for being with us. I'm Laura Knoy.