Hoping to tap into the billions of dollars in federal incentives coming available for renewable energy projects, Connecticut is preparing to lay out a strategic plan for developing a hydrogen economy.
A bill approved last week by the House Energy and Technology Committee charges the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection with developing a hydrogen strategic plan that encourages the use of hydrogen produced from renewable energy, and prioritizes its use in the sectors of the economy that are hardest to electrify.
The department would also have to write regulations defining “clean hydrogen,” a process that will likely generate considerable debate.
The legislation is based on recommendations from the Connecticut Hydrogen Task Force, which was established by law last year and led by the Connecticut Green Bank. A January report from the task force concluded that Connecticut is well-positioned to pursue the production and use of clean hydrogen as a fuel or energy source.
“As a result of Connecticut’s support of the aerospace industry, we currently host an ecosystem of local clean hydrogen and fuel cell technology innovation and manufacturing companies that could grow to support potential future demand for clean hydrogen,” said James Desantos, the Green Bank’s legislative liaison and associate director of regulatory policy, in testimony submitted to the energy committee.
There is a growing consensus that clean hydrogen will have a major role to play in the shift to a clean energy economy. The task force report notes that it could be a vital alternative fuel in sectors that are challenging to decarbonize, such as aviation, cargo shipping, heavy-duty trucking, and high-temperature industrial processes.
Currently, most hydrogen is produced using natural gas. Clean hydrogen can be produced by running renewable-sourced electricity through an electrolyser that will extract hydrogen from water.
The U.S. Department of Energy plans to award up to $7 billion to establish six to 10 regional hydrogen hubs across the country for the production, processing, delivery, storage and end-use of clean hydrogen. Connecticut has applied to be part of a Northeast hub along with Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Maine, Rhode Island and New Hampshire.
Nel Hydrogen, a Wallingford company that makes electrolysers, is expanding its facility to allow for up to 500 megawatts a year of electrolyser production, according to testimony submitted to the committee by Kathy Ayers, the company’s vice president of research and development.
And the Bridgeport Regional Business Council is evaluating how that city might benefit from the hydrogen economy, said Dan Onofrio, the council’s president.
“We see a lot of opportunities coming down the road in the renewable energy space that we think we are well-positioned for with our deep-water port” on Long Island Sound, Onofrio said. “And we have dormant properties that could be put back into productive use.”
At the same time, he said, the council is aware that the potential development sites are located in communities that have historically been greatly impacted by environmental harms and risks.
“Those communities have been the subject of us not being as responsible as we should be,” Onofrio said. “This is our time to make it right.”
The hydrogen legislation would add clean hydrogen projects to a state law requiring developers of large renewable energy projects to negotiate a community benefits agreement and establish a workforce development program.
The Department of Energy and Environmental Protection will issue a white paper on clean hydrogen this spring, as part of its work on the state’s Comprehensive Energy Strategy. That paper will include a straw proposal for a definition of clean energy.
The federal definition of clean hydrogen is hydrogen produced through a process that results in a lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions rate of up to 4 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilogram of hydrogen, and less than 2 kilograms at the point of production.
That may be the starting point for discussion, said Charles Rothenberger, climate and energy attorney for Save the Sound, but he and other environmental advocates will be pushing for a tighter limit.
“We’d like to see a more stringent definition that really does incentivize green hydrogen development,” he said. “Right now, there is very little of it and it’s relatively expensive. It makes sense to incent the industry to figure out how to bring down that cost.”
The Sierra Club is advocating for the feedstock for hydrogen production to be non-fossil fuel, non-biomass, non-biofuel — “to make sure that in producing hydrogen we aren’t eviscerating our greenhouse gas reduction goals,” said Samantha Dynowski, state director.
Environmental advocates also say the state shouldn’t focus solely on maximizing the growth of the hydrogen economy, but consider how clean hydrogen fits in most efficiently with the state’s decarbonization goals.
Renewable energy is still relatively scarce, and as more sources come online, that power will be needed to power heat pumps in homes and buildings and charge electric vehicles, Rothenberger said. Diverting that renewable energy to produce hydrogen only makes sense if the hydrogen is being used to decarbonize the sectors that are the hardest to electrify, he said.
Environmental advocates had objected to a portion of the legislation that would have granted tax exemptions to projects related to clean hydrogen. The committee subsequently removed that language.
“It was a very broadly defined exemption for anything touching the hydrogen economy,” said Ben Butterworth, director of climate, energy and equity analysis for the Acadia Center. “You would end up incentivizing technologies that aren’t in line with the task force recommendations, like hydrogen passenger vehicles and hydrogen boilers for homes.”
The bill has been filed with the Legislative Comissioner’s Office but hasn’t yet been scheduled for a vote by the full House.