Julia Busiek, UC Newsroom
You might remember from chemistry class that hydrogen is the lightest and most abundant element in the universe. You might not have learned that it’s also a powerful way to deliver clean, carbon-free energy. When it’s fed into a device called a fuel cell, hydrogen generates electricity and emits only heat and harmless water vapor.
Energy experts say hydrogen has great potential to cut global carbon emissions and keep toxic pollutants out of our air and water. And yet the technology hasn’t completely caught on in California, even as the state leads the way in other climate-friendly tech like electric vehicles. A few transit agencies run fuel cell buses, and you might be able to spot the occasional hydrogen-powered car on the highway. But the sectors where hydrogen power could make the biggest difference — like trucking, shipping and aviation — are still dominated by fossil fuels.
As the State strives to meet its goal of eliminating greenhouse gas emissions by 2045, hydrogen’s fortunes might be starting to change. In October, the federal Department of Energy chose California as one of seven hydrogen hubs, regions where the agency will fund coordinated networks of hydrogen fuel producers, purveyors and consumers. A University of California-backed consortium called the Alliance for Renewable Clean Hydrogen Energy Systems, or ARCHES, managed the state’s application to DOE, and will steer up to $1.2 billion in federal funding toward 39 hydrogen infrastructure projects up and down the state.
Altogether, ARCHES projects are estimated to eliminate 2 million metric tons of carbon emissions every year, equivalent to taking 445,000 gas-powered cars off the road. They’ll create over 200,000 new good jobs. And by swapping diesel combustion engines spewing toxic exhaust for zero-pollution fuel cells, Californians will save nearly $3 billion in health care and related costs annually.
Beyond direct carbon reductions, the hydrogen hub’s real contribution will be in helping make clean, renewable energy work on a statewide scale and make hydrogen cost-competitive with fossil fuels.
“ARCHES is the pebble that launches the avalanche,” says Adam Weber. He’s a senior scientist who leads the Energy Conversion Group at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and ARCHES Chief Technology Officer. “We’ll use the federal money to get the infrastructure in place and leverage it with state and private funding to really get things started in California.”
The UC Office of the President worked with the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development, the State Building and Construction Trades Council and Renewables 100 Policy Institute to establish ARCHES, which currently counts more than 400 businesses and agencies as members. And hydrogen experts from every UC campus and affiliated national labs weighed in on the ARCHES plan, contributing expertise in everything from technology to economics to public health.
“University researchers have helped develop hydrogen technology to the point that it’s now poised to play a key role in decarbonizing our economy, here in California and around the world,” said University of California President Michael V. Drake, M.D. “We are proud to help lead ARCHES and to collaborate with partners across sectors, including the State of California, to address the urgent climate crisis.”
“UC leadership was united in its support for California’s application to become a hydrogen hub,” said UC Vice President for Research and Innovation Theresa Maldonado. “We benefitted tremendously from an unprecedented degree and scale of collaboration and partnership with the State of California, industry, nonprofit organizations, labor groups, municipalities, ports, communities and others. This effort indeed will take a village to be successful.”
Cleaning up the hydrogen supply chain
The ARCHES plan will address some of the problems that have so far held hydrogen back from broader adoption as a source of clean energy. The biggest of these? While hydrogen doesn’t release greenhouse gases when used as a fuel, some processes for making that fuel result in a lot of carbon emissions.
That’s because not much pure hydrogen exists in nature. So before it can be pumped into fuel cells and converted to emissions-free energy, it has to be manufactured. Most of the hydrogen in use today comes from reacting natural gas with pressurized steam, a process that produces a lot of greenhouse gases.
Hydrogen can also be made by zapping water with electricity in a process called electrolysis. This process doesn’t produce any greenhouse gases, so the hydrogen that results is as renewable as the electricity that’s used to make it.
Today electrolysis accounts for just two percent of hydrogen in circulation. The DOE funding is a big push to get that pendulum swinging in the other direction, since ARCHES will only fund hydrogen production projects that use renewable processes. Many of these projects will include dedicated solar or wind farms or get energy from biomass, so the electrolyzers won’t compete with electric vehicle chargers, home heat pumps and other climate-friendly tech that draws power from the grid.
Hydrogen could also help lower emissions from the grid itself, says Jack Brouwer, director of the Clean Energy Institute at UC Irvine. Today about 60 percent of California’s electricity comes from renewable sources annually, with occasional days near or at 100 percent. The state aims to meet all electricity demands with renewables within about two decades. Along the way, we will, alas, endure days or even weeks at a time when the wind won’t blow, the sun won’t break through the clouds or the rivers running through hydroelectric stations will slow to a trickle.
“In Germany, where their grid is more reliant on renewables, they call this dunkelflauten, or the dark doldrums,” Brouwer says. In recent years Germany has gone big on renewable hydrogen because they can use wind and solar to run electrolyzers and bank hydrogen when sun and wind are abundant. When dunkelflauten strikes, they can use that stored hydrogen to generate electricity, instead of firing up a coal or natural gas power plant as we typically need to do in California when renewable energy production dips.
Hydrogen will be one piece of the clean energy puzzle
California has plenty of energy needs for which hydrogen will probably never be a great solution. That’s because using electrolysis to make hydrogen is less energy efficient than just sending that electricity directly out to the grid to power things like EV chargers and heat pumps.
“Everything that can be electrified, should,” says Brouwer at UCI. “Buildings should be electrified, absolutely. And we should have as many light-duty vehicles that are battery electric as we can.”
But container ships, trucks and airplanes need to be able to carry heavy loads, travel long distances and refuel quickly. For these heavy duty uses, fuel cells beat batteries because they don’t need recharging. Instead, they draw hydrogen from a refillable tank, much like today’s diesel-operated machines. And hydrogen systems scale differently than batteries, which means fuel cells can power a vehicle much farther than a battery of the same weight.
“Hydrogen is getting a lot more attention lately because it’s a way to decarbonize these hard-to-decarbonize sectors, which account for 30 percent of U.S. carbon emissions,” says Weber. Aside from its uses in the energy sector, hydrogen can also stand in for greenhouses gases that are currently used as reactants in industrial processes like steel manufacturing.
Of these hard-to-decarbonize sectors, ARCHES is prioritizing projects that will replace diesel and other dirty fuels used in trucking, port operations and electricity generation. And at least 40 percent of ARCHES benefits will flow to California’s disadvantaged communities — the same communities that, owing to generations of environmental injustice, are likelier to live alongside freeways, ports and power plants.
“They're exposed to diesel combustion emissions and they're dying prematurely, they're getting cancer, they're getting asthma,” Brouwer says. “So I'm super proud that we are focusing the application of hydrogen to these very things that will make the biggest difference in people's lives.”
Making the switch to hydrogen won’t be easy or cheap, but coordinated efforts like ARCHES will help speed the transition and ensure California can wring the most health, climate and economic benefits out of every dollar and every project. And compared to the apocalyptic costs of continuing to burn fossil fuels, the coming investments in hydrogen technology are a very good deal indeed.
“Hydrogen is going to be a key component of the worldwide energy infrastructure going into the future,” Weber says. “What we’re trying to do with ARCHES is figure out how to stand up a rationally designed energy ecosystem based on systems analysis, and how to do this from the ground level.”