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Kentucky joins second hydrogen hub in less than six months. Here’s what it means.

Solar to hydrogen proof of concept experiment
WFPL
/
Ryan Van Velzer
The solar-to-hydrogen proof of concept experiment at the University of Louisville on January 22, 2020.

Kentucky has joined a second regional hydrogen hub to foster growth in an emerging industry that has the potential to move the state toward a cleaner energy future, though it will begin with a reliance on fossil fuels.

Gov. Andy Beshear recently announced the state is partnering with Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania to support the buildout of hydrogen infrastructure across Appalachia. The buildout of hydrogen infrastructure will spur jobs and promote energy resilience, the governor's office said in a statement.

“We are looking forward to working with our Appalachian region governors and industry partners to continue to shape a hydrogen economy in Kentucky and across this region,” Beshear said in the statement.

For decades, the world has looked to hydrogen as a clean-burning alternative to fossil fuels, which, when burned, emit greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. Scientists say the planet must halve emissions by 2030 to avoid the worst impacts of warming, but it’s yet to be seen what contribution hydrogen will make toward meeting those goals.

Kentucky formed a regional hydrogen hub working group earlier this year to develop projects and make use of Kentucky’s geographic fortune as the center of a 34-state distribution area for shipping, according to the governor’s office.

Then in September the state joined a Midwest Hydrogen Coalition with the governors of Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin.

The Appalachian regional hub, known as ARCH2, has significant existing resources for the development of hydrogen infrastructure, though much of it is based on using fossil fuels to create hydrogen — a process that has both advocates and detractors.

The basic process for making hydrogen uses electricity to split water (H20) into hydrogen and oxygen. Theoretically, that electricity can come from any source. Wind, solar, geothermal and tidal power sources generate so-called “green hydrogen” with a very low carbon footprint.

Natural gas, on the other hand, can be used as both an electricity source and as a raw material for producing so-called blue hydrogen. Advocates say this method, combined with carbon capture and storage technologies, could work as a bridge fuel to usher in the clean energy transition by growing demand and building necessary hydrogen infrastructure.

Right now, however, most hydrogen produced from natural gas comes from methane — a climate super pollutant that traps more heat than carbon dioxide in the near-term. One study from 2021 found that the methane that escapes in the process of creating blue hydrogen may actually result in more emissions than simply burning fossil fuel for energy.

What makes the Appalachian region attractive as a hydrogen hub is the infrastructure already in place for natural gas production and storage including existing pipelines and transportation networks and proximity to markets in the Midwest and Northeast.

Back in September, the U.S. Department of Energy announced $7 billion in funding for regional hydrogen hubs across the country.

Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky announced in 2021 that it intends to spend $461 million upgrading its Georgetown manufacturing plant to assemble fuel cells for use in hydrogen-powered heavy duty commercial trucks.

Ryan Van Velzer has told stories of people surviving floods in Thailand, record-breaking heat in Arizona and Hurricane Irma in South Florida. He has worked for The Arizona Republic, The Associated Press and The South Florida Sun Sentinel in addition to working as a travel reporter in Central America and Southeast Asia. Born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona, Ryan is happy to finally live in a city that has four seasons.
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