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Hydrogen hub partisans weigh pros and cons of MACH2 and other projects

The logo for the Mid-Atlantic Clean Hydrogen Hub (MACH2).
The logo for the Mid-Atlantic Clean Hydrogen Hub (MACH2).

Last fall, the Biden Administration announced substantial federal grants to create a series of “hydrogen hubs.”

One hub funded is the Mid-Atlantic Clean Hydrogen Hub, or MACH2. It’s receiving up to $750 million to bring together governments and business interests in Delaware, Southeast Pennsylvania, and South Jersey to create a hub with the promise of creating jobs while combating climate change.

The U.S. Department of Energy and MACH2 officials are currently holding listening sessions to discuss plans for this hub and get public feedback. And contributor Jon Hurdle reports on the arguments for and against MACH2 heard in these sessions.

Contributor Jon Hurdle reports on the arguments for and against MACH2 and other projects

For Charles Craine, the plan to include Delaware City Refinery in a region-wide industry that would produce, store, transport and consume hydrogen is a way to create jobs and protect the environment at the same time.

Craine, president of United Steel Workers Local 4898, representing 430 workers at the refinery, was one of several supporters of the $4 billion Mid Atlantic Hydrogen Hub (MACH2) plan at a “listening session” for residents of Delaware, southeastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey held by the U.S. Department of Energy on April 10.

“We all want a clean environment and good-paying jobs, and MACH2 is our opportunity to deliver on both of those,” Craine told the online discussion. “This is why I’m speaking tonight, to ensure that the MACH2 hydrogen hub becomes a reality here so we can turn the tide on losing jobs and support investments in clean energy.”

Craine said the Delaware Valley has lost about 70 percent of its refining capacity in the last 15 years, due in part to the 2019 fire and subsequent closure of the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery, cutting jobs and leaving the region more dependent on petroleum products from overseas and the Gulf Coast. Being part of the local hydrogen hub would help to reverse that, he said.

To generate some of the hydrogen that would power long-haul trucks, transit buses and other hard-to-electrify industries in the mid-Atlantic region, the refinery would build an electrolyzer to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, using power largely from wind, solar, and nuclear – all generated without the climate-warming carbon emissions from the refinery’s traditional conversion of crude oil into gasoline, home heating oil, and other products.

Tracy Carluccio Deputy Director of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network.
Tracy Carluccio
Tracy Carluccio, Deputy Director of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network.

Use of renewable power sources like wind and solar, as planned by MACH2, would produce so-called green hydrogen, while hydrogen produced with electricity from nuclear plants like Salem is named pink hydrogen.

Critics of MACH2 and the six other hydrogen hubs around the country that will share $7 billion in federal funding and a lot more in private investment say the centers are an expensive gamble on an unproven technology that won’t do much to curb greenhouse gas emissions, or even worsen them, and the money would be better spent on building up the contribution of proven renewables such as wind and solar.

“The whole purpose is supposed to be a climate initiative on the part of the Biden administration,” said Tracy Carluccio of the environmental group Delaware Riverkeeper Network. “That’s a false promise. Studies show that hydrogen prolongs the heat-trapping effect of methane, and leaks uncontrollably. So the potential for leaks is not being fully considered by this big investment that’s being made. You will end up losing ground in the fight to reduce greenhouse gas emissions if we build out hydrogen at this scale.”

Opponents are especially critical of hubs that would use natural gas – a potent emitter of carbon – to fuel electrolysis to produce so-called blue hydrogen. Although that type of hydrogen is not in the MACH2 plan, some speakers at the listening session warned of other possible pitfalls.

Sue Almond of Georgetown urged MACH2 officials to ensure that water used as a hydrogen source was not contaminated before being pumped back into the ground. Many residents of the Sussex County town depend on private wells that draw on ground water, she said.

“My concern is that the water being pulled out of the aquifer may add possible contaminants to the aquifer from the discharged wastewater,” she said. “If these questions have not been explored, it seems premature to identify locations for a plan of such magnitude which is reliant on our own very limited resource of water.”

And Karen Melton from Philadelphia called MACH2 – which is due to get up to $750 million in federal funding -- “another government giveaway” to the fossil fuel industry.

“Beyond the question of whether there’s an actual market need that would justify this enormous government investment, there’s a question of how it gets produced. Supposedly, MACH2 is going to produce green energy, the kind that uses water as a feedstock, and renewable energy for production, and I’m sorry, I just don’t believe that will happen,” she said.

MACH2 officials say 98 percent of the power used for electrolysis will come from wind, solar and nuclear power from the Salem plant in southern New Jersey. The remaining 2 percent will come from gas captured by a Philadelphia wastewater treatment plant.

The officials deny accusations by some environmental groups that the project will use natural gas or other fossil fuels, offsetting any emissions reduction achieved by the hub, at least at the start of the project.

“I want to state as clearly as possible, MACH2 is a non-extraction hub... there will be no natural gas pumped out of the ground that goes into any of the hydrogen production that will be supported by the hub.”
Manny Citron, chief of staff for the City of Philadelphia’s Department of Labor and part of the MACH2 team.

“I want to state as clearly as possible, MACH2 is a non-extraction hub,” said Manny Citron, chief of staff for the City of Philadelphia’s Department of Labor, and part of the MACH2 team, at the start of the listening session. “What that means is that there will be no natural gas pumped out of the ground that goes into any of the hydrogen production that will be supported by the hub.”

Citron acknowledged that hydrogen is not a “cure-all” for the climate crisis, but he argued that it will be a critical part of a transition to clean energy because it can fuel uses such as long-haul trucking, transit buses, and industrial heating where electrification is probably not practical.

MACH2 chairman Collin O’Mara, a former Delaware environment secretary who is now running for the Democratic nomination for Governor, said he insisted when he was hired that the hub be fossil-fuel free.

“There has been no change in the no-fossil-fuel policy since the hydrogen hub was announced,” he said in an interview. “When I was asked to take a leadership position on the board, one of my requirements was that we would make it fossil fuel free, and people accepted that.”

O’Mara also rejected critics’ claims that the planned hydrogen transmission network would endanger public safety because any reuse of pipelines would risk explosions. Any repurposed pipelines would be “re-sleeved”, or just replaced, he said. “I don’t think a single pipeline in its current condition is appropriate for hydrogen use.”

In future, some of the electricity to power electrolysis in Delaware would come from offshore wind, O’Mara said, as Delaware lawmakers prepare to consider the state’s first bill to commit the state to buying power from an offshore wind farm.

MACH2 plans to bring 19 partners such as utilities, energy companies, universities and government agencies together to develop the industry, creating some 20,000 jobs, 6,000 of which would be permanent. Its leaders hope to start construction in early 2025 and to have the hub up and running by the end of the decade.

Even if MACH2 and the other hydrogen hubs are built as planned, the Biden administration has not paid enough attention to how the hydrogen would be used, argued Danny Cullenward, a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kleinman Center for Energy Policy.

Danny Cullenward, a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Kleinman Center for Energy Policy.
Kleinman Center for Energy Policy
University of Pennsylvania
Danny Cullenward, a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Kleinman Center for Energy Policy.

Amid the “boosterism” for producing hydrogen from an administration that aims – like the State of Delaware – for net-zero carbon emissions nationwide by 2050, its thinking is light on whether there would be enough demand to justify the investment, he said.

“Because there are potentially hundreds of billions of dollars on the table, it’s very hard to get a sense of whether these proposals are truly well grounded,” Cullenward said. “I don’t see a lot of discussion around that, and that is one of the elephants in the room.”

The headline-grabbing $7 billion for the national hub program is actually dwarfed by potential tax breaks for hydrogen hub participants under the U.S. Treasury’s 45V program, and that represents a huge future cost for the government, argued Cullenward.

The Electric Power Research Institute, an independent group, calculated last year that by 2050, the tax break, lasting 10 years from the time a hydrogen program starts, could eventually cost the federal government an enormous $385-786 billion.

Especially for hubs that plan to use fossil fuels to generate electricity, there’s a question of whether the industry plans to use its products in a network that is designed to curb them, Cullenward said.

“People who are trying to cling to the existing fossil model see this as a way of promoting their interests that’s aligned with the climate transition,” he said. “There’s probably an important role for hydrogen but it is a much more complicated question than ‘should we build some hubs?’ – particularly hubs that want to use fossil production.”

Federal officials plan another online 'listening session' about MACH2 on May 15.

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Jon has been reporting on environmental and other topics for Delaware Public Media since 2011. Stories range from sea-level rise and commercial composting to the rebuilding program at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge and the University of Delaware’s aborted data center plan.
Tom Byrne has been a fixture covering news in Delaware for three decades. He joined Delaware Public Media in 2010 as our first news director and has guided the news team ever since. When he's not covering the news, he can be found reading history or pursuing his love of all things athletic.