In a Feb. 17 round of hearings on clean hydrogen's decarbonization role, clean energy researchers urged Congress to rejigger the way the Department of Energy prioritizes clean hydrogen research-and-development spending.
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During a subcommittee hearing of the US House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, experts highlighted focus areas the government should direct more taxpayer dollars to as clean hydrogen is increasingly seen as the key to decarbonizing the industrial sector, which is responsible for a fifth of US emissions.
"DOE's portfolio has delivered commendable successes, but hydrogen's role in the economy is significantly shifting, and it's time for Congress to direct DOE to set new priorities to advance the technology in a no regrets manner," said Rachel Fakhry, a policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
According to Fakhry, those priorities should include cementing hydrogen's exact role in the country's route to meeting its 2050 net-zero goals and expediting the adoption of clean hydrogen in hard-to-abate sectors, like cement, steel, glass, and chemical manufacturing.
Representative Sean Casten, an Illinois Democrat, expressed concerns over the slow pace of development and deployment of clean hydrogen in the last 20 years, especially when compared to gains made by electricity and battery storage technologies. And he questioned whether clean hydrogen research has made large enough advances in preparing for its wide adoption in industrial sectors.
"Are we doing enough to focus on the industrial uses of hydrogen?" Casten said. "And do we have any sort of plausible game-changer for hydrogen storage as we've seen for electricity? Because if we don't, I really think we need to rethink how our research budgets are prioritized."
To Julio Friedmann, chief scientist at the carbon management company Carbon Direct, the government's R&D dollars should "definitely focus on the unsexy stuff," he said. That includes everything from refurbishing and retrofitting infrastructure to funding tug boats for green ammonia production and trade, he said.
"All of that is a great place to put some research money," Friedmann said.
Key among the laundry list of infrastructure improvements necessary to bring hydrogen to the industrial sector is updates to the natural gas pipeline and distribution system, which could be used for low-level hydrogen blending.
"My company is in conversations with natural gas pipelines, local distribution companies, and end-users, and they all want lower carbon fuels in the pipes," Sheldon Kimber, CEO of the clean energy company Intersect Power, told the committee.
Freidman suggests that an initial step for bringing the pipeline system into the hydrogen economy could be to create a national census of all existing pipeline systems. From there, the government would have a better accounting of what investments would be necessary for retrofitting pipeline networks and how those investments should be distributed.
"We don't know the metallurgy [of pipelines], we don't know the pressure ratings, we don't know the throughput, we don't know the materials, we don't know the vintage and, in the case of distribution [systems], we don't know the locations," Freidman said. "It would be great to have a census of pipelines so we can answer these questions."
Hydrogen gains momentum in Washington
The Feb. 17 congressional hearing was the second focusing on hydrogen in as many weeks. On Feb. 10, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing in which Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, a key obstacle to the Biden administration's climate agenda, signaled strong support for boosting the hydrogen economy with federal incentives.
Manchin, along with a bipartisan majority of the Senate committee, was especially supportive of hydrogen tax credits, which were a small but key feature within the Biden administration's now-stalled Build Back Better Act. As proposed, the bill would have offered up to $3/kg of clean hydrogen, depending on the production method's carbon-intensity level.
Manchin said that Congress needed "to get off the dime and start doing something" for hydrogen, lest the US be "left behind and totally subservient to China." The West Virginia Senator has said he hopes to pass these tax credits through Congress' next reconciliation process.
The White House has also recently initiated actions for clean hydrogen acceleration. On Feb. 15, the administration announced that the DOE was issuing three requests for information to initiate projects funded by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Those items include $8 billion to create at least four regional hydrogen hubs, $1 billion to support electrolysis R&D, and $500 million to support hydrogen manufacturing and recycling research.