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It’s All About the Hydrogens

Understanding Joe Manchin and the environmental provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act.
August 12, 2022
It’s All About the Hydrogens
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) departs from the Senate side of the U.S. Capitol Building after a series of amendment votes, also called "vote-a-rama, on the Inflation Reduct Act at the U.S. Capitol on Sunday, Aug. 7, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

For the sin of getting the Inflation Reduction Act across the line, Joe Manchin has been getting it from both ends.

On the one side, coal groups are upset. The West Virginia Coal Association and several other state-based coal industry groups wrote that “This legislation is so egregious, it leaves those of us that call Sen. Manchin a friend, shocked and disheartened.”

But at the same time more than 350 conservation and community groups came to the conclusion that the IRA favors fossil fuel interests in such a way that the bill “constitutes a violent betrayal . . . to combat environmental racism and destruction.” Jamie Henn, the director of Fossil Free Media, tweeted, “It’s not a climate solution. It’s a climate bomb.”

So maybe Manchin really is doing something right?

Manchin is often by himself in the middle because he is looking out for West Virginia’s political and business interests. But in this case, which involved energy production, Manchin is not siding with either the coal industry or the anti-fossil fuel environmental fringes. He’s siding with hydrogen.

Yes, hydrogen. The element found in water and capable of being split from oxygen through electrolysis. Hydrogen is also a component of methane, which is a natural gas byproduct. And hydrogen is also in the early years of being used to produce electricity.

Listen to what Manchin has been saying about hydrogen in the last few months. In his statement in support of the IRA in late July, he wrote,

This legislation ensures that the market will take the lead, rather than aspirational political agendas or unrealistic goals, in the energy transition that has been ongoing in our country. The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 invests in the technologies needed for all fuel types—from hydrogen, nuclear, renewables, fossil fuels and energy storage—to be produced and used in the cleanest way possible.

A few weeks before that, Manchin said in remarks at the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee (which he chairs) that,

We have a crisis in this country: We face huge challenges getting the energy infrastructure we absolutely need sited, permitted, and built . . . we can’t be short-sighted here. We need to look to the future and play the long game. We must get the right regulatory structure in place now, at the ground floor, that will help us accelerate hydrogen to scale in this country.

So why is Manchin placing hydrogen so far up on the flagpole in a climate that most politicians are ignoring? The best answer to that is to look at an energy plant in Hannibal, Ohio.

Earlier this year the Long Ridge Energy Generation plant began generating electricity through a combination of natural gas and hydrogen in its combustion turbines. The hydrogen is only coming through at 5 percent right now, but the plant’s GE turbines will currently support a 30 percent to 40 percent mix—and the company hopes to get to 100 percent hydrogen capability by 2030. This plant produces enough electricity for about 400,000 homes, and pumps the hydrogen/natural gas blend product into the PJM Interconnection grid, which serves 13 states in an area that stretches from Chicago to Washington, D.C.

The plant is situated on 1,600 acres on the Ohio River, across from New Martinsville, West Virginia. It used to be an aluminum smelter that employed about 1,000 people, but closed in 2013. About five years ago, investors began looking at the property as a potential electricity generator.

Coal-fired power plants are closing in the Midwest, not so much because of the anti-coal environmental movement, but more because they are old plants that will be too costly to repurpose. One of the plants scheduled to close in 2023 will be the Pleasants Power Station in Belmont, West Virginia, about 35 miles downstream from the Long Ridge plant in Hannibal.

What makes the Long Ridge plant special is that it is the only electricity plant in the United States currently using a natural gas/hydrogen mix. Worldwide, however, hydrogen is used in various forms of energy production, with plants in Italy, China, South Korea, France, Germany, and the Netherlands. This is one technology where the United States lags. Some politicians want us to catch up.

The Biden admiration is doing so, deciding this year to use $8 billion in funding to build at least four hydrogen hubs—places where the gas can be produced and used in a self-reinforcing cycle. Two of the hubs must be in regions with abundant natural gas reserves. As Manchin noted, West Virginia “is uniquely situated to compete to develop a hydrogen hub.”

The Long Ridge plant is helping to prove Manchin’s point. West Virginia ranks eighth in the country in natural gas production (being in the Marcellus/Utica shale region) and pipelines for natural gas as well as electric grid infrastructure already crisscross the state. And then there’s the water: Long Ridge has the choice of getting hydrogen from natural gas (via heating the methane with steam) or from electrolysis (using water from the Ohio River).

Natural-gas produced hydrogen is said to be worse on the “decarbonization” front than production from water. Currently natural-gas derived hydrogen is cheaper than water-derived hydrogen. But costs of both are declining and the hope is that achieving critical mass for the industry will eventually bring hydrogen coasts in line with practical investment.

There is no consensus on how environmentally friendly any of this is. As usual, it depends on whose ox is being gored. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, wrote “Hydrogen production today is dirty and energy-intensive. Methods exist that could virtually eliminate the greenhouse-gas emissions, but there’s a more fundamental challenge: Hydrogen itself contributes to climate change when it leaks into the atmosphere.”

That’s one view. Another comes from Götz Veser, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Pittsburgh: “Generating hydrogen from natural gas can actually be quite efficient. Over the next 10 or 20 years, making hydrogen in an efficient way from fossil resources might be the way to reduce (our) carbon footprint faster and lower than with renewable technologies.”

But whatever the theoretical limits and possibilities are, Joe Manchin knows that right now, money is being spent. And he wants some for his state.

The Inflation Reduction Act has numerous green energy credits, including Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle (FCEV) credits that would benefit people who buy vehicles that use hydrogen fuel. But the biggest part of the tax credits in terms of real dollars will go to companies that will process hydrogen for use in bigger projects—such as electricity generation plants. The bill will give U.S. producers of “qualified clean hydrogen” credits of up to $3/kg, and that could bring the cost of producing hydrogen much lower, and making U.S.-produced green hydrogen the cheapest in the world in the future.

Joe Manchin listened to the groups that say electricity generated from hydrogen won’t work out in the long term. But when he looked across the river at Hannibal, Ohio, he saw that it is already is working.

And that’s why he wants in.

Daniel McGraw

Daniel McGraw is a freelance writer and author in Lakewood, Ohio. Follow him on Twitter @danmcgraw1.