The Extraordinary Green Promise Of A Tiny Molecule

Hydrogen produced by renewable energy makes it possible to fully transition to a global green economy. So what’s stopping us from going all in?

Alex Valentina for Noema Magazine

Holly Jean Buck is an assistant professor in the department of environment and sustainability at the University at Buffalo. Her most recent book is “Ending Fossil Fuels: Why Net Zero Is Not Enough” (Verso Books, 2021).

ALABAMA, New York — Two vast steel spheres sit in a field here in the northwestern corner of New York State, not far from the shores of Lake Ontario. Sixty feet tall, perfectly round and held off the ground on sturdy pylons, they represent “liquid hope,” according to the local TV station. When complete, they will hold a million tons of hydrogen.

The spheres look mysterious sitting by themselves behind a chain-link fence, surrounded by abandoned row-crop lots and pockets of woods. This part of the state is more like northern Ohio or Pennsylvania than the posh and developed regions like Hudson Valley or New York City. There are Dollar General stores and Tim Hortons drive-throughs, yards with ride-on mowers, and handmade signs for meat raffles line the straight, flat roads. Long trains double-stacked with shipping containers rumble away to other places. The smell of manure wafts on the breeze.

The talk in Alabama’s single bar is about hunting wild turkeys. It could be many places in America. Yet the spheres in the quiet field are a manifestation of a global dream: a future fueled not by fossil fuels, but by hydrogen.

Heat pumps and electric vehicles, trains and subways — these things are easily powered by electricity (ideally produced by renewable sources like solar and wind power). But there are some things that are harder to power by electricity, like ships, steel mills and fertilizer plants, which require heat at very high temperatures or energy-dense fuels.

Together, shipping, steel and fertilizer production make up around 12% of global emissions, so converting them to run on renewably generated electricity rather than fossil fuels is critical for transitioning to a green economy.

Hydrogen is the lightest of all the elements and the most abundant in the universe; nearly three-quarters of the mass of the universe is hydrogen. On Earth, it’s rarely found by itself. Instead, it’s mostly combined with oxygen in water, plants and animals. Water — two hydrogen atoms, one of oxygen — can be split through a process called electrolysis, which involves running an electric current through it, separating the hydrogen and oxygen. This happens in a machine called an electrolyzer. If the electricity used to power this process is renewable, the hydrogen is considered “green.” Take the hydrogen you get out of the electrolyzer and use it in the kind of fuel cell that a hydrogen-propelled truck on the highway might have, and all you get is power and water — no emissions, no pollution. In Greek, hydrogen means “water-former.”

Hydrogen also helps with a second challenge: energy storage. Sunlight captured by solar panels can be turned into hydrogen and stored as a gas or liquid in tanks or underground caverns and saved for darker times, or transported via truck or pipeline to places that get less sun.

Call it the little molecule that can do it all. There have been waves of hydrogen hype in bygone eras — it has long been used to power spacecraft and some passenger cars and buses — but analysts say this time is different. Green hydrogen accounted for 0.04% of all hydrogen produced globally in 2021 — it’s more expensive than other forms like grey hydrogen (produced from natural gas) or pink hydrogen (produced from nuclear power). But as the cost of renewable energy falls, the cost of making green hydrogen also falls.

“Converting hard-to-electrify sectors like shipping and fertilizer to run on renewably generated electricity rather than fossil fuels is critical for transitioning to a green economy.”

The renewables revolution has enabled the vision of a world run on hydrogen to come into focus. And in turn, a hydrogen economy could compensate for the limitations of renewables, like the intermittency of the wind and sun or difficulties transporting and storing energy produced by them. In short, hydrogen is making it possible to imagine a full green energy transition.

Here in Alabama, the idea for the little molecule is simple. Plug Power, the company that built the spheres in the field, will use the raging torrent of water that tumbles over nearby Niagara Falls to power its electrolyzers and produce green hydrogen. The latest plan for the nearly $700 million project is to produce about 74 tons of hydrogen per day — more than enough, according to company reports, to power 1,000 of the biggest trucks you see on an American highway for a day. The facility has no smokestacks; its only byproduct is oxygen, which is just released into the atmosphere.

Hydrogen’s promise of pollution-free fuel has led to bold forecasts of a greener future. McKinsey and the Hydrogen Council project that using hydrogen could reduce annual global greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2050. The International Renewable Energy Agency expects hydrogen to meet 12-13% of global energy demand by 2050. The U.S. government — among others — is eagerly throwing its weight behind hydrogen: A new production tax credit in the Inflation Reduction Act has no cap, which means that up to a hundred billion taxpayer dollars could be funding this new clean hydrogen industry if companies move to take full advantage of the subsidy. The U.S. government is also putting $8 billion into creating between six and 10 hydrogen “hubs” across the country, which will demonstrate how clean hydrogen can be at the center of a decarbonized industrial ecosystem.

The hydrogen industry that exists today is a climate disaster. Producing it from nonrenewable power sources — usually by reacting methane with steam at high pressure using copious amounts of natural gas — results in about as much carbon pollution as the aviation industry: around 2% of global carbon dioxide emissions. This hydrogen is used as an industrial feedstock to make ammonia fertilizers or petrochemicals, or in metal treatment or refining. So the future of hydrogen as a clean fuel involves not only building new and greener facilities, but also phasing out or decarbonizing this existing, very dirty production.

There are vibrant debates about just what exactly could and should be powered by hydrogen. Take houses — many are heated by natural gas and have gas stoves, and some argue that existing infrastructure could be repurposed for hydrogen. However, the flame when hydrogen burns is nearly invisible, which might be a problem for cooking safely. And simply blending hydrogen into natural gas in small percentages, which is all companies can really do because these pipelines aren’t designed for hydrogen, is a baby step towards decarbonization that arguably drags out the life of the gas industry. What about cars? In places like California, you can buy hydrogen fuel-cell automobiles, but nowadays it seems like electrification is the winner in decarbonizing light vehicles.

Power plants may face the most controversy. In Los Angeles, for example, the city council recently voted to move forward with an $800 million project to convert its largest gas-fired power plant to run on green hydrogen instead. Environmental justice activists are deeply critical of the project because hydrogen burned in this kind of steam turbine power plant would still emit lung-damaging nitrogen oxide pollution, unlike with emissions-free hydrogen fuel cells. While these emissions can be limited to the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulatory levels — same as they are at natural gas power plants today — environmental justice advocates are concerned about any level of continued pollution in overburdened communities.

For industry, fertilizer, heavy transport and energy storage, though, it’s clear that hydrogen will be crucial to exorcising fossil fuels from the infrastructure of our lives. Policymakers around the world are working to make hydrogen supply available for these uses. China, EU countries, Japan and South Korea all have hydrogen strategies and investments; Australia and Middle East nations are looking to become exporters and transition fossil fuel jobs to hydrogen ones. Scientists are also getting creative about how to expand the supply of clean hydrogen, researching methods like biomass gasification, which could produce hydrogen while removing carbon from the atmosphere. And recent geological research shows that cheap, vast stores of it may lie underground.

Yet all of these findings and plans will come to very little without policies that accurately price the harms from fossil fuels and create new demand for hydrogen. Right now, for example, farmers are much more likely to spread fertilizer made using natural gas instead of green hydrogen because it’s almost always cheaper. Building a new hydrogen industry is going to require feats of social engineering.

“Call it the little molecule that can do it all.”

The Field

Decarbonization is a planetary-scale project that lives and dies locally. In the case of green hydrogen, one of those local places is a fire station in rural western New York, where on a Thursday evening in May, passionate locals made sure their concerns were heard.

Plug Power’s hydrogen project was the first tenant at a 1,250-acre site called the Science, Technology and Advanced Manufacturing Park, or STAMP. Five miles from Interstate 90, STAMP sits “at a strategic location connecting the Buffalo-Rochester Tech Corridor’s talent hubs,” per their brochure. Genesee County has been working to develop STAMP into a modern, clean-tech mega-manufacturing campus since 2004. Part of the allure is low-cost hydropower from Niagara Falls. In 2015, it looked like a silicon wafer manufacturer for solar cells would make the site home — a $700 million investment, 1,000 new jobs! — but alas, they decided to build in Malaysia instead. The big hope is to land a semiconductor manufacturing facility, which could bring several thousand jobs to an extremely rural county.

STAMP’s initial environmental impact assessment was completed back in 2012, but since new construction is being readied, New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation had to hold a public hearing. Many think the state’s plan for compensating for the loss of habitat for the endangered short-eared owl and northern harrier is completely inadequate. For the site’s neighbors and environmental nonprofits, this was a chance to air — again — their concern about threats to their land and way of life. The site borders the 7,500-acre reservation of the Tonawanda Seneca Nation and their Big Woods. With the help of Earthjustice, the Nation sued both the developer and Plug Power in 2021 on the grounds that the environmental impact review wasn’t good enough and that development of the site would endanger the cultural and traditional practices of the Seneca as well as the environment. The judge dismissed the case on procedural grounds, but the concerns remain.

This was one of those standing-room-only hearings where people take a card at the door if they want to speak, and a clock with red glowing numbers counts down their two minutes. In quick bites, we heard about the need to respect Indigenous sovereignty and treaty rights, how the STAMP parcels are part of a framework of genocide against Indigenous peoples everywhere, how the Tonawanda Seneca were forced onto swampy land long ago and now they fear even that will be taken away. “Our way of life is to save animals and medicine,” explained Chief Emerson Webster. “We don’t need this. It’s not our way. This project may be good for some people, but it’s not for us.” Thunderous applause followed. Others voiced fears that the plant would blow up, that new power lines are harming the birds, that foraging ground would vanish and that there was an offshore wind facility on nearby Lake Ontario in the works and the impacts of these projects need to be considered together.

We risk building a whole new energy infrastructure that has the social problems of the current one, where rich companies drain the energy from rural places, leaving them with fouled land and communities and enriching only those who live far away. This is not just a moral concern; it puts the whole clean energy future in doubt.

Do the social conditions for creating national or planetary-scale infrastructures still exist? Is the trauma of what has been done before, and the failure to fully reckon with that trauma, going to doom a transition to a better future? Must we further harm those who have already suffered the most, those who will suffer further when climate impacts really kick in? Everyone seems skeptical that the sustainable, equitable, shared prosperity promised by the green transition will materialize because the power dynamics are the same as they’ve always been.

“The renewables revolution has enabled the vision of a world run on hydrogen to come into focus.”

On that Thursday evening, there were multiple things going on. Many people there quite reasonably considered a new manufacturing facility to be a continuation of the same old story: theft, destruction, loss. No one had provided credible evidence that it would be otherwise.

But something else was occurring too. A 10-year-old child read a statement about how their food, water and medicine will be lost from the development of this site. It was incredibly emotional for all of us in the room. Yet the hearing was studded with environmental professionals with PhDs or law degrees, people who had driven in from Buffalo or Rochester or their suburbs.

Those professionals were in a position to deliver scientifically accurate information about the material harms from further construction. Building warehouses on the fields near the Tonawanda Seneca land will have some impacts on the local ecology — this is not in doubt. Those impacts won’t be negligible, but neither will they be catastrophic to food and water availability.

The professionals chose to be silent on this, implying that in the interest of halting development, it’s fine to allow a child to wrongly believe their water and food is being poisoned. This made me wonder about the strategic silences generated by this prescribed form of “civic participation,” and who benefits and who is harmed by them at the end of the day. The main failing of the form, though, is that it cannot draw people into the planetary-scale question of how we remake the material basis of our society.

No one is particularly engaged in the question of: Where should the green hydrogen or the advanced manufacturing go instead? Clearly, the Alabama site was chosen without consulting the people living nearby. That makes it unjust. But what kind of solution is simply halting further buildout of this site? Do we just keep using fossil fuels and manufacturing things in China and elsewhere, where even less regulation creates worse impacts? That would be the default. Could we move the hydrogen facility to a brownfield site — somewhere with previous industrial pollution — instead of near Indigenous land? Potentially. But there will always be someone across the street or downriver who needs to be considered — and right now, our activism and participatory procedures aren’t leading us toward that process.

It’s clear that we need a different way of engaging with each other and these issues. The stakes in failing to evolve a social infrastructure that can navigate the energy transition are high. If we fail, we will just keep shifting manufacturing abroad and the planet will continue to warm, which will harm the poorest the most. Performances like those in the fire station may offer a glimmer of empowerment in the moment — when people who care come together, that sense of community counts for something — but they ultimately set us up to repeat the failures of the past.

The Falls

The loss of the social contract for building was on my mind the day I took my daughter to see where all the power to run Plug’s hydrogen facility will come from. Above the Robert Moses Niagara Hydroelectric Plant near Niagara Falls, the New York Power Authority runs a “Power Vista.” It’s a quiet, free science center where kids can learn about transmission from eager staff and exhibits that promise that we’ll have a different sort of grid in 10 years, one where electricity flows not just from mega-sites like this (2,525 megawatts!), but from your house back into the grid. It’s the dream of a different way of being connected.

Far below, the turquoise Niagara River snakes toward Lake Ontario, with dams on the Canadian side too. Many people who come here for an encounter with the wildness of nature don’t know that Niagara Falls is mostly controlled and could be turned off anytime. Only part of the river goes over the falls. On the U.S. side of the border, NYPA diverts the other part through a pair of 4.5-mile underground tunnels — 45 feet wide, blasted through solid rock — into a reservoir that NYPA also excavated.

We stood above the wall of concrete, and I saw my daughter study the vocabulary of the hydroelectric landscape: penstock, forebay, turbine. All of this was built in just three years, opening in 1961. Part of the rush was that the previous hydroelectric facility was damaged in a rockslide in 1956, which created a regional power shortage.

“We risk building a whole new energy infrastructure that has the social problems of the current one.”

Who could imagine bringing a project like this online today in that timespan, where just to get a renewable project approved to connect to the grid takes five years? Legendary planner and NYPA head Robert Moses screwed the town of Niagara Falls with an ill-conceived parkway dividing the town from the falls, and he is reviled for a million other things in New York and beyond. But he did fight off private power owners to create a public power asset in record time.

The rapid construction was unjust toward the Tuscarora Nation as well. In the 1700s, the Tuscarora were driven up here to a 6,250-acre reservation from their North Carolina home. Moses could fundamentally not wrap his head around their opposition to losing a tenth of their land to the reservoir, even after he offered to name it after them, which they rejected.

In 1958, the Tuscarora filed a lawsuit to keep their land from drowning. The case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the land could be taken with just compensation given the public need for power and the limited alternatives. The dissenting opinion, however, identified the case as yet one more broken promise: “Great nations, like great men, should keep their word.”

The renewable electrons that will enable green hydrogen production at STAMP already carry embodied energy injustice within them. Failing to confront this and redress it, which is part of the work of building the social infrastructure for the energy transition, also carries a very specific risk when it comes to hydrogen. If states like New York fail to adopt green hydrogen and want to outsource production to other areas, we could risk ending up with a much more damaging form of hydrogen instead.

The Lake

Possibly the most serious threat to a sustainable, beneficial hydrogen industry is “blue” hydrogen, which is produced from natural gas. The carbon dioxide emitted in the production process is captured at the plant and then injected into rock formations deep underground. This is cleaner than it would be if the carbon wasn’t captured, to be sure, but this form of hydrogen production still involves the gas industry and the upstream harms of extraction. And it won’t be low emission until gas production, with all the leaky pipelines and wells, is cleaned up.

Blue hydrogen doesn’t make much financial sense: Analysts project hydrogen produced with renewables will outcompete it by the end of the decade. It could also reinforce existing fossil fuel interests.

In Louisiana, there is a stretch of petrochemical production known as Cancer Alley. The company Air Products is building a $4.5 billion blue hydrogen facility there, in Ascension Parish. The particular plot of land — flat, with the earth tinted red by the shuttered aluminum plant next door — has a small cemetery. The overgrown grave of Sidney Vicknair, who according to census records was a Black mother of 10 who lived through both the Emancipation Proclamation as well as World War II, lies roughly where several cooling tower power units are slated to be constructed.

Environmental justice advocates see in the potential desecration of graves yet one more injustice. “The reason this land is available today for a project like Air Products is because of the plantation economy and slavery,” Shamell Lavigne, a leader of a local faith-based environmental advocacy organization, told Earthjustice.

“Decarbonizing our world without some combination of green hydrogen, nuclear or fossil fuels with carbon capture is pure fantasy.”

The project is also opposed by sportsmen and crabbers at Lake Maurepas, 35 miles away in Livingston Parish. Air Products’ plan is to inject the CO2 captured in the process of producing hydrogen into rock deep beneath the lake. The lake is shallow — an expanse of cypress, gators and bars you can boat up to. For those who live and work on the lake, it’s a whole lifestyle. The idea of injecting CO2 under the lake has produced fears of leaks that would kill wildlife and disruptions from seismic surveys. As a Republican state legislator told a local TV station, “We want our way of life to continue the way it is in that area.”

Having conversations with locals at the lake, I realized what some were most upset about was the lack of discussion — what the environmentalist community would call procedural justice, though these guys didn’t use those words. They recounted how the company held its required hearings three days before a hurricane was going to slam into Louisiana, published required notices in a paywalled Baton Rouge paper that people didn’t really read, and failed to talk with local elected officials. And so last year, Livingston Parish attempted to place a moratorium on the CO2 injection plan. Air Products sued and the moratorium was overturned since the land is owned by the state.

Their politics may diverge on many issues, but the sportsmen in Livingston Parish and the environmental justice advocates in Cancer Alley are asking tough questions about whether this is really the future of the clean energy transition. Neither community was properly engaged by the people responsible for the construction of new infrastructure nearby. And if even “community engagement” by developers is failing, getting to a point where the public or workers have actual ownership of clean energy infrastructure seems even more remote. What will it take to change this?

Confronting The Engagement Crisis

We used to think that climate mitigation was a light thing, a thing of doing less. It turns out that rebuilding our civilization means more: more heat pumps, more building retrofits, more industrial facilities. Those things require a lot of extracting, making and transport. To turn away from this — to not build and rebuild and fix and maintain — is to condemn our children to continued fossil fuel use.

There are a variety of decarbonization scenarios available to us. They all involve some combination of green hydrogen, nuclear or fossil fuels with carbon capture. Decarbonizing our world without one or all of these options is pure fantasy.

What about just using less materials, people ask? We will have to do that as well — by both increasing efficiency and consuming less, especially in high-waste societies like the U.S. But from a planetary standpoint, where many people have too little energy, steel, concrete and fertilizer, it’s clear that cleaner industrial production is critical. Mitigation means remaking systems — critically, without repeating the mistakes of the past.

The story of hydrogen isn’t so different from the story of renewables or electricity transmission. All are imperiled by communities or small coalitions of groups organizing on platforms like Facebook and Nextdoor. In the U.S., there are around 1,000 solar ordinances and twice as many for wind that outline rules for development, like the size of permitted projects, according to data compiled by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Last year, the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University found that across the U.S., there were 121 local policies restricting new wind and solar projects, and 204 renewable energy facilities contested through local campaigns, petitions or lawsuits.

This backlash has led to a lot of discussion about permitting reform, but permitting is only part of the problem. The heart of the challenge is that people don’t see how these projects are going to benefit them. Rural communities see their land being industrialized to benefit people in cities or abroad, and they question why they should bear the burden of the green energy transition. The planetary lens that technocrats use to imagine the design of new infrastructure for decarbonization is largely not something that most rural residents have access to. When those rural geographies overlap with geographies of dispossession or environmental injustice, as in Alabama, New York or Cancer Alley, the questions around who is designing or benefitting from new infrastructure are much more acute.

“The heart of the challenge is that people don’t see how these projects are going to benefit them.”

And so we have not just a climate crisis, but an engagement crisis. To fix it, we need the public sector and philanthropic organizations to support real outreach and education, and not just invest in new technology or campaigns for particular groups. We need to leverage new media tools and create new systems for communicating with people.

To be fair, out of an annual $1.7 billion spent on climate philanthropy each year, $210 million goes to public engagement — which isn’t nothing. But it falls well short of what’s needed. Moreover, that $210 million in “public engagement” includes a wide variety of activities, from strategic communications to business engagement, many of which don’t involve actually talking with and listening to the public.

Nobody knows how to think about a Manhattan Project for conversation, which is one of the most basic and sophisticated technologies that humans have innovated. The liberal, often Silicon Valley-based climate funding class will no doubt screw it up. By default, they will think about it as education. It’s not.

First of all, climate professionals in cities need to also be educated by people living in rural places and by communities on the front lines of the climate crisis. Second, it’s not communications in a PR firm, one-way sense; it’s not “strategic communications.” Two-way mutual learning is a different, non-institutionalized thing. No one is really doing that yet. And third, meaningful dialogue is not going to be online, and it’s not going to scale virtually like a software product. Platforms that profit on division and false information are not the place to have interactions intended to build communities of common understanding and mutual care.

Talking to everyone — yes, that is what’s necessary — about the energy transition is going to be such a huge and expensive endeavor that governments will need to fund it. But philanthropy and civil society can generate and fund the campaign to get Congress to appropriate money for it.

“Platforms that profit on division and false information are not the place to have interactions intended to build communities of common understanding and mutual care.”

Imagine an interactive, engaging exhibit about clean energy and all its pathways and tradeoffs in every library, school, mall and county fair. Imagine headline events that draw people to those exhibits. Imagine a community engagement corps that goes around talking to people about the transition, showing up at churches, health care centers, Walmarts and any other place people gather.

Imagine them feeding what they were learning back into policy decisions on multiple scales, from county economic development organizations to states to Congress. Imagine that there’s a National Day of Energy Democracy where everyone gets the day off work and community organizations and local governments are funded to hold festivals to discuss reliable, affordable clean energy. This is the scale of effort needed to enable the energy transition to happen.

There will be people who still reject green energy, still don’t want to live near solar farms or hydrogen production sites. The work for restorative justice won’t be fully addressed by this sort of engagement effort either, though it can be a step in the right direction. At least people will have been heard. At least they won’t feel like some secretive company is plotting behind their backs, building unwanted infrastructure that will ruin their lives. Ideally, people will understand that they are part of a planetary challenge, even if all that means to them personally is that they can get a discount on heat pumps or solar panels.

When we see planetary design of infrastructures like the hydrogen economy in reports and renderings of tanks and pipes, it all looks smooth and achievable — a matter of materials, locations and funding. What we don’t see is how none of that will get built unless we listen to people — a messy, difficult, time-consuming process.

There are plenty of companies out there doing innovative work like converting carbon dioxide into jet fuel, making electrolyzers and batteries and creating clean fertilizer. Many of these companies don’t have historical ties to fossil fuels, but people will still be suspicious of them because they are suspicious of all industry. Without a deep engagement effort, the oppressors of the past will win twice over: first in stealing land, exploiting people and causing climate change, and second in destroying the dream that an industrial society could ever be different.