Hydrogen Hubs – First Look

The idea behind a hydrogen hub is to create a centralized infrastructure that produces, stores, and distributes hydrogen fuel for various applications, including transportation, industry, and power generation. Proponents argue that hydrogen could serve as a versatile and environmentally friendly energy source, capable of decarbonizing sectors traditionally reliant on fossil fuels. However, several practical and economic challenges cast doubts on the feasibility and effectiveness of the hydrogen hub approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Hydrogen atoms do not exist in nature by themselves. Rather, hydrogen atoms must be decoupled from other elements with which they occur— in water, organic materials or fossil fuels. The decoupling method determines hydrogen energy’s sustainability. As we all learned in school, one common approach is electrolysis. Electricity is used to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. This process, when powered by renewable energy sources such as wind or solar power, yields “green hydrogen” with zero carbon emissions. If the hubs were strictly limited to production of green hydrogen, the approach might be viable for the purposes of some industries.

Unfortunately, the production of hydrogen often relies on fossil fuels, particularly natural gas through a process called steam methane reforming. This is referred to as “gray hydrogen.”  Industry and government biases favoring the fossil fuel industries make reliance on such methods likely. This undermines the environmentally necessary goal that we replace fossil fuels entirely. In an attempt to clean up gray hydrogen, proponents want to capture, transport and sequester the CO2 emitted from steam methane reforming. The result is “blue hydrogen.” But we already know that CO2 transport is dangerous and permanent sequestration at this scale is untested.

Furthermore, the infrastructure required to establish hydrogen hubs is extensive and costly. Building and maintaining facilities for hydrogen production, storage, and distribution requires significant investments in specialized equipment and infrastructure, including pipelines, storage tanks, and refueling stations.

Concerns persist regarding the safety and practicality of hydrogen storage and transportation. Hydrogen has a low energy density by volume, requiring either high-pressure tanks or cryogenic storage, both of which present technical challenges and safety risks. Addressing these challenges adds further complexity and cost to the development of hydrogen infrastructure.

While the concept of hydrogen hubs may hold promise as a potential solution for decarbonizing some sectors of the economy, practical and political hurdles severely limit their viability. Renewable energy, with its direct and efficient use of natural resources like wind and solar power, is a more practical and environmentally beneficial solution.