MachH2 is the Midwest Alliance for Clean Hydrogen, Except for Other Opinions

by S. Tom Bond on November 9, 2023

The hydrogen hubs will likely serve corporations not communities!

Midwest ‘hydrogen hub’ planning moves ahead, but concerns persist

From an Article by Alex Dalton, Chicago Tribune, November 5, 2023

At a virtual event held on Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations, leaders with the Midwest Alliance for Clean Hydrogen discussed details of “hydrogen hub” projects across the region that stand to receive up to $1 billion in federal investment.

MachH2, which brings together over 60 public and private entities across Indiana, Illinois and Michigan, was one of seven funding recipients announced in October, alongside partnerships based in the Pacific Northwest, the mid-Atlantic, Appalachia, California, the Texas Gulf Coast and the Upper Midwest. The 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act set aside $7 billion for the hubs with the goal of fighting climate change.

MachH2 chief integration officer Neil Banwart, who also serves as managing director of the Indianapolis-based nonprofit Energy Systems Network, unveiled a map that included the locations of eight of the hydrogen hub’s nine planned projects during the Wednesday meeting, and fielded a range of questions from community members.

When burned, fossil fuels produce carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that has played a large role in the warming of the planet. Burning hydrogen, by contrast, bonds hydrogen atoms with oxygen to produce only water as a byproduct. Hydrogen’s advocates, industry leaders and elected officials among them, say that replacing fossil fuels with hydrogen in energy-intensive industrial processes can help lower their carbon footprint.

However, as the hydrogen hubs’ critics have been quick to point out, creating hydrogen requires energy, and the source of the energy used affects the process’s overall environmental impact. Hydrogen can be separated from the oxygen atoms in water using electricity through a process called electrolysis.

If the process uses energy from wind, solar or other renewable sources, then this so-called “green” hydrogen can be produced and burned without carbon emissions. “Pink” hydrogen is produced using energy from a nuclear reactor, which does not involve direct carbon emissions. “Blue” hydrogen — the cheapest and most widespread method of production today, according to the Department of Energy — is produced by reacting natural gas with steam, producing carbon dioxide as a byproduct.

Banwart said that MachH2 will take an “all of the above hydrogen production approach,” including green, pink and blue hydrogen production. A hydrogen production node planned for Northwest Indiana to be operated by the energy giant BP — the only MachH2 project planned for the Hoosier state — will produce blue hydrogen and offset the process’s environmental impact using carbon capture and storage.

In his presentation, Banwart acknowledged that blue hydrogen is a controversial component of the hub’s plans. “I don’t think we’re gonna settle the debate tonight, but I do want to emphasize that blue hydrogen can be very low carbon,” he told attendees, adding that the carbon intensity of the hub’s hydrogen production will be subject to independent review.

“By taking this approach to pursue multiple forms of clean hydrogen including blue, pink and green, we can move more quickly, we can scale the production and the distribution of these molecules all across the Midwest, and that will allow us to decarbonize difficult to decarbonize sectors.”

BP explained its carbon storage plans, which involve building pipelines to move liquid carbon dioxide from its hydrogen production node to suitable injection sites south of Lake County, at a series of public meetings earlier this autumn. The company was met with a mixed reaction from community members, some of whom voiced concerns over possible negative environmental impacts stemming from failures in pipelines or injection wells.

The 2020 rupture of a carbon dioxide pipeline in Satartia, Mississippi, which resulted in 45 hospitalizations, has stoked public fears about the prospect of more CO2 pipelines. While carbon dioxide is neither combustible nor poisonous, it is denser than air and can cause asphyxiation by displacing oxygen near the ground.

John Rupp, a clinical associate professor emeritus at the Indiana University O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs, believes that carbon capture in Indiana will do more good than harm.

While CO2 pipelines do come with some risks, Rupp told the Post-Tribune, they are less dangerous than the pipelines carrying highly combustible fossil fuels that already crisscross the state. Further, he noted, the class VI permits issued to CO2 injection sites by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency come with extremely stringent guidelines for safety and monitoring.

“It’s very very high level of management if it’s done in accordance with the permit’s stipulations, so I wouldn’t be concerned if it were in my own backyard,” he said. “But that’s not to say that when people have concerns that they shouldn’t be listened to or discounted. There’s valid concerns and contamination of groundwater is a reasonable thing to be concerned about and so BP or whoever the developer is should do a good job at understanding that concern and addressing those but I think from a technological standpoint the management is excellent.”

So far, not all of blue hydrogen’s critics have been convinced. Several attendees of the Wednesday meeting raised concerns over the practice. Chris Chyung, the executive director of Indiana Conservation Voters, told the Post-Tribune on Thursday that he sees the BP plan as a continuation of Northwest Indiana’s history as an industrial sacrifice zone. He noted that while pink and green hydrogen production are part of MachH2′s plans, that technology will be employed outside of the state.

“As a native Hoosier it was clear from the presentation last night that right now MachH2 is looking at basically exporting the dirtiest form of the hydrogen production that’s tied to fossil fuel burning to Indiana,” he said. “We’ve seen this time and time again, especially in North Lake County with the industrial lakefront and the steel mills.”

Banwart said that it is too early to provide estimates for the share of MachH2′s total hydrogen production that will be taken up by each production type. The partnership submitted a detailed application for federal funds which has not been made public — this is due to the competitive nature of the application process, Banwart said.

Funding for MachH2 and the other six hydrogen hub partnerships is contingent on the success of negotiations between the hubs and the Department of Energy. If successful, the hub projects will enter a four-phase implementation process that will last between seven and thirteen years, with DOE funds paid out at designated intervals.

OCED staff stressed at the Wednesday meeting that public input will play a significant role in all stages of the process. Each hydrogen hub is required to develop a community benefits plan laying out quantifiable benefits to affected communities, such as employment and training opportunities.

Chyung said that his organization has requested to be part of a MachH2 advisory committee and is waiting to hear back from the partnership. He is cautiously optimistic, he said, that MachH2 will take input from activists and community members seriously as it continues to plan its projects.

“I’m really hoping that in the coming weeks we will see a barrage of community engagement from MachH2 and a real sincerity and willingness to open this process up to members of the community because again, this is taxpayer money,” he said. “This is a billion dollars of taxpayer money and we should all have a stake at the table and right now we simply don’t.”

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