Commentary

Halt hydrogen hype

December 21, 2021 12:02 am

The planned site of the now-canceled Chickahominy Power Station, a proposed natural gas power plant, in Charles City County. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

By Mary Finley-Brook 

Hydrogen energy produced from natural gas can have a higher carbon footprint than using either natural gas or coal directly for heat.

Hydrogen types are not the same: Green hydrogen production is based on renewable sources, yellow hydrogen comes from nuclear energy, grey from fossil fuels and blue specifically from fossil gas. Blue hydrogen, the type proposed for Chickahominy Power Plant, starts with converting methane to hydrogen and carbon dioxide by using heat, steam and pressure. The process takes a large amount of energy, usually provided by burning more gas. Blue hydrogen is promoted by the gas industry to create another invented “bridge” fuel instead of transitioning directly to renewable energy. Hydrogen hype advances a new generation of gas plants at a time when a majority embraces climate action and awareness grows about the climate harms of methane from fossil gas. 

Many experts suggest that hydrogen has a key role in some forms of energy generation in the not-too-distant future. Independent voices also make clear that combining hydrogen made from dirty fuels with effective carbon capture in current blue hydrogen will not help the climate. Furthermore, there is no place for use of hydrogen in today’s baseline power plants, and blue hydrogen is an especially poor match for plants used only during peak hours because of prohibitive costs. Studies to date aren’t clear about the full costs of producing ‘net-zero’ blue hydrogen. Green hydrogen from renewable sources may be cheaper than grey hydrogen from fossil fuels by 2030. By 2050 green hydrogen is predicted to be one-third the cost of blue hydrogen.

The Chickahominy Power Plant permitted for Charles City County would produce 6.5 million tons of CO2e carbon dioxide annually — destroying any illusion that a gas plant is any less damaging to our atmosphere.  Following permitting of the Chickahominy plant, developers announced use of untested hydrogen technology that could increase climate and water impacts. Environmental professionals and environmental justice organizations like Concerned Citizens of Charles City County (C5) have raised concerns about hydrogen to Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) staff and administration, citizen oversight boards, and the project developer. In each instance, concerns were not addressed. 

Balico, LLC, the multinational developer of the Chickahominy Pipeline, LLC, a new 83- mile pipeline proposed as a gas source for the Charles City merchant gas plant, in spite of the location of more proximate gas supply lines, tried to circumvent SCC regulation of land acquisition and project construction. After SCC staff recommended regulatory oversight of the gas project, developers used a December 9 Open House to present inaccurate greenwash about hydrogen to make these controversial gas projects more palatable at a time when fossil fuels are facing regulatory and financial hurdles. State agencies must examine the evidence before accepting an unregulated change at the 1,650 MW gas plant.

Civil rights advocates celebrated the Dec. 3 rejection of the Lambert Compressor Station, when the Air Pollution Control Board determined that developers must not add new burdens in hotspots like Chatham, Virginia. Construction of new gas infrastructure would result in unfair impacts to Black households in this rural community. The same environmental justice standards should be upheld in Charles City County. 

Chickahominy gas plant permits used flawed environmental justice assessments later upended by the Friends of Buckingham appeal in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit. A state mandate to protect marginalized groups was reinforced in the 2020 Enivornmental Justice  Act. The Chickahominy gas plant is located in a majority-minority area making hydrogen hype even more harmful: Re-open the Chickahominy gas plant permits, or risk intensifying environmental racism and climate injustice. DEQ must not enforce a sacrifice zone in Charles City County when advancing ‘best in show’ assertions from industry. 

Mary Finley-Brook is an associate professor of geography and the environment at the University of Richmond.

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