In January, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D, unveiled the “Hydrogen Hub Development Act,” saying it would “expand the clean energy economy” in the state “while lowering greenhouse gas emissions through incentivizing low-carbon hydrogen production and export.” At first glance, it seemed to align with Lujan Grisham’s Energy Transition Act, which phases out coal power while funding a transition to clean energy. After all, hydrogen is a sort of miracle fuel: It can power planes, trains and automobiles; it can potentially replace natural gas for heating, cooking and power generation; and it can be used to fire steel furnaces or cement kilns. And, when burned, it emits only water and warm air.
So it may have come as a surprise when the governor’s initiative was shot down not once, but twice in a legislature dominated by Democrats — and not by Republican clean-energy foes, either, but by Lujan Grisham’s fellow Democrats, with the support of the environmental community. That’s because much of the hydrogen in question would be “blue” — extracted from methane or natural gas, thereby spurring more drilling in the state’s northwest corner and causing greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental impacts.
Here’s the catch: Hydrogen doesn’t fly solo in nature; it’s always attached to something else, whether a single oxygen (water) or an atom of carbon (methane). Before it can be used as a clean fuel, it must be detached from its companions. The method used for the separating (see below), and the type of molecule the hydrogen is separated from, determines the “color” label of the hydrogen: green, pink, blue, gray or black. And that color signifies whether the hydrogen truly is a clean fuel, or just another fossil fuel dressed up in clean clothing.
Advanced Clean Energy Storage Project, Delta, Utah. This ambitious project, currently in the planning phase, would use excess solar and wind power to extract hydrogen from water. The fuel would then be pumped into natural underground salt caverns, where it would be stored for use at the nearby Intermountain coal power plant, which is currently being converted to burn natural gas and hydrogen, with a goal of burning 100% hydrogen by 2040. The power from the plant goes to utilities in Los Angeles and Utah.
Mountain States Regional Hydrogen Hub, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado and Wyoming. After Lujan Grisham’s idea for a New Mexico hydrogen economy was quashed, she teamed up with other Western natural gas-producing states to get a portion of $8 billion in federal infrastructure funds to establish a regional “clean” hydrogen hub. The proposal is “hydrogen colorblind,” meaning either blue or green hydrogen would fit, but Lujan Grisham’s initiative is supported by a blue-leaning report authored in part by the natural gas industry.
Nuclear Hydrogen, Tonapah, Arizona. With the help of $20 million in federal funding, the Idaho National Laboratory and Arizona Public Service hope to extract hydrogen from water using electrolysis powered by the Palo Verde nuclear generating station, outside of Phoenix. The hydrogen would then be used to fuel natural gas “peaker” plants during times of high demand when solar generation drops.
Wyoming Blue Green. A few hydrogen projects are in the feasibility-study phase in Wyoming: a natural gas-fed hydrogen generator and natural gas turbine conversion project; a wind-powered hydrogen-production facility that would ship the fuel to market via existing natural gas infrastructure; and a renewable-energy-powered facility to produce hydrogen and renewable natural gas.
Hydrogen Energy Transition? A provision of New Mexico’s 2019 Energy Transition Act allocates funds for economic development in communities affected by the closure of the coal-fired San Juan Generating Station this summer. When local groups were invited to apply for funding, some wanted to produce blue hydrogen using the region’s natural gas supplies, even though the law was designed to transition the state away from fossil fuels.
We welcome reader letters. Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of Sagebrush Empire: How a Remote Utah County Became the Battlefront of American Public Lands. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.
SOURCES: U.S. Department of Energy, Wyoming Energy Authority, Hydrogen Hub Development Act (New Mexico), Canary Media, Los Angeles Times, “Defining and Envisioning a Clean Hydrogen Hub for New Mexico;” “The economics and the environmental benignity of different colors of hydrogen,” by A. Ajanovic, M. Sayer and R. Haas; “How green is blue hydrogen,” by Mark Z. Jacobson.
Illustrations by Fiona Martin/High Country News Infographic design: Luna Anna Archey/High Country News
NOTE: This story has been updated to correct an error in chemical formulas. When hydrogen connects with a pair of oxygens, it forms hydrogen peroxide (not water); when it connects to a single oxygen, it forms water.