Can Green Hydrogen Save The Planet?

NowThis traveled to Plug Power’s gigafactory in upstate New York to learn about potential uses for green hydrogen.

Credit: NowThis
Credit: NowThis

Did you know you can generate hydrogen with a battery and a glass of water? The process is called electrolysis, and it happens when the hydrogen and oxygen atoms split to create a stream of pure hydrogen.

When produced on a larger scale, it’s referred to as “green hydrogen,” because the process of making the hydrogen doesn't rely on fossil fuels as raw materials, nor does it entail any carbon emissions.

Green hydrogen has been positioned as the fuel of the future, promising the possibility of providing a low-carbon energy source for transportation and utilities. But of the methods used to produce hydrogen, many entail carbon emissions somewhere in the process. And only 0.02% of global hydrogen production can be considered “green.”

Globally, hydrogen is responsible for about 843 metric tonnes of CO2 emissions annually — that’s as much as the UK and Indonesia’s emissions combined.

There are 3 broad categories of hydrogen: gray, blue, and green. Gray hydrogen is the most common form and is produced from natural gas and other fossil fuel sources. Blue hydrogen is also produced from fossil fuels, but captures and stores some of the CO2 created in the process.

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To find out more about green hydrogen, NowThis traveled to Plug Power’s gigafactory in upstate New York.

“Green hydrogen can be used for lots of different things,” said plant manager Dan O’Connell. “If you think about it, it's great for what our primary application is for: a fuel cell forklift. We have about 60,000 forklifts out there in the field today that refuel 3 times a day and run 24/7.”

The forklifts take approximately 3 minutes to recharge at the start of each shift and then can run for 8 hours.

Plug Power is working to scale up the application of green hydrogen for cars, trucks, and backup power, but there are a few concerns: raw material, cost, and public perception.

Many people associate hydrogen with being explosive; it even brings up memories of disasters like the Hindenburg, which exploded in 1937. But O’Connell said hydrogen is safe with new technology. He personally drove a hydrogen fuel cell car for 5 years with his children in the backseat.

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As for cost, green hydrogen is currently nearly 2 to 3 times more expensive than blue hydrogen. Also, cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells are more expensive than their battery-powered EV counterparts, more than twice as much in some cases. It costs more to fuel them up than to charge an EV, but it’s a faster process.

As for infrastructure, it’s lacking. In the U.S., there are about 55 public hydrogen fueling stations available. All but one of them are in California.

So, can green hydrogen save the planet?

Not yet. It has a lot of potential, but it’s still a very nascent market.

There's some concern from scientists and policymakers, who highlight the lack of data surrounding hydrogen leaks that come with scaling up the technology and the risks posed to the climate and the environment more broadly. But with more investment, research, and development green hydrogen could help decarbonize certain sectors and help with long-term energy storage.