Hydrogen energy may be a climate change solution. How clean will it really be? The federal government plans to build several hydrogen hubs around the country. The goal is to find a cleaner replacement for fossil fuels. But there are challenges in how hydrogen is produced.

Hydrogen may be a climate solution. There's debate over how clean it will truly be

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A MARTINEZ, HOST:

To curb climate change, the Biden administration wants to build hydrogen hubs. But making hydrogen isn't always clean or cheap. Reid Frazier from the Allegheny Front reports.

REID FRAZIER: Every few days, big white tubes filled with hydrogen are trucked to the Long Ridge Energy gas-fired power plant in rural southeast Ohio. Long Ridge CEO Bo Wholey says his company recently started blending a small amount of hydrogen - no more than 5% - to power the generators.

BO WHOLEY: The market really shifted over the last couple of years in the conversation about clean energy. And we're really responding to what the market wants.

FRAZIER: Eventually, Wholey wants to run the plant completely on hydrogen. That goal may be more attainable thanks to a big infrastructure law passed last year. It includes $8 billion for at least four hydrogen hubs to produce, store and use this combustible gas. Backers hope to land one of these hubs in this part of the Ohio River Valley. Mention hydrogen and some remember the Hindenburg disaster. But climate scientists see a replacement for fossil fuels in heavy industry.

PAULINA JARAMILLO: I think hydrogen is crucial.

FRAZIER: Paulina Jaramillo of Carnegie Mellon University says hydrogen can be a clean alternative for things like steel mills, fertilizer plants or shipping. Hydrogen can be made in a number of ways, each with its own color-coding system. There's gray hydrogen, how most hydrogen is made today - through heating up natural gas. This creates lots of carbon dioxide, the driving force in climate change. Blue hydrogen is when that CO2 is captured. The infrastructure bill mandates one blue hydrogen hub and another for green hydrogen. That's where renewable energy is used to extract hydrogen from water, so it gives off no carbon dioxide. Blue hydrogen still produces some CO2. And it relies on the natural gas system, which leaks methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas. That's why Julie McNamara with the Union of Concerned Scientists wants better methane safeguards on any federal funding for blue hydrogen.

JULIE MCNAMARA: The government is now investing $8 billion to catalyze an industry that might not be clean at all if they don't get this right.

FRAZIER: Even with questions about blue hydrogen, some scientists think it's still worth pursuing.

GOTZ VESER: So this is one of the technologies we're investigating here.

FRAZIER: In his lab at the University of Pittsburgh, chemical engineer Gotz Veser shows off an experiment one of his grad students is running. Inside a glass case, tubes run natural gas through a chamber that produces hydrogen. And instead of CO2, the byproduct is solid carbon - easier to dispose of, no carbon capture necessary.

VESER: If you really want to remove that carbon, you can literally just dump it anywhere.

FRAZIER: Veser says one advantage of blue hydrogen is it relies on technology that's been around for decades. And the politically powerful fossil fuel industry supports it, says Bridget van Dorsten, an analyst with the firm Wood Mackenzie. She says that makes it more likely than a full push for green hydrogen. She asked rhetorically, would the oil and gas industry simply go along with green hydrogen and abandon its own infrastructure?

BRIDGET VAN DORSTEN: Or do you think that they would prefer, hey, you know what? That investment that you made in all of that infrastructure, you can keep it. You just got to pay more to, like, add carbon capture onto it - because I think they'd be interested in the latter.

FRAZIER: One key blue hydrogen supporter is Senator Joe Manchin. Manchin blocked Biden's climate agenda last year, but said he might accept a compromise bill with clean energy tax credits, including one for hydrogen. Manchin has also made it clear he wants one of the hydrogen hubs built in his home state of West Virginia.

For NPR News, I'm Reid Frazier in Pittsburgh.

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