The Truth about Hydrogen

Big Gas and Oil and utility companies are urging us to use hydrogen like we do other fossil fuels – which will damage the climate and our health

A 3-D rendering of the hydrogen molecule. One is in focus towards the right hand of the image, with a few more in the background not in focus. The image, including the molecules, are varying shades of blue.

While there are certain limited circumstances where hydrogen produced from clean energy can help slash carbon pollution, replacing fossil fuels with hydrogen one-to-one won't slow the climate crisis. Photo: Shutterstock.

You’ve heard of natural gas. You may have heard of so-called “renewable” natural gas. And you might have even heard of biofuels. Each of these can emit large amounts of carbon pollution, driving the climate crisis and hurting our health. But there’s one more polluting player to add to this list: hydrogen.  

What is Hydrogen? 

Hydrogen is an element that can be burned, just like natural gas, to produce energy. The fossil fuel industry and utility companies are especially enthusiastic about hydrogen, claiming it will be a pivotal climate solution in a clean energy future. They want us to use the fuel to generate electricity, heat our homes and businesses, and power our cars. Essentially, they want hydrogen to become the primary product replacing the dirty fuels that damage our climate. 

Hydrogen can be helpful in getting New England to net zero by 2050. But the fuel is only productive when it’s created from clean energy and used in sectors that are difficult to electrify. Otherwise, hydrogen is an unrealistic one-to-one replacement for fossil fuels because of how expensive and energy intensive it is to create. It should not replace solar and wind power when it comes to our daily lives. 

The bottom line is that using hydrogen to completely replace fossil fuels is a bad investment. Let’s look at how. 

Depending Only on Hydrogen Will Not Help Us Fight Climate Change 

While hydrogen exists naturally in our world, there isn’t enough in pure quantities to replace natural gas for heating and powering our lives. Consequently, we create hydrogen using other fuels – and most of the hydrogen today is created using fossil fuels like natural gas and coal. So, even if hydrogen doesn’t emit as much climate-damaging pollution when burned, its production via fossil fuels does.  

Not only does fossil fuel-generated hydrogen fail to reduce carbon pollution, it also keeps us tied to outdated energy infrastructure. We would still need pipelines to transport hydrogen into our homes and businesses. 

But our current pipeline system can’t handle hydrogen because it degrades cast iron and plastic. While some proponents of hydrogen claim that we can safely blend up to 20% of hydrogen with fossil fuels to use in pipelines, a 2022 study says that blends with only 5% of hydrogen should be considered safe to use.   

If we attempt to completely convert building heat to hydrogen, we would need to overhaul our entire gas pipeline system. Such an overhaul would further commit us to fossil fuel infrastructure when we should be moving away from pipelines entirely. Not to mention, this excessive construction and development would dump even more expensive bills onto energy customers and divert critical funds away from the clean energy technology we need for our future.  

Hydrogen is Dangerous In and Near Our Homes 

In addition to damaging our climate, fossil fuels threaten our health. We know fuels like gas have deadly explosive potential. The same can be said for hydrogen. 

Hydrogen is a light fuel. If you take its low weight and combine it with our already leak-prone pipelines, you get a high risk of hydrogen escaping during its journey into our homes and businesses. That’s worrisome because hydrogen also has a low ignition point, so it doesn’t need to get very hot to catch fire. That means it has an extremely high explosive potential.  

No one should have to live with a ticking time bomb buried beneath their homes and hidden in their basements. This fuel is too dangerous to play with at the risk of our lives. 

Federal Government Interest in Hydrogen is Fueling Attention 

Part of the reason hydrogen is receiving so much attention is because the federal government has been incorporating it into various recent climate policies. This includes hydrogen tax credits in the Inflation Reduction Act, a massive hydrogen hub project meant to demonstrate what launching, producing, and transitioning to hydrogen would look like (which Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maine, Vermont, and other states bid into), and the EPA’s proposed power plant standards.. 

Such inclusion of hydrogen in federal government climate policy lends support to utility and fossil fuel industry efforts to prop the fuel up as a climate solution. And one of the main reasons why the industry is so keen on hydrogen is because it allows for business-as-usual: Maintaining fossil fuel infrastructure and the status-quo of energy supply. But such large-scale adoption is unrealistic and expensive both in the monetary costs of creating hydrogen and upgrading fossil fuel infrastructure and the public health costs to our climate and safety.  

New England Needs Clean Energy 

There is a form of hydrogen generated using clean energy called “green hydrogen.” Given that some industries and modes of transportation are hard to electrify (including heavy steel manufacturing, aviation, and shipping), green hydrogen can play a role in moving these industries off fossil fuels. Switching to hydrogen for these limited cases can benefit the climate by emitting far less carbon pollution. Decision-makers, industry leaders, and politicians must be attentive to how hydrogen is produced and where it’s used. They must rely on green hydrogen wherever widespread electrification is impossible.  

But these limited situations do not justify converting the rest of our electricity, heating, and transportation systems to hydrogen. Green hydrogen is not a practical climate solution for our daily lives simply because of the amount of energy it takes to produce it. Investing in enough green hydrogen to fully replace gas and oil would mean committing clean energy resources to producing another fuel rather than more efficiently using those resources to power our lives directly.  

The answer to our climate crisis is clear. We need energy efficiency to slash the amount of electricity we use. And we need true clean energy sources to ensure that the energy we do use isn’t harming people or our climate.   

Despite the fossil fuel industry and utility companies’ insistence, solar and wind power are cheaper and cleaner than hydrogen. Using real renewable energy and electrifying everything – from our heating to our cars – are better, safer options for New Englanders and our climate. 

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