California gets $1.2 billion to develop hydrogen energy

In a highly anticipated announcement, President Biden on Friday selected California as one of seven recipients of a $7 billion federal Hydrogen Center grant program geared toward accelerating the nation’s clean energy efforts and ambitious climate goals.

The Golden State will receive up to $1.2 billion to build or expand hydrogen projects that will help power public transportation, port operations and heavy transportation — sectors known to be major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution in the state.

“Today we move from concept to reality – developing clean, renewable hydrogen in California that is essential to achieving our climate goals,” Governor Gavin Newsom said in a statement. “The California Hydrogen Center will reduce pollution, power our clean energy economy, and create hundreds of thousands of good-paying jobs.”

California was among more than 30 applicants in the competitive initiative, called the U.S. Regional Clean Hydrogen Centers Program, which stems from Biden’s bipartisan 2021 infrastructure bill and is administered by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Other awards include regional hydrogen centers along the Gulf Coast and in the Pacific Northwest, the Midwest, the Mid-Atlantic region, Appalachia and the central states of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. Collectively, the hubs span 16 states across the country.

Together, they are expected to produce 3 million metric tons of hydrogen annually and reduce 25 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, an amount roughly equivalent to the emissions of 5.5 million gas-powered cars, according to the Department of Energy.

Hydrogen can be produced from a variety of sources including natural gas, nuclear power, biomass, and renewable sources such as wind and solar. When it is burned in a fuel cell, the byproduct is water or water vapor, not carbon dioxide. The California hub will produce hydrogen exclusively from renewable energy and biomass, while the other hubs will experiment with other sources.

Although officials in California, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., have hailed the program as a pivotal moment in the country’s move toward carbon neutrality, critics have expressed concern about hydrogen’s potential as a clean energy source.

The process of making hydrogen is energy-intensive, and skeptics say it could end up emitting more planet-warming carbon.

A statement issued by Marion said: “Hydrogen production consumes a lot of energy, can pose a risk to public safety during transportation, and can lead to air pollution that is harmful to health when burned, and is a play by the fossil fuel industry to increase its viability and profits.” Gee, co-executive director of the Climate Justice Alliance, a coalition representing rural and urban community environmental justice organizations.

Chirag Bhakta, director of Food & Water Watch California, noted that hydrogen is water-intensive, consuming at least 5,000 liters of water per megawatt hour, which could pose risks to California and other states dealing with water supply challenges.

“California’s water supply is already at risk, a fact exacerbated by our current cycles of drought and floods,” Bhakta said. “Instead of investing in sustainable solutions to climate change, our leaders are buying into the false promise of hydrogen.”

Others urged the state to prioritize direct electricity over expensive hydrogen solutions. For example, using clean energy to power an electric car is more efficient than using that energy to produce hydrogen, said Woody Hastings, director of the Polluting Fuel Phase-out Program at the Climate Center, a research center in California.

That didn’t stop officials in Los Angeles from gathering to celebrate the news on Friday, including Mayor Karen Bass, who said the hydrogen center program “brings us one step closer to achieving our clean air goals.”

In fact, a major component of California’s hydrogen hub will be based in Los Angeles, where officials will focus on decarbonizing power plants, ports and trucks, according to Nancy Sutley, the city’s deputy mayor for energy and sustainability.

Among the city’s projects is a modernization of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s Scattergood Generating Station — one of the oldest plants in its system — which will be retrofitted to run on hydrogen-capable turbines.

Just 15 years ago, Los Angeles was 50% dependent on coal power; Next year, there will be no coal in its portfolio, said Aram Benjamin, DWP’s chief operating officer. He said this progress represents a reduction of more than 6 million tons of emissions that will be enhanced through the hydrogen center.

Los Angeles area ports will also use the hydrogen hub to help electrify equipment and reduce smog and carbon pollution from cargo handling equipment and, in later stages, trucks and ships, according to Port of Los Angeles Executive Director Gene Seroka.

The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach first announced their ambition to be the first in the world to have zero-emission cargo handling equipment and trucks six years ago, Seroka said, noting that “today’s announcement is really a big step toward zero emissions.” emissions target, and towards decarbonisation of the entire marine supply chain.

The hydrogen-fueled city’s goals are consistent with Newsom’s own climate ambitions for California, including mandates to achieve carbon neutrality no later than 2045, provide 90% clean electricity by 2035 and ban all new gas vehicle sales by 2035.

At the federal level, Biden has directed the nation to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. During a press conference on Friday, Biden said hydrogen centers will help get there.

“If we don’t do that – if we don’t stay under these numbers – the whole world will change,” the president said. “Clean hydrogen will help us achieve this goal.”

Wind and solar already help charge cars and power homes, but when it comes to manufacturing and heavy transportation, more power is needed than wind and solar can easily provide, Biden said.

“This is where hydrogen comes in,” he said. “Hydrogen could power industries like steel and aluminum production. It will end up changing our transportation system like trucks, railways and airplanes. … It allows us to get to the place without adding more carbon to the atmosphere.”

California’s application for the federal hydrogen program was submitted in April through the Alliance for Renewable Clean Hydrogen Energy Systems, or ARCHES, a statewide public-private partnership focused on clean hydrogen.

ARCHES board member Dee De Myers, who is also a senior adviser to Newsom, said Friday’s award is “a testament to California’s unparalleled commitment to a net-zero carbon future.”

“There is no better place to showcase the benefits of clean, renewable hydrogen – and the role it can play in decarbonizing our economy while creating green jobs and sustainable businesses at scale,” Myers said.

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