The National Renewable Energy Laboratory's Wind to Hydrogen Project.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory's Wind to Hydrogen Project. Credit: NREL

For decades, hydrogen has been touted as the fuel of tomorrow — a day yet to come.

But a $9.5 billion package wrapped into the enormous 2021 federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act could assure the element’s speedier arrival in an eco-friendlier fashion.

A bulk of the funding, $8 billion, would go toward constructing regional clean hydrogen hubs to connect production facilities, terminals and pipelines with users in the transportation and manufacturing sectors. West Virginia is vying for one hub.

The goal is to replace “dirty” hydrogen sourced from natural gas with “green” hydrogen generated by splitting water — H2O — with electrolysis technology.

Ideally, that separation would be powered with renewable energy, a boost for the Biden administration’s targets of a 100% clean electrical grid by 2035 and net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Alleyn Harned
Alleyn Harned Credit: Courtesy

Alleyn Harned was a proponent of hydrogen fuel long before he became the executive director of Virginia Clean Cities in 2011. He has been based in Harrisonburg since the organization formed a partnership with James Madison University in 2009. 

In 2006, he coordinated a state working group that issued a public report about Virginia’s potential hydrogen economy. He also helped draft Virginia’s initial Energy Plan as the state assistant secretary of commerce and trade under Gov. Tim Kaine, now a U.S. senator.

“Green hydrogen is one of many options we have ahead of us to continue a path to better jobs and energy production in Virginia,” the 41-year-old said. Investing in it is more sensible “than blowing money on imported fuel that has energy security issues.”

Researchers see the promise of hydrogen in harder-to-electrify heavy industries such as steelmaking, and in the transport sector with maritime shipping, trucking and eventually aviation. 

One urgent matter is dropping the price per kilogram of green hydrogen from the current $5-plus to $1 by 2031. Producing a kilogram of “dirty” hydrogen from methane is now a bargain at roughly $1.50.  

Harned fully backs the quest for green hydrogen, but he isn’t such a purist that he wants to ban all methane as hydrogen feedstock. His instincts tell him that the perfect can’t be the enemy of the good when taming emissions of planet-warming gases. 

“We are not going to eliminate every gram of carbon dioxide because that’s not the mission,” he noted. “The mission is to eliminate every net gram of carbon dioxide.

“Hydrogen is one scratch in the sand when we’re trying to move mountains.”

In this interview with the Energy News Network, Harned explains how green hydrogen can benefit Virginia’s economy and environment. His responses were lightly edited for clarity and length.

Q: What is the most significant accomplishment achieved by Virginia Clean Cities under your watch?

A: Our biggest accomplishment is raising awareness that transportation in Virginia is the economic sector with the largest greenhouse gas emissions. That information was withheld for years and it took time for people to understand what it meant. 

Q: Green or clean hydrogen is having a moment in the headlines. Is it all hype or does the science back it up?

A: It’s understandable that people might think hydrogen is being overhyped. What’s positive is that we are seeing the federal government now investing in a massive research program with plans to build at least four hydrogen hubs nationwide and expand access to hydrogen fuel.

Keep in mind that hydrogen is emerging as part of a larger menu and would be part of a whole ecosystem of energy.

Energy is everything in our economy and hydrogen is an important upcoming component. But we don’t just snap our fingers and we’re done.

Q: U.S. Rep. Don Beyer, D-Virginia, is a co-sponsor of the Clean Hydrogen Production and Investment Tax Credit Act of 2021 (H.B. 5192). Why is Beyer supporting this and what is the measure’s intent?

A: Congressman Beyer represents an area in Northern Virginia that produces no oil. His family also has a long history operating auto dealerships, which perhaps explains his interest in transportation fuel.

His legislation offers what I would call a measured approach to support innovation in producing green hydrogen. That’s because it offers the highest tax incentives to production methods that reduce lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions most significantly. The top tier is a 95% reduction.

The legislation offers much lower incentives for other production methods that offer less of a lifecycle emissions reduction.

The type of tax credit laid out in H.B. 5192 showcases federal interest in reduced lifecycle greenhouse gases by putting a target on that figure.

Q: Let’s talk about green hydrogen in Virginia. First, are any universities or companies conducting research or using hydrogen of any type?

A: The U.S. Department of Energy spends millions every year on hydrogen research, so there could be projects going on in Virginia that I’m not aware of. 

One piece of progress Virginia Clean Cities has made with James Madison University is to use federal funding to conduct the economic research behind what’s called the Hydrogen Fuel Cell Nexus

Basically, the nexus is a U.S.-based business directory of hydrogen companies and products that buyers, partners, planners and other collaborators can use as a building blocks tool to put an actual project together, big or small. 

Q: The Virginia General Assembly addressed passenger vehicles in 2021 by passing the Clean Cars law, which stimulates a transition to electric vehicles. But what about the separate carbon pollution from heavy-duty trucks and other segments of the transportation sector?

A: High-pressure hydrogen fueling infrastructure matters for these vehicles. That starts with fleet-fueling sites, shared fueling sites that can handle large vehicles, and a wide redundancy to the network. 

It will take time but we see transit fleets installing their stations and succeeding with hydrogen today.  

Consider that a tractor-trailer gets about 4 miles per gallon and emits 25 pounds of carbon dioxide per gallon of diesel. This is an opportunity for a higher density fuel like hydrogen, one that can produce zero tailpipe emissions.

Other mobile sources hydrogen can power are garbage trucks, transit vehicles, refrigerated trucks, as well as forklifts in all types of industries and marine ports with tractors and other vehicles.

Q: In-the-know observers predict that green hydrogen growth will take off in the 2030s. What kind of investments will that require?

A: Renewable hydrogen is produced at scale today and it’s a growing industry. There’s no need to wait until 2030. With energy hubs being built and with lessons learned from advances in California, those markets will only get bigger.

It’s what the whole country needs to thrive economically as we reach the end of our carbon budget. It’s a card that can be stored and played when needed.

Q: Relatedly, this country produces more than 10 million metric tons of non-green hydrogen, mostly from natural gas. That’s roughly 2% of U.S. total emissions. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that producing an additional 10 million metric tons of green hydrogen would require doubling today’s wind and solar deployment. Is that buildout a pipe dream?

A: We will get this done, not because it’s easy but because we can and we have to so we can have a future. This transition is a critical component of maintaining our economy through the end of the century.

Everybody recognizes that our fossil fuel use will change dramatically in the decades ahead. It will be replaced with lower- and zero- and negative- carbon energies.

Q: On that last point you differ from strict adherents. They claim green hydrogen can only be created when renewable energy is used to generate the electricity that splits water into hydrogen and oxygen. Can you explain your reasoning on methane-sourced hydrogen?

A: I’m neutral on the pathway to decarbonization. It’s a game of inches, not a game of magic beans.

Capturing hydrogen via electrolysis (splitting water molecules) certainly works. But being able to eliminate releases of waste methane from landfills, wastewater treatment plants and agriculture using a process called steam reformation is crucial when you consider that we need to address this area of harmful waste and emissions.

Studies by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality estimate that annually, our landfill methane is the equivalent of 2.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, manure management is half a million metric tons and wastewater is 0.7 million metric tons. It could be a win to grab it, reform it and reuse it.

Q: Environmental organizations such as the Natural Resources Defense Council have pointed out that “hydrogen leakage” has potentially negative climate consequences. Can that be mitigated?

A: Hydrogen safety and leakage is a top-level area of action for regulators and manufacturers. They’re not going out there building anything helter-skelter. Systems will be built with numerous layers of leak prevention.

Yes, it’s likely there will be minimal leaks so reducing that is important. But think about it this way: To get emissions equivalent to the carbon pollution from burning one gallon of gasoline, you would have to leak 2.5 kilograms of hydrogen into the air. It’s unlikely that a fraction of that hydrogen will be released, so it paints a rosy picture for the reduction of emissions. 

Q: If green hydrogen isn’t generated directly on-site, how will it be shipped? Is talk about repurposing natural gas pipelines realistic?

A: It’s unlikely existing infrastructure such as large pipelines would be used. Hydrogen can be moved as a liquid or as a gas in a high-pressure cylinder. It’s possible it could be put into newly designed pipelines.

In Virginia, you already see heavy trucks and tanker trucks carrying large amounts on roadways. Also, Roberts Oxygen and other companies use smaller trucks to transport portable canisters for individual projects.

There is flexibility in all of this and distribution will be well-regulated.

As hydrogen is a bottle of energy, it seems like a good idea to distribute production all over Virginia to maximize local access and jobs.  

Q: Anything else?

A: With transportation, it’s not easy to transition to hydrogen so it will take a little time. That’s why I’m excited that we’ve arranged a fleet demonstration for rural Virginia of a hydrogen vehicle from Toyota called the Mirai. We will make it available to government and rural fleet users periodically in 2022 and 2023. This totally hydrogen sedan is available in California and is used by federal fleet vehicles in Washington, D.C.

Elizabeth is a longtime energy and environment reporter who has worked for InsideClimate News, Energy Intelligence and Crain Communications. Her groundbreaking dispatches for InsideClimate News from Kalamazoo, Michigan, “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You Never Heard Of” won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2013. Her book, "Outpedaling 'The Big C': My Healing Cycle Across America" is available from Bancroft Press. Based in Washington, D.C., Elizabeth covers the state of Virginia.