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Hydrogen heats up in New York


ALBANY — New York policymakers are embracing investments in green hydrogen to capture jobs in the growing industry even as advocates assail proposals to burn the fuel for electricity.

State energy authorities have backed two Plug Power plants; Hyzon Motors’ new investments to make hydrogen fuel cells for trucks; research on blending hydrogen into the gas pipeline system; and an early-stage startup working to reduce the cost of hydrogen technologies. Taken together, these investments are seen as an indicator of the Cuomo administration’s interest in hydrogen as part of the state’s future energy mix.

The spending — totaling millions in tax credits, cheap power and grants — comes as environmental advocates express alarm about burning hydrogen and are pressuring policymakers to reject proposals by gas plants to rebuild with the potential to do that. The conflict over green hydrogen — a molecule produced from water and renewable electricity — is emblematic of the uncertainty around New York’s energy future and the fight by gas utilities and companies to remain a part of it.

Proponents of going all-in on green hydrogen see it as playing a role in transportation, electric generation, high-heat industrial processes and even building heating, running through pipelines and being burned for energy or used in zero-emissions fuel cells.

“We see our energy system as one that delivers molecules and those molecules will be very different in 2050 than they are today,” said National Grid’s Sheri Givens. “Globally, green hydrogen is recognized as the molecule that will help with multiple uses.”

Green hydrogen can be generated more cheaply from renewable electricity as more renewables come onto the grid. Hydrogen can serve as a long-duration storage fuel for electricity until it is needed. For now, most hydrogen used is produced from fossil fuels.

Environmental advocates are leery of the backing from gas companies for widespread use of green hydrogen. They’re concerned it’s a ploy to prolong the burning of natural gas for power and heat when New York needs to be rapidly winding down that infrastructure instead.

A new report by NY Renews, an influential coalition of environmental justice and other groups that pushed for the state’s sweeping climate law, casts doubt on green hydrogen as a “false solution” pushed by fossil fuel companies.

Supporters of using hydrogen primarily for zero-emissions fuel cells in a range of applications are struggling to draw a distinction.

“Its very important that everybody understands that green hydrogen — i.e. hydrogen that’s made from water, take electricity at low temperatures, split water apart and make hydrogen and then take a fuel cell to put that water back together — is environmentally pristine,” said Bill Acker, the executive director of NY-BEST, which represents the battery and energy storage industry, at a March meeting of a Climate Action Council advisory panel.

“It’s critical that we don’t accidentally take green hydrogen off the table or detract from its development because we’re concerned about an application, not the main application,” Acker said.

The decision on how hydrogen is treated under New York’s climate law and whether it gets additional state funding to bring costs down rests in part on decisions being made by the Climate Action Council, which is tasked under the state’s climate law with developing a plan to create a “zero emissions” electric grid by 2040 and reduce emissions 85 percent from 1990 levels by 2050.

Some members of the council already have expressed skepticism of green hydrogen combustion. “That seems like an exotic, Rube Goldberg-esque approach,” said Environmental Advocates NY’s Peter Iwanowicz. The group is part of the NY Renews coalition.

“New York continues to assess green hydrogen and other technologies in their beginning stages, and recommendations on both near-term practical and cost-effective solutions as well as long-term solutions will be considered by the Climate Action Council as it advances its work in developing a Scoping Plan,” NYSERDA spokeswoman Kate Muller said when asked about the state’s plans for green hydrogen.

Hydrogen innovation economy

While NYSERDA still is developing a hydrogen road map, that has not stopped the state from encouraging investments by companies with a hydrogen focus.

Most prominently, Plug Power has announced plans for two major new facilities in the state. Both a $125 million plant to research and make electrolyzers and proton exchange membranes in Monroe County and a $290 million green hydrogen plant in Genesee County have secured state incentives. The green hydrogen plant will also be getting low-cost renewable power from the New York Power Authority.

CLARIFICATION: This article has been corrected to clarify that burning hydrogen would emit nitrogen oxides, or NOx. It has also been updated with a clarification by Danskammer’s Michelle Hook about the company’s position on compliance with the state’s CLCPA.

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