Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
New Mexico is barreling forward with plans to turn the state into one of the nation’s first “hydrogen hubs.”
But the pace of new developments backed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration is generating alarm among environmentalists, who are scrambling to pull the emergency brakes.
During an October speech at the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association’s annual meeting, Lujan Grisham said a proposed bill to create a legal framework for hydrogen could deliver big benefits to the state.
“We believe that being the first state to have a statutory framework … puts us in the driver’s seat when it comes to hydrogen,” said the governor, who asked for industry leaders to back the proposal during the 30-day session and described hydrogen as the “transitional fuel of the future.”
Industry and government officials, both at the state and federal levels, believe hydrogen can provide a powerful tool to accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy. That’s because hydrogen has many potential applications as a relatively clean-burning fuel that doesn’t emit carbon dioxide.
Specifically, backers say hydrogen could help decarbonize transportation when electric batteries are not good options, such as long-haul industrial vehicles like tractor trailers, maritime shipping, and even planes and trains.
They also say it could be used to produce electricity, replacing fossil fuels like coal or natural gas to run turbine generators in power plants. That could provide a critical source of backup generation as local and national grids become heavily dependent on intermittent production from solar and wind farms.
As a result, hydrogen development to help combat climate change enjoys broad bipartisan support at the national level. The $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure bill, approved by the U.S. Congress and signed into law last year by President Joe Biden, includes $8 billion to build four initial “hydrogen hubs” around the country. It also includes $1 billion in federal assistance for hydrogen-technology research and development.
But environmental groups in New Mexico and elsewhere are sounding warning alarms about growing enthusiasm for all things hydrogen.
That’s because many questions remain unanswered about its actual ability to lower carbon emissions in the hydrogen-production process itself, plus the potential danger of applying hydrogen solutions to decarbonize energy use in areas better served by renewable resources.
Western Environmental Law Center Executive Director Erik Schlenker-Goodrich said the rush to pump public and private funds into a fossil-based fuel system that may not lower carbon emissions significantly could lead to stranded assets as technology evolves.
“Methane-based hydrogen production is a very risky investment bet with state resources or private-sector capital,” Schlenker-Goodrich told the Journal. “Blue hydrogen may be cost competitive in the short-term, but that could be reversed by 2030 compared with green hydrogen. We could invest billions in New Mexico in a scheme that could be outdated by other technologies in a decade.”
“Blue” hydrogen refers to a process that captures and sequesters carbon emissions released during production. That’s considered to be a step above “gray” hydrogen production, which uses the same process but simply vents those emissions into the atmosphere with no effort to capture and sequester them.
Environmentalists prefer “green hydrogen,” which uses renewable generation from solar or wind to power a process known as electrolysis. That process pulls hydrogen molecules from water, with no carbon emissions. But green production is still too expensive for widespread deployment, and the technology cost isn’t expected to drop enough for large-scale commercialization until the 2030s.
Environmentalists also fear the emerging focus on hydrogen could derail the accelerated adoption of renewable generation now underway nationwide as policymakers and investors pursue massive hydrogen development rather than pushing full speed ahead on solar, wind and battery-storage technology.
But state officials say hydrogen seems like a natural fit for New Mexico, which has many more assets in place for its rapid development than most other states.
“We need to be as nimble as possible as new technology and ideas evolve and flow,” state Environment Secretary James Kenney told the Journal. “We need to incentivize industry to take a hard look at how to decarbonize faster.”
Journal Capitol Bureau Chief Dan Boyd contributed to this report.