Industry leaders gathered in July, 2022 to learn more about the prospect of a hydrogen hub in West Virginia. Photo courtesy Sen. Joe Manchin's office.

As the Biden administration looks to make good on its goal to reduce carbon emissions, West Virginia is among the states vying for the federal funding earmarked to push the country towards hydrogen as an alternative energy source.

Hydrogen energy, also known as “hydrogen power” or “hydrogen fuel,” is a form of energy derived from hydrogen gas. Electricity, which can come from a variety of sources, is used to split water, generating oxygen and hydrogen. As several of the methods used to produce hydrogen generate minimal carbon emissions, it’s often lauded as a low-carbon energy alternative.

The program is a crucial part of the strategy to achieve President Joe Biden’s goal of a 100% clean electrical grid by 2035 as well as net zero carbon emissions by 2050, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. 

But critics are skeptical hydrogen energy is the way to do this, and are concerned about the feasibility as well as the economic and environmental impacts of this substantial push toward hydrogen energy production.  

Here’s what you need to know.

What is a hydrogen hub?

Hydrogen hubs refer to networks of facilities that help produce, store, distribute and utilize hydrogen as an energy source through a collection of power plants, storage facilities and pipelines. The hubs developed through the federal government’s initial push — called the H2Hubs program — are supposed to form the foundation for a national network of hydrogen facilities and producers. The Biden administration hopes this in turn will increase the use of hydrogen as an energy source and reach its climate-related goals, according to the DOE’s Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations.

What is ‘clean hydrogen?’ Is all hydrogen considered clean?

While “clean hydrogen” is commonly used by the Biden administration and others as a general term to refer to hydrogen as an alternative source of energy, it’s not that simple.  

The term isn’t specific to any one type of hydrogen energy production, of which there are several, because there is no universal definition of the term “clean hydrogen.” Instead the concept has become a “catchall term” for all low-carbon production methods of hydrogen, according to the Rocky Mountain Institute

The electricity used in the process can come from fossil fuels, or it can come from cleaner power sources. Generally, “clean” hydrogen can refer to any hydrogen produced with emission levels lower than current fossil fuel-based ways; the U.S. Department of Energy has released guidance for clean hydrogen that it will use to determine how to prioritize projects that qualify for funding earmarked by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. 

While there are several hydrogen production methods that are considered clean, the two most common types are hydrogen produced by renewable sources and hydrogen produced from natural gas in combination with carbon capture and storage. 

Carbon capture and storage, also known as CCS, is a set of technologies and processes designed to capture the carbon dioxide byproduct, preventing it from being released into the atmosphere. 

Blue hydrogen? Green hydrogen? Hydrogen colors, explained

Because there are several different types of hydrogen energy, it’s often categorized by colors based on the source of production. Hydrogen derived from renewable sources is known as “green hydrogen,” while hydrogen sourced from natural gas in conjunction with carbon capture is known as “blue hydrogen.”

But it’s “gray hydrogen” that is currently the most widely-used across the country. Gray hydrogen is also derived from natural gas but doesn’t involve capturing its carbon byproduct. Since the production of green and blue hydrogen emit significantly less carbon dioxide than gray hydrogen, they are looked to as a cleaner alternative. 

Most of the hydrogen production facilities that have been announced are looking to make blue hydrogen, likely because it will allow the continued use of natural gas. 

What is the ARCH2 hydrogen hub, and how will it affect West Virginia?

Developers of the Appalachian Regional Clean Hydrogen Hub, also known as ARCH2, are seeking a portion of the $7 billion being doled out by the federal Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations.

ARCH2 is a proposed regional hydrogen hub that will span West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Kentucky. In addition to state and local governments, the project has also partnered with a variety of energy production companies, including Hope Gas and Dominion Energy.

The $7 billion was allocated to help establish between six and 10 hydrogen hubs through the Regional Clean Hydrogen Hubs program, otherwise known as H2Hubs, funded by the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. 

While ARCH2 is proposed to span the northern Appalachian region and across four states, West Virginia appears to be the most heavily impacted. 

According to a plan projection, most West Virginia counties will be impacted by at least one of the proposed ARCH2 projects. These impacts could include housing a hydrogen production or storage facilities, having a pipeline run through, or being close enough to access hydrogen jobs. 

The state’s existing oil and gas industry is a proponent of the regional hydrogen hub, and of the larger push to invest in the hydrogen energy sector. 

 “Our view — as well as that of the federal government, energy tech labs, and organizations across the world — is that hydrogen created from natural gas and carbon capture enables economy-wide decarbonization for all types of sectors and industrial processes,” said Charlie Burd, the executive director of the Gas and Oil Association of West Virginia, in a statement.

“West Virginia can and should play a role in advancing these energy solutions for tomorrow, while using the resources home to our state and nation today,” he added.

ARCH2 and the overall development of hydrogen as an energy source is supported by top state leaders, including Sens. Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito as well as Gov. Jim Justice. The three elected officials also stressed that such a project will help strengthen and grow West Virginia’s energy sector. 

The Department of Energy is expected to notify those selected for the funding this fall and award the money within the next year. But in the meantime, the state recently announced a separate hydrogen production facility in Mason Country by Fidelis New Energy, a project partner in the ARCH2. The facility, named the Mountaineer GigaSystem, will use technology that allows it to produce hydrogen with no net emissions of carbon dioxide. The project will also include the Monarch Cloud Campus — a carbon neural data center powered by the hydrogen produced by the neighboring Mountaineer GigaSystem site. 

Will hydrogen hubs bring jobs to West Virginia?

While the Biden administration views a transition to hydrogen as an opportunity to reduce carbon emissions and promote job and economic growth, opponents remain skeptical over the technology’s economic and environmental impacts. 

A transition to blue hydrogen, which would include converting existing coal and gas-fired power plants to hydrogen and carbon capture, will increase costs but not output, resulting in no economic gain, according to Sean O’Leary, a senior researcher at the Ohio River Valley Institute. 

The cost of carbon capture would nearly double the cost of electricity compared to natural gas and triple the cost from coal. However, the efficiency of carbon capture and storage technologies in capturing carbon dioxide has not lived up to its claimed potential.

Of the carbon capture projects across the world, only three hydrogen production plants have captured CO2 and none of them have captured 95% or more of the carbon they’ve produced, according to David Schlissel, the director of resource planning analysis at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.

In addition to hydrogen being costly, it’s also an inefficient energy source to fuel everyday necessities like cars and trucks or to heat homes and offices, said O’Leary. 

O’Leary also compared this current effort to previous state energy pushes, like the Appalachian Storage Hub for Natural Gas Liquids and the Appalachian Energy and Petrochemical Renaissance. He noted at the time, the region heard similar promises of jobs and economic growth that were never delivered. 

“This is a play that we have seen run before,” O’Leary added. “We know the outcome of this.”

Sarah Elbeshbishi is Mountain State Spotlight's Environment and Energy Reporter.