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Environment & Science

2 hydrogen hubs are coming to Pennsylvania. What does it mean for the Lehigh Valley?

OCED H2Hubs Blueprint_1
Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations
Regional Clean Hydrogen Hubs will kickstart a national network of clean hydrogen producers, consumers and connective infrastructure while supporting the production, storage, delivery and end-use of clean hydrogen, according to the Department of Energy's Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations.

BETHLEHEM, Pa. — No one really knows for sure what a hydrogen hub will look like exactly, Kevin Major said.

“It’s a big initiative,” said Major, research engagement officer at Lehigh University’s Institute for Functional Materials and Devices. “The federal government said, ‘We're going to invest large amounts of money focused on different technologies to develop hydrogen.’ The hydrogen has to come from somewhere and there's different ways you can produce that hydrogen.

“It really is a new endeavor for the government, to invest like this in this type of not just technology, but just in this kind of scale and what they're really talking about,” he continued. “I think a lot of it is kind of to be determined what these things look like, but I think it's safe to say that no one knows what they'll all look like, and it could be different depending on what they’re trying to do and accomplish.”

In mid-October, President Joe Biden announced seven regional clean hydrogen hub projects would receive $7 billion in Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding to accelerate the domestic market for low-cost, clean hydrogen across the country. Pennsylvania was the only state to get two, the Mid-Atlantic Hydrogen Hub and the Appalachian Hydrogen Hub. While the goal is to transition communities to clean energy while creating jobs, there are still many unknowns about the project, experts said.

And, even though there are two hubs slated for Pennsylvania, it could be a while before the Lehigh Valley’s residents begin to feel any impacts.

A hydrogen primer

Officials and scientists for years have been working on a way to break industrial reliance on fossil fuels, and hydrogen has emerged as a viable option.

“Hydrogen is a clean fuel that, when consumed in a fuel cell, produces only water,” according to officials at the federal Department of Energy. “Hydrogen can be produced from a variety of domestic resources, such as natural gas, nuclear power, biomass and renewable power like solar and wind.

“These qualities make it an attractive fuel option for transportation and electricity generation applications. It can be used in cars, in houses, for portable power and in many more applications.”

Using hydrogen for energy isn’t new to the region. Air Products, a gas and chemical company headquartered in Upper Macungie Township, in June showed off a hydrogen-powered car that can fully charge in five minutes.

The company supplies atmospheric industrial gases, such as oxygen and nitrogen — and one of their bigger focuses is hydrogen. In fact, they have supplied hydrogen for every NASA space shuttle mission since Apollo and Mercury.

LehighValleyNews.com reached out to Air Products for comment on this story, but officials did not respond.

Creating jobs

The Mid-Atlantic Hydrogen Hub, or MACH2, based in Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey, was awarded up to $750 million to “unlock hydrogen-driven decarbonization in the Mid-Atlantic while repurposing historic oil infrastructure and using existing rights-of-way,” according to federal officials.

Officials anticipate it will create 20,800 jobs – 14,400 in construction and 6,400 permanent.

The Appalachian Hydrogen Hub, or ARCH2, is based in West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania, and was awarded up to $925 million to “leverage the region’s ample access to low-cost natural gas to produce low-cost clean hydrogen and permanently and safely store the associated carbon emissions.”

This project is expected to create more than 21,000 jobs, including more than 18,000 in construction and more than 3,000 permanent.

The same day Biden announced the funding, Gov. Josh Shapiro lauded the decision, arguing the hubs “will generate clean and zero-emission hydrogen while mitigating harmful emissions and reusing existing energy infrastructure.”

“Today, Pennsylvania is positioning itself as the leader of our country’s clean energy future and creating thousands of new, good-paying union jobs,” Shapiro said in a news release. “Since my campaign for governor, I have been a strong supporter of this investment in our commonwealth and my administration has worked closely with organized labor, industry partners and our neighboring states to make Pennsylvania the only state in the country to secure two regional clean hydrogen hubs.

“I thank President Biden for his belief in Pennsylvania and senators Casey and Fetterman for their leadership in securing this win for our commonwealth.”

However, not everyone was applauding the initiative.

PennEnvironment officials also released a statementshortly after Biden’s announcement, arguing “both the MACH2 project proposed for southeastern Pennsylvania and the ARCH2 proposal slated to include the Pittsburgh region will likely extend our reliance on dirty fossil fuels and deliver energy to sectors of our economy that already can be powered efficiently with clean, renewable energy.”

“While it may take a rocket scientist to figure out how to develop hydrogen energy, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that continuing to get energy from fossil fuels is bad for our environment, health and communities,” said David Masur, executive director. “Hydrogen fuel is neither inherently renewable nor inherently clean because you need other energy sources – either renewables or fossil fuels – to produce it.

“Federal, state and local officials should only support hydrogen energy projects that meet a set of basic, crucial criteria to ensure that they help reduce the nation’s carbon footprint, instead of potentially adding to it.”

‘A piece of a pie’

Transportation is responsible for the majority of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, but with the rise in popularity and affordability in electric cars, Major doesn’t think residents will be filling up their tanks with hydrogen anytime soon.

Instead, it’s the industrial applications where hydrogen could really make a difference, he said.

“There's a lot of industrial processes that require extremely high heat,” he said, like glass or cement production, as well as manufacturing chemicals – many require up to 1,000 degrees Celsius. “Electric furnaces can't quite get there and they're not industrially feasible, so they just burn natural gas.

“That's a potential place where hydrogen could come into play. Now, it's only clean if you make that hydrogen in a clean way.”

ARCH2 is developing blue hydrogen, or hydrogen produced mainly from natural gas using a process called steam reforming. It’s described as “blue” because, while it may produce harmful carbon dioxide emissions, there's a plan to capture it before making its way into the atmosphere.

“The reason it's focused in that area is simple geology,” he said. “The geology of Western Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio — that basin is really conducive to potentially burying this carbon underground.”

Similarly, MACH2 would be creating “green” hydrogen, which involves using renewable energy sources, like solar panels, to create hydrogen.

As residents think of the transition to cleaner energy, Major described hydrogen as “a piece of a pie.”

“If we want to get to 2030, 2050 zero net carbon, we're going to get there just by building a bunch of solar panels and a bunch of wind turbines,” he said. “That's a huge part of it, but there's these other areas that are too hard to decarbonize without some of these other things like hydrogen – it's a store of energy is the way to think of it.”