Earthjustice Report: Hydrogen No Silver Bullet for Climate Crisis, Focus on Electrification

Earthjustice’s Right to Zero campaign has published a report to help policymakers scrutinize claims about hydrogen and deploy it as a meaningful climate solution. This report, Reclaiming Hydrogen for a Renewable Future, responds to growing interest and marketing efforts around hydrogen as a potential clean energy source, and aims to distinguish “green hydrogen” from hydrogen produced from fossil fuels.

Read Reclaiming Hydrogen for a Renewable Future: Distinguishing Oil & Gas Industry Spin from Zero-Emission Solutions 

The report shows how the latest wave of hype masks the fact that most hydrogen production today pollutes communities and drives climate breakdown. The fossil fuel industry is both the United’s largest producer and consumer of hydrogen, with roughly 60% of the United States’ domestic supply deployed in crude oil refining. Globally, hydrogen production is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire country of Germany.

By contrast, less than 1% of hydrogen today is produced using renewable energy. “Green hydrogen” is made using 100% renewable electricity to split hydrogen from water molecules. For now, this is the only established way to produce hydrogen without emitting climate or air pollution.

“Hydrogen isn’t the silver bullet it’s marketed to be. Worse, the deluge of hydrogen hype from fossil fuel companies threatens to delay the clean energy transition by siphoning resources away from solutions like electric appliances and vehicles,” said Sasan Saadat, co-author and Earthjustice senior research and policy analyst. “In the future, green hydrogen may help us carry renewable energy into the toughest corners of the energy system, but it’s no substitute for rapidly electrifying the bulk of our economy today.”

For hydrogen to have a role in our clean energy future, the first priority should be deploying green hydrogen to displace the millions of metric tons of hydrogen that the United States already makes from fossil fuels each year.  The limited supply of green hydrogen may also help transition to renewable energy in specific sectors like shipping, aviation, high-heated industrial processes, and long-distance trucking. 

The report discusses whether hydrogen can be used to replace fossil fuels for heating and cooking in homes and buildings, which is responsible for a tenth of the United States’ climate pollution and produces health-harming indoor air pollution to boot. The report shows that hydrogen is a false solution for this sector because:

  • Electric appliances would be more energy efficient, improve air quality, and avoid the risks of leaking hydrogen, which is a potent greenhouse gas. 
  • Injecting hydrogen in appreciable volumes would create safety hazards in our pipelines and household appliances. 
  • If a gas company used as much green hydrogen as optimistically possible, it would only reduce the climate impact of burning the company’s gas by about 7%. 

“Contrary to industry marketing, it makes no sense to burn hydrogen in our homes. The gas distribution system can’t deliver significant volumes of hydrogen to homes and businesses without creating safety hazards in pipelines and household appliances. The solution for getting off fossil gas in our homes is to go all electric – that’s the modern upgrade families deserve,” said Sara Gersen, co-author and attorney on Earthjustice’s Right to Zero campaign.

Similarly, the report explains that because battery electric vehicles are significantly more energy efficient and cheaper than hydrogen vehicles, green hydrogen would be wasted in the vast majority of cars, buses, and trucks.

“We are living in a climate emergency and have no time to lose when it comes to building a zero emissions future for all. The fact is, most forms of hydrogen today are highly polluting — only green hydrogen produced through renewable energy has a place in our clean energy future. And even green hydrogen usually is not the fastest or most efficient way to get to zero emissions,” said Jill Tauber, Vice President of Litigation for Climate & Energy at Earthjustice. “This report shows that green hydrogen can be a useful tool but it’s no substitute for going big on the proven solutions we have today — powering the grid with renewable energy and electrifying our buildings and transportation systems.”

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