Pennsylvania’s Trojan Horse: Hydrogen Power

Originally published in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on July 22, 2023

Here in Pennsylvania, the politics of energy generation and consumption have intimately shaped our state’s identity. It’s been almost two decades since hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” turned Pennsylvania into a major producer of fracked gas — a fuel source that is now ubiquitous, despite alarm bells sounded by local communities about its harmful impact on the local environment, health and economy.

Starting in the mid-1700s, Pennsylvanians mined the coal that powered the industrial revolution. Generations ago my ancestors came to Hazleton to work in those mines, carving industrial scars into the mountains in exchange for economic security. They didn’t have much of a choice. But we have one today.

We now know that a livable future is contingent on a rapid transition to 100% clean energy. While we have the tools to make that happen — solar and wind are the least expensive sources of new energy being added to the grid — it won’t happen on its own. We need to scale up clean energy and energy storage, unleash community solar, electrify everything that can be electrified, upgrade our energy grid, and center equity in all of the above.

This urgency is all the more reason for us to be vigilant against the Trojan Horse of hydrogen power: at best a distraction, and at worst a dangerous problem for communities across the state and for our ability to reach an equitable clean energy future.

Hydrogen has recently taken center stage in energy policy discussions, mainly due to new federal funding through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law for “Regional Clean Hydrogen Hubs” across the country, funding from the Inflation Reduction Act for “clean hydrogen” and Pennsylvania’s support for hydrogen production through sweeping tax credits. Yet, the environmental and social costs of hydrogen far outweigh any incentive. Clean energy options, like solar, need the spotlight in energy policy discussions and support from decision-makers from both sides of the aisle.

Hydrogen is discussed as a tool for energy storage, and as a fuel in sectors of the economy that are otherwise difficult to decarbonize, like steel and cement. “Green hydrogen” can be made by utilizing clean energy, through a process called electrolysis.

However, despite the talk of green hydrogen, more than 95% of current hydrogen production uses methane, which is responsible for more than 25% of global warming, and sourced through fracking. Any hydrogen hub in Pennsylvania that relies on fracked gas will lead to more fracking, pipelines, and climate inaction. Speaking of pipelines, according to Bloomberg, any hydrogen that leaks into the atmosphere has its own serious climate impacts.

Hydrogen production is not efficient enough, and certainly not clean enough, to be sustainable for a clean energy future. Until we have more clean energy than we can use (which we don’t, due to Pennsylvania’s unnecessary over-dependence on fossil fuels), we waste our limited clean energy by funneling it toward a less efficient, more expensive technology. This inefficiency also means that any time we create hydrogen using fossil fuels, the final emissions intensity becomes substantially higher than it would have been if we’d simply used the dirty fuel in the first place.

Even if green hydrogen ends up being practical in a few difficult-to-decarbonize portions of our economy, we should be laser-focused on solving the bulk of the problem first. We should be hurrying to electrify everything from homes to vehicles, planes and even barges, so as our grid becomes cleaner with new renewable energy we can eliminate the need for fossil fuels like methane.

We don’t need to reinvent the wheel when we have so many clean energy options at our fingertips: solar energy can create pollution-free energy that is less expensive than fossil fuels — and, when paired with energy storage technology, can contribute to local resilience in the face of increasingly erratic weather conditions, while creating life-sustaining local jobs. Given the urgency behind mitigating climate change, emphasizing the exception (hydrogen) over the rule (clean energy), is at best a distraction and at worst an existential threat to our ability to decarbonize our economy.

Pennsylvania has always been at the heart of our nation’s energy journey, and the best way to honor our past is to learn from our history and choose real clean energy solutions, rather than catering to another extractive industry that takes more than it gives. We can envision a vibrant, robust, people-centered clean energy economy — and we’ve earned the right to demand it. Hydrogen isn’t invited.

Elowyn Corby, a Pennsylvania resident, is the Mid-Atlantic Regional Director at national clean energy nonprofit Vote Solar.

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