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Biden Administration Proposes Kick-Starting Hydrogen. That’s Good News for Climate and for Jobs.

April 21, 2021 Work Area: Zero-Carbon Fuels

Emission reductions across different sectors of the economy will not follow a one-size-fits-all approach. Hydrogen has been identified as a key solution that reduces carbon emissions for sectors where electrification and other measures are not sufficient. President Biden’s American Jobs Plan includes 15 hydrogen projects aimed to decarbonize a range of industrial applications in distressed communities and could create at least 18,000 jobs in 2025. This is very good news for the climate and for the American economy. 

No one ever said that eliminating the emissions that cause climate change was going to be easy. No one who is telling it straight, anyway. We have solutions for some things – wind and solar power, nuclear energy, and carbon capture to clean up our electricity generation, and electric cars to clean up our suburban commutes – if we can just get the policy right to deploy them. That in itself is a monumental task, barely started, but at least underway. But for some sectors of the American economy, reducing emissions could be even harder.  

Take ironmaking, the process of converting iron ore to iron metal suitable for making steel. Carbon is so embedded in the chemistry of ironmaking that chemists have a special word for the reactions that take place there: “carbothermic”, using carbon at very high temperatures to reverse processes that usually run the other way, like steel rusting. The result is carbon dioxide, emitted into the air to the tune of several billion tons a year of it in the case of the global steel industry.  

Or take industrial process heating. Ethylene manufacturing for example. Ethylene manufacturing involves cracking bonds between carbon atoms at temperatures approaching 1750 degrees Fahrenheit (950C) and its demand is increasing globally along with population, wealth, and quality of life. Chemicals sector process heating loads alone in the US account for several percent of our total energy consumption. 

Industrial processes like ironmaking and chemical process heating are especially difficult to electrify using today’s technology. Except in the laboratory, electricity just can’t drive the chemical reactions to convert iron ores to metal. And although progress is being made on electric process heating, we have no real experience at the temperatures and scales of modern industry. This is a fundamental challenge to zeroing out emissions and protecting the climate. 

Hydrogen has emerged as a key solution for clean ironmaking, clean industrial process heat, and other services. In its pure form hydrogen (”H2”) is the simplest element known and is a powerful fuel, carrying about three times as much energy by weight as gasoline. And because hydrogen includes no carbon, it creates no carbon dioxide when burned.  

In ironmaking, hydrogen can replace carbon in the key chemical reactions, resulting in an ironmaking process with near-zero emissions. Plants based on hydrogen “direct reduced iron”, or DRI, production are being developed in SwedenGermany, and Austria, including some American technology. The petrochemical industry has established combustion of excess hydrogen supplies as a source of supplemental heat. 

That’s one reason President Biden’s American Jobs Plan  is such good news for climate. Last month, the President proposed 15 demonstration projects for hydrogen in distressed communities, and noted the importance of industrial applications. Each of these projects could include clean hydrogen production, decarbonization of a range of industries, and potentially other uses of hydrogen such as clean heavy transportation.  

In keeping with the title of the plan, these hydrogen demonstrations would also produce clean jobs. Lots of clean jobs. In fact, analysis by Industrial Economics, Inc. suggests that just the production of hydrogen for these 15 projects could result in almost 5,000 direct, indirect, and induced jobs in 2023, ramping up to 18,000 jobs in 2025, and around 10,000 permanent jobs in the next decade. This does not include jobs associated with using the hydrogen, but only the jobs created in making it.  

This is a kick-start the climate — and our economy – desperately need. 

Our colleagues at Great Plains Institute have created a map with potential industrial hydrogen demand centers across the country. Please visit their analysis here. 

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