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Hydrogen hubs in Pennsylvania would help pave the way for decarbonization in the state

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Have you heard? America now has hydrogen hubs. These are regions identified by the Biden administration as places where the U.S. can accelerate the use of hydrogen as a clean energy source. There are seven hubs in all spanning 16 states. And as The Allegheny Front's Reid Frazier reports, Pennsylvania straddles two of the new regions.

REID FRAZIER, BYLINE: President Biden made the big announcement earlier this month in Philadelphia. It's one of the cities awarded a hydrogen hub with money from the bipartisan infrastructure law he signed in 2021.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Seven billion dollars in federal investments is going to attract $40 billion in private investment in clean hydrogen and power the economy.

(APPLAUSE)

FRAZIER: The hubs are part of Biden's push to get the U.S. economy to emit no planet-warming carbon pollution by 2050. Scientists say it's a necessity to stave off human-driven climate change. Hydrogen is an abundant element. It gives off zero carbon when used to create energy, either through combustion or a fuel cell.

Adam Walters is with the Pennsylvania Department of Community & Economic Development. He recently spoke at a conference about hydrogen's role in the D-word - decarbonization.

ADAM WALTERS: You can use it to decarbonize a whole range of potential industries, particularly ones that are difficult to decarbonize otherwise, like cement and steel and plastics manufacturing.

FRAZIER: But to do any of this, you have to harvest hydrogen from one of two sources - water or natural gas.

BRIDGET VAN DORSTEN: Hydrogen is energy-intensive. You need energy to make it.

FRAZIER: Bridget van Dorsten is an analyst with the consulting firm Wood Mackenzie.

VAN DORSTEN: So there's always going to be some kind of trade-off no matter what process we're talking about.

FRAZIER: You can use renewables to pry hydrogen off of water molecules. That's called green hydrogen. Blue hydrogen is when you pull hydrogen out of natural gas then bury any carbon dioxide created underground. The funding from the infrastructure law dictated two of the hubs be in natural-gas-producing regions. It just so happens Pennsylvania can do both green and blue hydrogen. It has offshore wind plant in the Atlantic Ocean to the east and fracked natural gas to the west. This is all good news to Rich Negrin. He leads Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection.

RICH NEGRIN: I'm not kidding. I don't want to put too fine a point on it. I think it's the dawn of a clean energy economy that we've been talking about for years.

FRAZIER: The hubs will take a decade or longer to build and are eligible for hundreds of millions in federal funding each. The Philadelphia-based hub will use nuclear, solar and offshore wind energy for hydrogen. Western Pennsylvania will be part of a West Virginia-based hub that uses blue hydrogen from natural gas. West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin championed the project in a video.

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JOE MANCHIN: America is finally recognizing West Virginia's strength as America's energy powerhouse. Now, as our nation strives for energy security, West Virginia will once again answer the call.

FRAZIER: Environmental groups are skeptical how climate friendly blue hydrogen will actually be if greenhouse gases escape during the process. Jim Kotcon is with the West Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club. He says he's also worried the natural-gas-based hub in his state will lead to more fracking, which carries its own environmental and public health risks.

JIM KOTCON: It would perpetuate the fossil fuel industry rather than help us wean from fossil fuels. So we have real concerns about this proposal.

FRAZIER: The Treasury Department is writing rules that will detail how clean these projects need to be to qualify for billions in clean hydrogen tax credits. That money comes through Biden's major climate policy, the Inflation Reduction Act. Many worry the money will go to projects that don't actually cut pollution if the rules aren't strict enough. For NPR News, I'm Reid Frazier in Pittsburgh.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLEU TOUCAN SONG, "ANANAS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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